Engaging Students at the Middle School Level… Impossible Task?

One of my assignments this week had me reflect on how to engage students and how I’ve seen it done in my placement. The first and only two lessons I actually observed before taking over the teaching, the teacher started the lesson by going over the homework she had assigned at the end of the previous lesson (she also closed the lesson by assigning next week’s homework, rather than reviewing or wrapping up the lesson). One by one in order of their seating chart, students read off their answers to the homework questions. In this way, student participation was not an option. Even throughout the rest of the lesson, she never really asked for volunteers, but rather, called on students. From my personal experience teaching these classes, if you ask for volunteers to answer questions, you could end up waiting for someone, anyone, to raise their hand for quite a while. I also tried to engage my students and encourage their participation by giving them worksheets and other activities to help them follow along with the lesson, but some students simply chose not to do them. Even in some of the classes where we simply played review games for the whole class period, some students chose not to participate. The teachers have talked to me several times now about how they don’t really know what to do with students who choose not to do their work. From my general observations, it seems that the teachers believe that it is up to the students to make sure that they are following along and doing what they need to do to make sure they are successful in their classes. From my personal middle school experience in Japan, there was this same expectation, that it was up to us as students to take responsibility for our own learning. I was actually an underperforming student in middle school because of this. I was very unmotivated and checked out in most of my classes. In contrast to this, through my college education, I have come to think that it is up to the teacher to arouse and sustain student participation, as well as ensure that they are engaged and participating throughout the class.

We had a discussion the other day in our afternoon Italian culture class about this exact journal topic. We have all been seeing more teacher centered and traditional lecture-like instruction in our placements. This seems to be the case for most of my classmates who are in elementary school placements as well. I’ve found a lot of similarities between Italian culture and Japanese culture, and so I related my Japanese schooling experience to what I’ve been seeing here and contributed to the discussion by making another comparison between the two cultures. Because we have been almost conditioned to view teacher centered, lecture style teaching to be “bad” or unengaging, we may see what we are seeing done here as something out of the norm or something that you shouldn’t be doing as an educator. We have spent so much of our pre-teacher education learning about ways to differentiate, meet all our students’ needs, and utilize student-centered teaching strategies. With that being said, with mostly homogeneous cultures like Italy and Japan, I think this style of whole group instruction has been/can be successful in some cases. There is some level of diversity in the classes, but there are still only about one or two non-native students per class that I have seen. In stark contrast to that, American classrooms have been becoming more and more diverse, which creates a large need for differentiated practices. This difference in teaching style that we are noticing may have to do with this difference in student demographics, in addition to many other factors as well. Although I wouldn’t say it is inherently “bad” teaching, it certainly doesn’t seem to be working with my middle school students here.
Even in the U.S., at some point in a student’s career, it becomes their responsibility to make sure they are learning in class. Because I’ve been in elementary schools and I’ve been taking classes revolving around elementary school teaching, this style of teaching seems unfamiliar or out of the norm to me, but it isn’t necessarily the case. So exactly when does this change of responsibility from teacher to student happen, and how are students made aware of this? If we want our students to make it to higher level education, at some point they are going to have to learn to take responsibility for their own learning. I always admired how well my cooperating teacher in Urbana instilled this sense of responsibility in her students at as young as a 3rd and 4th grade. But there will still always be students who choose not to be responsible, and although in elementary school, we still make great efforts to get through to these students, will their middle school teachers do the same? How do you make students who, in middle school, have no motivation or foresight to see how important it is that they are successful in school engaged? This has been my number one struggle during my placement here so far. As someone who was that unengaged and unmotivated middle school student myself, I’m still quite clueless about how to be a good teacher to someone like that. Although I think some of it is due to cultural and linguistic differences, I also think a lot of it stems from me just not being very familiar with middle school aged students. I have noticed that I am a lot more successful with the 1st year students (6th graders) than I am with the 3rd year students (9th graders), so I do think that the ages of the students are playing a role in this dilemma that I am facing.

As far as my cooperating teachers here go, they seem to be just as lost in this area as I am. In fact, one of my cooperating teachers and I had a long discussion this past week about how burnt out she is because of this. She is only a third-year teacher and she only works 21 hours a week, but she confessed to me how exhausted and lost she feels all the time. She even told me that she wanted to quit teaching, and would do so if another employment opportunity came her way. I don’t blame her, and I’ve always said that it takes a special kind of (very brave) person to teach middle school, but I wonder how much of her education prepared her to handle student management? I’m curious to learn more about the pre-teacher education system here and will have to ask her more about it when I get the chance.