Committee for Children Blog

Meet the Makers of Our New Middle School Program

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Rachel Kamb

Curious. Active. Egocentric. Argumentative. Inconsistent. Restless. Moody. Optimistic. Rebellious. Hopeful. Introspective. At-risk. Idealistic.

Sound like someone you know? If you’ve ever been in a middle school classroom, or have spent any time at all with middle-school-aged kids, you know who I’m talking about! These are just some of the adjectives researchers use to describe middle grade students. Not since their first three years of life, has a child’s growth been this dramatic. When kids reach middle school, you can almost see them growing physically, cognitively, and emotionally every day. Middle schoolers can be intensively curious, but at the same time, they are easily distracted. They can be exceedingly social one minute, then seem intensively withdrawn the next. It’s a disorienting time for the adults who work or live with middle schoolers—so imagine how disorienting it must feel for them! For the last three years, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing: imagining what it’s like to be middle school student.

When we set out to revise the Second Step Middle School Program, we knew we had a big challenge: to engage middle school students. Why is engaging students so important? Student engagement is generally considered to be one of the best predictors of learning and personal growth and development. If students aren’t engaged, then they’re not learning. The more you can get students to engage in what they’re learning, by making it fun, active, authentic, and relevant to their own lives, the more likely they will be to draw on that learning later when they really need it. Easier said than done!

To engage your audience, you really need to understand them. For the past three years, I’ve spent countless hours in middle schools and classrooms with middle school students, teachers, counselors, and administrators. I’ve interviewed middle school parents and caregivers. I’ve consulted adolescent researchers and experts. And I’ve got two middle-school-aged kids of my own (this may have been the most relevant experience of all!). I really feel like I’ve been living and breathing the middle school life for the last three years, and let me tell you, it can be rough sometimes!

Understanding the challenges middle school students face, as well as what is really important to them, is essential for getting at how to engage them in learning. What will capture their attention? What arouses their curiosity? How can we get them to say to themselves, “This is important. I could use this. This will help me.”?

This is what we know: Middle school students like to work with each other. Peers are important! They like to talk, interact, and find out what others think. Discussions, both with the entire class, and with each other or in small groups, are a central component to the new program. The discussion questions are deliberately open-ended, so students and teachers can create their own context, provide their own examples, make it relevant for their worlds.

Maybe it’s obvious that middle school students like interacting with their peers. But what may not be as obvious is that they like interacting with their teachers too! In one student focus group I heard, “I really like the discussions—because our teacher has to participate it too. He can’t just walk around and watch what we’re doing. I like that.” While our new program is web-based, that doesn’t mean that it’s one-to-one, or just for students with their own computers. The program is designed to be facilitated by a teacher. The teacher’s engagement in the material is almost as important as the students’ engagement! If teachers don’t buy in to what they are teaching, the students won’t either. The teachers who helped us create the program over the past 3 years have helped us with the following questions: What works? What doesn’t work? What do you need? What don’t you need? They helped us come up with the lesson topics, the questions and activities, and the format. They helped us create lessons that require little prep, are easy to teach, and hold their students’ attention as well as their own. The lessons are short enough to fit into their busy schedules, yet long enough to be meaningful.

We also needed to keep the new program real for students. But what does that mean? It means the content has to be meaningful to students. It has to be authentic. Students don’t want adults telling them what to do; they want to be able to create their own solutions to their own problems (but with guidance of course!). One of the things we are doing to achieve this in the new program is using “Real Voices.” Real Voices are video interviews of middle schoolers from around the country, captured using a video kiosk system. The kiosk is placed in a quiet, private room, and students come in one at a time to record their interviews. Hearing from other kids about their experiences both normalizes difficulties that many students might otherwise feel isolated by, and keeps it real—because it is!

Creating fun visuals, using technology, giving choices, and mixing it up for students (and teachers!) were also things we paid attention to when creating this new program, all in the name of student engagement. In the end, why should we care so much about student engagement? Student engagement drives learning and predicts school success. And that’s the goal of our program: Student success in school and in life.