Middle schoolers can be a particularly challenging group to motivate academically. Tweens are starting to act more independently, while at the same time caring deeply about being accepted by their peers, which can cause many middle schoolers to feign disinterest in the classroom. They are also experiencing physical and emotional changes that can be distracting.
So how can teachers and parents engage middle schoolers in their studies? One solution is to let them have a say in their curriculum. When tweens have a voice in key decisions, they can tap into their interests and start to develop their passions. Giving students more control over their education also allows them to explore their newfound independence and the responsibilities that come along with it.
Empowering Students to Develop their Passions
In the elementary years, most students are driven by a desire to please their classroom teacher. When students advance to middle school, they care less about pleasing their teacher, and as their abstract thinking skills kick in they become driven by a desire to explore beyond their immediate community. They now have an interest in the wider world, so giving them projects that allow them to delve into topics that align with their wider interests can lead to more enthusiasm and engagement. It can also help students identify topics and issues that they feel passionately about.
At St. Thomas School (STS), all eighth graders design a service learning project on a topic of their choice, allowing them to choose something they feel passionately about. As part of the yearlong project, students take on volunteer and advocacy work to support their cause, allowing them to learn about their topic through active involvement and empowering them to see that they can make a difference.
For example, a few years ago three students were very concerned about the lack of access to clean, safe water in developing countries. They decided to raise money to help increase access to water in Tanzania, where bead-making is an important part of the culture, so they planned a bead making fundraiser at STS. The fundraiser leveraged the country's traditional bead making process to raise money for Students Rebuild, a nonprofit that empowers students and teachers worldwide to take action on global issues. Every 20 beads made by the students provided a supply of clean water to one person in Tanzania. The students made over 2,000 beads, helping at least 100 people in Tanzania access clean water! The whole school ended up participating in a day-long event designed by students, making those students feel empowered to make a direct impact on solving a real global issue.
Cultivating Project Management Skills
Middle schoolers are starting to develop a sense of independence, and giving students more open-ended projects within a structured setting allows them to test their boundaries while still getting the guidance they need.
STS's eighth grade service learning project gives students agency over how they structure and design their project, with support from staff as needed. The students work on their projects using a special project design process throughout the year, which helps them learn how to manage a long-term project. They also take time to reflect after each step to determine what's working and what isn't. If an aspect of the project isn't successful, they develop a plan to course-correct. Being able to critically reflect on their work and identify when something isn't going well is an important skill that will serve students well throughout their lives.
Allowing Students to Choose their Academic Path
All students learn in different ways and at varying speeds. By the time students reach middle school, there are typically several course options for core subjects to accommodate students' varying ability levels. This is particularly true for math: about 75 percent of U.S. students are tracked in math, according to a report from Brookings' Brown Center on Education Policy.
At STS, students have an active role in deciding what math classes they will take. At the end of sixth grade, students team up with their parents and teacher to determine what type of math journey they want to have in seventh and eighth grades. Teachers guide the students by helping them weigh their options, think about the implications of each option, and determine which experience fits their needs. By giving students a voice in key strategic decisions about their education, they become more aware of their learning and develop a greater sense of responsibility for it. It also helps prepare them for high school where they will have even more options and autonomy over their class schedules.
Although middle schoolers have a reputation for being challenging to motivate, with the right programs in place, students at this level have the capacity to excel academically and develop lifelong passions and interests.