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The Four Principles of Middle School ELA Engagement

By Deb Sabin
 | Aug 14, 2018

Middle school is a time when students are deeply and constantly engaged in their own emotions, relationships, and “finstas.” Problem is, it’s also a time when engagement in academics is critical to future success in school and beyond.

Research confirms that getting middle schoolers on the path to college and career readiness requires a truly engaging curriculum. We need to channel middle schoolers’ excitement with their new ways of seeing and being in the world into tackling challenging academic experiences. That’s why we created four actionable principles of middle school ELA engagement. When it comes to ELA, these principles won’t just help your students “get through” middle school. They’ll help you get through to your middle schoolers.

Your students bring a unique and complex set of needs into your classroom. If you want to do more than just hold their attention for five minutes—that is, if you want to deliver the deep engagement that leads to deep learning—you’ve got to provide both content and pedagogy that speak to those needs.

Engagement principle no. 1: Empower students to become critical thinkers

To be fully engaged, middle school students need to know that the work they’re doing will matter, be recognized, and be relevant to their lives. They need lots of opportunities to develop, communicate, and refine their ideas in light of new observations. A truly engaging curriculum supports a range of observations and possible interpretations of the text and provides supports for students to refine these ideas as they read further. In this way, students gain a sense of control over their own learning and the opportunity to become critical, independent—even audacious—thinkers.

Below are some strategies for supporting and encouraging a culture of original thinking in your classroom:

  • Be clear that the text, not the teacher, has all the answers. Ask questions such as, How did you get to that response? What might change if you considered a different point of view? Could you rephrase your response in a different way? Students develop their responses by following one simple rule: If you can justify it in the text, you can hold on to your interpretation
  • Teach students to develop theories they refine with time, versus focusing on right or wrong answers. Students struggle when they think learning is only about getting it right. For example, when students consider the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it’s helpful to detach them from the goal of establishing one correct character analysis and instead help them to explore and problem-solve. For example, ask questions such as, “Why doesn’t this make sense?”
  • Channel Socrates. A Socratic seminar—which emphasizes inquiry and discussion over definitive responses—brings home the importance and power of open-ended questions. During the seminar, you act as facilitator of conversation rather than deliverer of knowledge, posing questions, guiding the discussion, and prompting students to contribute.

Engagement principle no. 2: Provide opportunities and supports for all students to work “up”

When it comes to physical, emotional, social, and academic development, middle schoolers are all over the place. The phrase to remember is “low floors and high ceilings”—in other words, it’s all about providing multiple entry points and the right scaffolding opportunities so that every student can engage deeply with a rigorous curriculum.

The following differentiation strategies help to drive learning:

  • Incorporate multimedia strategically. Often a video dramatization or audio recording can help students find their way into a complex text.
  • Scaffold with sentence frames and modified prompts. These tools reduce linguistic barriers, enabling students to produce more complex writing and speech.
  • Aptitude, brackish, circumference! Daily vocab practice will make a huge difference, with each student completing assignments specifically engineered to challenge them at their level of proficiency.

Engagement principle no. 3: Support feedback systems that develop strengths

Well-delivered feedback can be useful for anyone. It’s particularly potent for middle schoolers, who may be aware of learning differences among students, vulnerable to criticism, and frequently unwilling to ask for help when they’re floundering. For them, true engagement moments are born from a teacher’s ability to provide feedback in a way that helps them see opportunity rather than failure.

The following feedback strategies help to drive learning:

  • Shoulder responsibility. Over-the-shoulder conferences during class give you the chance to offer unobtrusive, bite-size, encouraging, customized, and immediately actionable feedback.
  • Build a classroom culture of feedback. Fact of school/life: it’s scary to share your work. But when you encourage your students to provide supportive, targeted responses and specific, skill-related comments—not to mention eye contact and smiles—you bring out the best in everyone.
  • Focus rewrites on key skills. The written feedback you provide should be manageable and should target one or two specific places where a student needs help—say, with citing evidence to support a claim or combining sentences to better illustrate an idea.

Engagement principle no. 4: Engage multiple modalities, with particular attention to collaboration

All students need to “read” text in all sorts of ways—through hearing, speaking, writing, seeing, performing, and more. By providing multiple ways for students to interact with text, you are allowing them to process the language through distinct pathways.

The following multimodal strategies help to drive learning:

  • Invite drama. Dramatic readings contribute to speaking and listening skills by giving students models of excellent oral performances and helping them learn to listen for subtle differences in delivery among different performers.
  • Create great debate. A debate that students are motivated to engage vividly demonstrates the importance of evidence—including the way the one piece of evidence may be used to support two opposing arguments. Students also get to exercise their listening and public speaking skills.
  • Encourage performance. Performance decisions are an exercise in text analysis, challenging students to make distinct choices about the meaning and purpose of every word.

A curriculum that embodies these principles of engagement will bring out the best in your middle school students and make your classroom a challenging, lively place to learn.  

Deb Sabin is the chief academic officer at Amplify, a next-generation curriculum and assessment company. She has taught in a variety of classrooms from alternative high schools, to elite prep schools, to international dual language schools.

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