As we’ve discussed in recent posts, middle school students are often considered one of the most difficult groups to teach for a wide range of reasons. However, this age range is especially important for students as they transition from elementary school to high school while segueing from being children to preteens and eventually young adults.
We had the opportunity to sit down with former middle school teacher, and current Senior Manager of Curriculum and Design for Fuel Education, Jessica Hall, to discuss this important age, the perception of middle schoolers and the role that online education can play in preparing these students for high school and beyond.
Here is what Jessica had to say:
FuelEducation: Middle school students are often referred to as some of the most difficult to teach. Do you feel that way, and—if so—why do you feel that is?
Mrs. Hall: I taught middle school for nine years in a traditional brick-and-mortar school, and whenever I told people that I was a middle school teacher, they’d say, “how do you do that … how do you handle those kids?”
I feel like there’s a negative perception that middle school students are challenging. However, I don’t think they’re any more challenging than other students. In middle school, there’s hope for even the most at risk students. I believe that students at this age, who may have struggled in the past, can have a second chance for success in school.
The teachers that go into teaching middle school are there for a reason and they choose to be there. I think there are a lot of redeeming, fun and interesting things about working with middle school students that outweigh the challenges—whether they be hormones, or social issues or other challenges that people attribute to students that age.
Ultimately, it’s a big transition time for students. They’re going from being children to preteens. There are physical changes they’re going through. There are a lot of mental and emotional changes that they’re going through. They’re not always equipped to handle those changes. That’s what most likely fuels that perception.
But there are many positive things about middle school students, too, that if you’re not in that role, you may not see. Middle school students question things and experiment. Relationships are very important to them, and as an educator—if these kids are on your side—you can take them a long way if they like and trust you. Middle school teachers can have a huge impact on their students and be the teachers kids remember for the rest of their lives. This is especially true when teachers work diligently on relationship building and on creating a meaningful learning environment.
FuelEducation: In what ways can online learning programs benefit middle school students specifically? How is this different from traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms?
Mrs. Hall: Like I said, middle school students like to experiment and learn new things. They begin to question things and try to discover how the world around them works and how they fit into the big picture. A lot of times, a student who wasn’t interested in something previously will suddenly become interested in a topic because the student is now able to grasp the complexities of that topic. Students can be interested in something that is new to them, or perhaps something common is suddenly seen differently or from another perspective. Students at this age can see things beyond themselves and are curious about other perspectives—past, present and future. This makes learning exciting.
A strong middle school program will tap into that curiosity these students have and will allow them to explore different topics that are interesting to them at that age. If a student does the normal assignments and gets through them very quickly, online learning gives the student the option to do additional research or finish the unit more quickly to move on to the next unit. Online learning can provide them with more choices and advanced classes that they can take at their own pace so that they can continue to learn, grow and explore.
Online learning also empowers them to use the Internet as a tool for research and exploration, and seeing different perspectives on things. In a traditional school setting, students may rarely use a computer at school. Online students regularly use technology and are exposed to new ideas in a structured way. This is very interesting and important to children at this age since they’re formulating and exploring their own ideas about the world. Online learning can also provide opportunities for students to interact with classmates from other places and cultures.
It’s also important for middle school students to be taught how to navigate different sources and be safe online. They need to learn what a fact is, and what an opinion is, and how to differentiate that online. That plays into what is taught in online middle school courses.
Finally, many middle school students haven’t learned how to be organized since they recently came from a structured environment in elementary school. All of the tools that they need to organize themselves are available via their computers, and it’s important to give them access to those and teach them how to use them. Students will have lots of opportunities to practice keyboarding, file management and formatting many types of documents. These are all intrinsic in the online learning experience, and will be valuable in high school, college and the workplace.
FuelEducation: Are online courses better suited to particular middle school students, or students in a particular situation?
Mrs. Hall: There are students—for different reasons—that have life issues or limitations that keep them from attending a traditional brick-and-mortar school. These can be health issues, extracurricular activities, family tragedies or other issues.
These students can truly benefit from the addition of online learning to their curriculum.
In the past, a student that had a situation that led to poor attendance could fall behind significantly. By incorporating online learning, a students can jump right back in and not fall behind.
Then there are students who are falling behind or who are accelerated. These students can use online learning to revisit subject matter that formative assessments show they didn’t retain. Advanced students can use online learning classes to move at an accelerated pace.
FuelEducation: Are online courses for middle school students different from those offered to high school or elementary school students? If so, how?
Mrs. Hall: The middle school courses that are available now have been restructured from the high school courses and have been set up so that a student does one lesson per day per course. This is designed so that students don’t get lost. They start something that day and finish it that same day.
We also set up some discussions that aren’t necessarily focused on content objectives, but on study skills, rapport building with teachers and peers, and on learning how to find answers to questions. We purposely set up this forum where students can have these “non-academic” lessons that teach students how to learn and be resourceful.
We established portfolios that allow students to set measurable and attainable goals and learn how to manage and work toward those goals. Students reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and use that information to make improvements. They submit their assignments into these portfolios that serve as an indicator of their progress throughout the year. We’ve also focused on literacy and vocabulary content in all of the subject areas. We decided it’s important for middle school students to have vocabulary integrated and explicitly taught across all courses, and not just the language arts.
FuelEducation: Do online courses help schools and teachers better engage with middle school students? If so, how?
Mrs. Hall: Online learning presents different opportunities to engage with them. In blended learning environments where the online courses are used in conjunction with traditional class time in brick-and-mortar classrooms, the students interact with the online curriculum and in-person instructors.
In this environment, the teacher focuses his or her time on learning gaps that need special attention. If a student is missing a prerequisite skill, something that was taught in a previous year, the teacher can fill that gap and the student can seamlessly move on to the next part of the course. The teachers are facilitating courses, grading coursework and interacting more with the students. If a particular student is struggling, he or she can be identified and given additional help by the teacher. This ensures that no student falls through the cracks. Less teacher time is spent on lesson planning, and more on identifying areas of need and filling them.
Finally, in an online class, nobody’s invisible. The students that are less assertive get as much attention as those who would typically put their hands up all the time. Online learning provides a more egalitarian experience. Nobody can sit back passively and watch the course. Everyone needs to be an active participant in his or her own education in online learning.
Additional information on FuelEd’s recently unveiled middle school program can be found HERE.