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Middle School Classrooms Innovate to Put Students on Path to Deeper Learning

To better prepare students for the rigor of high school and college, middle school teachers are finding innovative ways to engage their students in the classroom.

Two articles in the November issue of the Association for Middle Level Education Magazine outline how teachers pace their instruction to appeal to adolescents' short attention spans, as well as lead rich discussions that help them develop critical thinking skills.

In her article, "Keeping Students Engaged with Mini-Lessons," Nichole Carter, an 8th grade ELA teacher and technology coach at Neil Armstrong Middle School in Forest Grove, Ore., notes that the average young adolescent can only stay focused for 8 to 14 minutes. So she suggests teachers break up their classes with shorter activities, keep them moving, and use stories and humor that are relevant to the content.

"Think about your lesson pacing," writes Carter. "If the students have been sitting for more than 20 minutes, can you have them transition to a new activity or place in your classroom or surrounding area?"

In "How Rich is Your Classroom Discourse?" author and educational consultant Jelani Jabari discusses how to draw students into conversations that can help them build more complex thinking processes—a skill encouraged in the new Common Core State Standards. Teachers can create a "discourse-rich" classroom culture when it's a safe space to disagree and students feel more collaborative than competitive, he writes.

"Make it clear that you value students strategically thinking about, discussing, clarifying, and elaborating on ideas rather than having someone simply state the correct answer in order to save time," Jabari explains in the article. Engaging reluctant students can be a challenge, but discussing topics that are of interest to them and starting with sharing in small groups can often build their confidence.

While "releasing the instructional reins" can make teachers uneasy, says Jabari, a rich debate led by students can lead to deeper learning and prepare them for the reality of the larger, diverse world awaiting them on college campuses.

Rather than waiting until high school to prepare students for college, there is a growing push to help middle school students to be inspired to learn and develop critical thinking skills that can provide a foundation for academic success.

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