Ask anyone who has ever worked in schools and they’ll tell you that middle schoolers are an interesting breed.  Trapped in developmental limbo and stumbling through three years of near misery, they drive everyone that they know crazy along the way.

I love ’em to death, though!

At no point in life outside of birth do kids go through as many changes—physically, socially or emotionally—as they do when they’re in middle school.  Being able to watch the hearts and minds of humans change in front of your eyes is nothing short of an amazing experience.

Teaching sixth graders makes middle school even more fun because I have the opportunity to watch a handful of kids for three full years.  Students that I have connections with tend to hang around my room until they “graduate” to the local high school, having grown in confidence and competence.

And that’s cool.

For teachers of tweens, however, motivating early adolescents ain’t always easy.  After all, succeeding in school requires sifting through growing bodies, growing minds and growing emotions.  Socrates, sentence fragments and photosynthesis just plain take a back seat to growing pains for anyone wrestling with puberty!

So what’s the trick to connecting kids to content in middle school classrooms?

I’ve found three during the course of my 16 years in a sixth grade classroom:

Creating opportunities to interact:  Most middle schoolers care more about their friends than they do about breathing, right?  Yet as soon as they walk into our buildings, they’re SHUUUSSHHHEED for 8 hours a day!

We’re constantly hustling kids out of bathrooms—where they willingly congregate around unflushed toilets just to steal a few minutes talking to their peers—and hallways with a focused determination to get them back into classrooms working quietly.

I can’t remember what it was like to be a middle schooler, but I’ll bet that drives our kids nuts!  After all, social opportunities are VITAL to their continuing growth as people, providing chances to try on new identities and craft the kind of person that they plan to be.  To put it simply, connections matter—yet we run buildings where connecting carries consequences.

The most accomplished middle grades teachers find ways to wrap their curriculum around activities that involve interaction.  Socratic seminars, for example, are always a huge hit in my room.  We wrestle together with questions like:

  • Is bullfighting an example of animal cruelty or an important element of Spanish culture?
  • Why do people hate?
  • What responsibility do we have to stand up to those who abuse power?

And my kids dive in to every conversation head first!  They read and annotate articles related to the topic of our Seminar, they contribute freely to the dialogue that happens in our classroom, and they willingly extend conversations on playgrounds and in the lunch room for days.

This unparalleled participation in Seminars isn’t because my kids like content we’re studying—if I gave a worksheet, research report or reading assignment on the same topics, I’d generate far less enthusiasm—but because they like interacting with their peers. Seminars are just a way to slip a bit of content into their interactions.

It’s like hiding aspirin in the applesauce of your infant!

You can pair that interest in interaction with the teenage addiction to digital gadgets by using Voicethread, a free online service that facilitates conversations between users.  Here’s a page from my PD wiki on how Voicethread works.

Creating opportunities to compete:  Changing rapidly, tweens never quite master everything about their new minds and bodies—and they’re rarely convinced of their own strengths and weaknesses.  That’s why competitions are so appealing to middle grades students.  Through competition, kids get a chance to test out new skills and to measure their developing ability against others.

In my room, the competition that kids like the best is called Battle of the Books.  Battle is a reading competition where teams of 6 students work together to read a collection of pre-determined books over the course of several months.  Each week, teams compete against one another trying to answer questions about the books on the Battle List.

The team that answers the most questions correctly in an individual battle wins—but we record scores for every team every week, creating a ranking that changes throughout the year.  Then, during March Madness, we fill out our own brackets and have a head-to-head “Reading Smackdown” to determine the team champion for the school year.

About 80% of my students live and die for battle—-which becomes a great lever for me:  “If you guys behave and work hard all week, we’ll battle on Friday.  If we don’t get everything done, though, there will be no battle.”

I battled EVERY Friday!

Some of my colleagues complained that they couldn’t afford to give up an entire class period once a week to do battle.  For me, it was easy because my kids worked harder Monday through Thursday when they knew that Battle would come on Friday.

Others complained that competition was unhealthy, creating winners and losers.  Competition, however, is a vital part of the developmental growth of preteens—who need opportunities to test their mettle against others in order to gain a sense of who they are as learners and as people.

All I know is that healthy competition in any form has been motivating to my students—-and a repeating competition like Battle of the Books that can be used as a reward increases student attention all week long!

Creating opportunities to study justice and injustice or issues of fairness:  If a child cuts someone else in a middle school line, what do you think the kid who got cut says?  How about if you take away recess time?  What happens if you don’t let a kid go to the bathroom when they want to go?


Middle schoolers are hard wired to wrestle with issues related to justice and injustice because they’re beginning to think beyond themselves for the first time—losing the egocentricty of the elementary years.

So I find ways to incorporate studies of justice and injustice into everything that I do.  We study world-wide poverty, animal cruelty, genocide, and the treatment of women throughout history.  Every time that I’m teaching a lesson, I try to find ways to focus on the idea of what’s fair because fairness resonates with kids.

Once I find an issue that touches a nerve, I try getting my kids to create blog entries that raise attention about the issue—convincing them that raising awareness is one of the best actions that tweens can take when they want to influence an issue.

“Kid bloggers,” I’ll say, “can raise attention just like adults!  No one knows how old you are when you write online.  Your ideas matter just as much as mine—-as long as they’re written well!”

(Slipping aspirin into the apple sauce again, right?!)

This worked wonders in my classroom last year.  We got into a study of the genocide in Darfur that shocked my kids—-so we started creating public service types of announcements on our blog.  You can check them out here:

The kids wrote and wrote and read and wrote and created and read and wrote some more, convinced that they were making a difference by raising awareness.  We also created two different Voicethread conversations about Darfur.  Check ’em out:

The kids didn’t do these projects for a grade—in fact, none of this work was graded at all!!  They also didn’t do it to use technology—–they did it because they thought what was happening in Darfur was unfair, and they wanted to feel empowered to make a difference.

It touched their instructional funny bone, so to speak.

Perhaps most importantly, middle grades teachers have to believe that IT IS POSSIBLE to motivate every learner.  All too often, we slip into the false belief that kids just don’t want to learn.  “They’re lazy!” we cry.  “Nothing I do seems to work.  They don’t care about ANYTHING.”

This kind of thinking is flawed at best—and unprofessional at worst.  Watch middle schoolers—they’re persistent little buggers that will spend thousands of hours sending random instant messages to their peers, creating their MySpace pages or trying to beat the latest PSP games.

They’ll practice their favorite sport for days without eating if you let them.  They’ll refuse to miss their favorite television program for years.  They’ll learn the lyrics to a thousand songs.  Heck—they’ll even wear the same shirt for two straight weeks because they love it so much!

Motivation isn’t an issue.  It’s finding ways to make our instruction more motivating—-and that’s something we haven’t always been good at.

Does any of my thinking make any sense to you?

Do you buy into the idea that today’s kids are more difficult to motivate than their predecessors?  Do you believe that the kinds of lessons that kids find motivating today are drastically different than the kinds of motivators your teachers used?  How have you reacted to this new reality?

What other ways have you found to motivate middle grades learners?

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