While many emotion-enlightened efforts take place outside the classroom, Dahl said classroom applications can make learning more exciting and meaningful for tweens whose hunger for relationships can greatly influence their learning.
In middle school, this means learning transitions after elementary should be more than six periods with a homeroom and different subject teachers. The way the curriculum is taught must meet the social needs of middle school students, according to 8th-grade humanities teacher Sarah Ledoff, who was teaching at San Jose Downtown College Prep alum Rock Middle School when I visited her class in the spring.
“Their hunger for relationships is not just with each other, but they also hunger for adult mentors and adult connections,” says Ledoff, who is also the California Middle School Teacher of the Year. “They’re all emotional about everything Beautiful and complex.”
To align the curriculum with the emotional and social needs of middle school students, LeDuff ensures that her classroom is welcoming in climate, design and instruction. Students enter music classes, such as Pharrell’s “Just a Cloud Away,” which has lyrics that could make a soundtrack for a child’s day. Partially illuminated overhead fluorescent lights in his bungalow are balanced by a string of soft outdoor bulbs. Students sit in pods of four desks—they don’t line up—and each pod has a small potted plant in the center.
“His class is very homey,” said student Briana Gonzalez. “Once you walk into his room, it’s so cozy and there are bean bags and couches and everything. It feels like a safe place.”
Listen to the MindShift Podcast to hear a day in the life of Sarah Ledoff’s class
LeDuff wants students to let their guards down in order to learn. After remote learning, which is after returning to the school building, students have a lot of anxiety, which can be a hindrance to learning. He wanted to make room for wellness, and that included stopping mistreatment of each other.
“I want my students to take risks academically, whether it’s working on their public speaking, getting up and performing a poem they’ve written, participating in a debate,” Ledoff said. “These are very weak things. If I don’t feel safe outside their doors, it’s extremely difficult to tap into the creativity they need for authentic learning.”
Students like Ivan Martinez have noted these differences with LeDuff. He said that other classes feel “ordinary” and joyless, and that “once you get in, the feeling is different. It’s like you get in and you’re sitting there for over an hour or so listening to what the teacher is saying.”
One aspect of adolescence is that the child’s call for autonomy becomes stronger. At home, it can appear as conflict or wanting to be left alone.
“They want independence,” said Dahl of children in this period of early adolescence. Parents can be proactive about how children gain independence by asking them to demonstrate good judgment to prove they are ready for more independence, she says. And while this transition to greater independence can be confusing for parents wondering about their role in their child’s life – especially as friends become more prominent – Dahl says adults are still important.
“It’s a myth that parents become irrelevant and it’s all about peers,” she says, adding that there’s always room for a warm supportive environment with high standards and boundaries. “Combining that with care that feels like it’s respecting their values and desire to be independent is really, really important. In early adolescence it’s extra important, not less important.”
When it comes to schoolwork, middle school students are expected to be self-sufficient because they receive less adult attention than in their elementary school years because class sizes are larger and students move from class to class with different teachers. But there is also a way to make autonomy lessons for students heavier. For Sarah Ledoff, this comes in the form of teaching students how to self-advocate and self-reflect. And in order to preserve student autonomy, the curriculum must be designed for those opportunities. One area he has changed is how he grades.
“I’ve really reworked my grading system to value student input so grades aren’t just something that happens to you; Your teacher is not just your assessor of whether you got your work right or wrong, but those grades are something we create together,” says Ledoff. At the end of each quarter, she does a self-reflection rubric with each student and holds teacher-student conferences to discuss priorities such as their classroom contributions, collaboration, or reading skills. A rubric is self-advocacy, so students will reflect on their own work and grade and present why they earned that grade – with evidence.
“They’ll think about things like, ‘Do they come to me and want feedback? Do they ask for help from me and their peers when they need it?'” Leduff said. “And they’ll reflect on their ability to do these things and they’ll give themselves a score.”
LeDuff knows she also has areas for improvement so she surveys the class asking what they think could be improved and then shares that with the students and looks for ways to implement those changes.