Setting Up Your Middle Grades Classroom

Ok, I know I know. It isn't even NEAR time to be thinking about back to school, but I want you to be ready when the time comes! When I moved up to middle school, I was unsure of how I wanted my classroom to look. It took me a couple of years to figure it out, so I wrote this blog post to save you that time!

I planned out every inch of my classroom because middle schoolers are huge! And if you don't plan ahead, you won't have enough space for everything you need or want to do. Now, if you aren't ready to think about back to school just yet, bookmark this blog post for the day you ARE ready ;) If you see any items in my pics you just HAVE to have, you can easily find them on my Amazon page. Don't you just love how Amazon makes it easy to shop?!

Happy Teaching!

Using Stations in Your Classroom

I'm back to share another instructional strategy with you that doesn't involve lecturing or PowerPoints (side note- I totally believe in using lectures and PowerPoints in the moderation. There is a time and place for many instructional strategies. I just feel it's important to add many tools to our teaching boxes.)
I wrote a blog post that details why I love using stations in my classroom (as do my students), and how you can easily implement this strategy. I give you lots of tips and information to get stations up and running in your classroom....and there may even be a free mini-stations pack for you to try out ;)

If you have any questions after you read my blog post, please don't hesitate to leave a comment either below here or on my blog. 

Happy Teaching!

Using Simulations in Your Classroom

Hey everyone! I wanted to share one instructional strategy I just love love LOVE! if you haven't tried simulations in your classroom yet, I highly encourage you to do so! Head on over to this blog post I wrote. I give you all the inside details on what simulations are, why you should be using them, how to implement them, common roadblocks, and helpful tips to running simulations smoothly. You can even download a FREE complete simulation. Woot woot! Who doesn't like to try out new FREE activities?

Happy Teaching!

Getting through to the end...

Spring break has probably either come and gone for you, or it is ending this week. Insert tears, screams and large glasses of wine here.

The stretch of school between spring break and the end of the year can be BRUTAL. There are little to no days off, warmer weather which means antsy kids, and still SO much to do. Keeping kids engaged gets harder because (1) they know the end is coming and they've started to mentally check out and (2) you know the end is coming and your eagerness to spend every free moment planning and creating amazing lessons is dwindling. Ok, so maybe you haven't ever wanted to spend every free moment planning, but you get my drift.

Here are some tips to help get your students (and yourself) through these last few weeks.

  1. Movies. If your school allows movies, play the doggone movies. Of course, make sure they relate to your content... you can find a movie that goes with ANY topic. Play it in sections and stop to ask questions. The students will appreciate the break. Erin uses movies - and you should too! 
  2. Get more hands on. Even if you haven't been an INB fan or taken the time to really push foldables in your classroom... this may be a good time to try. Interactive activities keep students more engaged because they require cutting, coloring, glueing and creativity... more than basic worksheets. Mel & Gerdy have an End of Year Interactive Notebook Activities resource that works for ANY (yep) subject. 
  3. Projects, projects, projects. Give your students assignments that span a few days. It's great for them to work on something that comes together over a period of time - plus projects provide great opportunities for collaboration. Students can explore a topic on their own and then work together (or alone) to demonstrate their understanding or complete a task. 
  4. Choice boards. Give your students choices as the year is coming to an end. They've been required to show understanding in ways you've chosen (graphically, written, using technology, worksheets, etc.) so why not give them the choice. You don't have to use something formal - just provide them with a few different options for demonstrating their understanding of a specific topic or skill. I personally LOVE choice boards because students have a little bit more excitement about what they are doing since they were able to pick what to do. 
  5. Plan as many outdoor activities as possible. Kids are wiggly and distracted in the room. Outside they are often more focused. Consider taking them out for a few minutes just to review notes or complete activities using clipboard.
  6. Just enjoy your students. They'll be moving on soon so try to carve out a little time to do something enjoyable with them. Take the last 5-10 minutes of class one day a week to just let go and take a break. Play a quick game together or just chat!
  7. Have them write letters to future students about your class. These are SO funny to read! I have a template for the letter in my EOY Activities resource. 
  8. Put them to work! Getting your room organized at the end of the year can be (and often is) a nightmare. Give the students small tasks (especially if they are early finishers) such as labeling bins, counting supplies, etc. They'll feel needed and be on task and your end of year clean up list will get shorter and shorter! 
  9. Testing is over - so just stop teaching ok? Seriously - read Erin's post about it! 

Scavenger Hunt Fun!

It's that time of year! The weather is warming up, the sun us shining, the birds are chirping, the trees and flowers are blooming......and the kids would much rather be outside than inside! Who can blame them? I would much rather be outside than inside, too! I wanted to share an easy but FUN activity with you all. I know it's past Easter, and we don't celebrate Easter at my school, so you could totally use this idea anytime this spring. The eggs are just a vessel to hide clues in.

scavenger hunt social studies, In the Middle, Brainy Apples

Our spring break is next week. Which means that this week our kiddos are on high alert for anything that will distract them from our lessons. We decided to take our kids outside and let them run wild, as long as they were getting their work done. When we return from spring break, our state testing begins. So we decided to use a scavenger hunt to review with our students. It gets them outside. They can run. They can talk. They can jump and spin. They can enjoy the outside. And it gives them a break from the classroom.

We wanted to review government terms and apply them to Canada, so the questions all relate to our 6th grade Georgia standards of government and Canada. I have included the PDF if you teach this content, and I also included a generic answer document in case you don't teach this content, but you wanted to use this idea. You would have to make your own question cards, but it's pretty easy using a Word document. You can also do this with ANY subject. All you need are questions cut apart. Easy and no time at all to prepare for, aside from stuffing the eggs (but parents could totally do that!).

So all I did was type out 25 questions that would be government review and Canadian government. Then I cut apart the questions, and stuffed them into eggs. We made 100 eggs, 4 for each questions. Then we hid them in our outdoor classroom area. Some eggs were in plain view. Others were hid a little better. There were 3 of us outside at the same time, so about 80 kiddos, and there were plenty of eggs.

scavenger hunt social studies, In the Middle, Brainy Apples

We had some rules, such as: you must put the question back in the egg, close it, and place it where you found it; and you have to FIND the eggs- no taking an egg from someone's hand!

Our kids loved this activity! I had several come up to me and tell me thank you for letting them do this. It's so simple, yet they kids really appreciated it. I know we used eggs, but you could still do this in April or May. You could use anything to hide the questions in. Eggs are just easy.

Click on the images below to download either the Canadian Government activity or the Generic Answer Key that can be used with any questions.

Social studies, In The Middle, Brainy ApplesSocial studies, In the Middle, Brainy Apples

Social studies, In The Middle, Brainy Apples
Social studies, In The Middle, Brainy Apples
Social studies, In The Middle, Brainy Apples

I hope your students enjoy this activity as much as mine did!

Teachers Pay Teachers, Middle Grades, Secondary, Social Studies
 Teachers Pay Teachers, Middle Grades, Secondary, Social Studies

Why the Middle? Five GREAT Reasons to Teach Junior High

Why should you consider teaching the middle grades? We've got FIVE reasons to jump in feet first and enjoy this amazing age group!

If you've ever gone to a teaching job fair you've probably noticed that the lines for elementary school applicants are endless, the high school lines are out the door, yet the middle school applicant lines are (sadly) short.  Teachers that occupy the last of those lines are often seen as saints or crazy. It's funny, and TRUE, that whenever we would say that we teach middle school science, the person on the other side of the conversation would inevitably say "bless your heart!" Why are middle schools given such a bad rap? Ever since the "creation" of the middle school in the early 1900's, the view of the middle school student, and even those that teach them, is rarely viewed in a positive light. The tween is often seen as hormonally charged, awkward, egocentric, apathetic, unreachable, yet oh-so independent. The middle school educator is a rebel, gutsy, quirky, and often the most misunderstood of all teachers.

So, why did we choose to teach in an environment where students make poor choices and think they rule the roost? Because it's FUN! Of all the grades we have ever taught, 7th was the best. We'd never consider teaching high school biology or 5th grade science. Middle school is that wonderful, precarious bridge leading from the nurturing need of the elementary school student to the other side where independent high school students are actually interested in the material you are teaching.  We like being in the middle! Each day had its own set of challenges but also its rewards. Students might think they own the joint, but they also make teaching so interesting.

There are so many positives to this age range. Here are just a few that we love about our experiences in the middle:

1. Potty all the time: Every word that comes out of your mouth has an unintentional double-meaning or joke behind it to a middle-schooler. They will laugh at words you use in class like "doodle"on your page, "ball" up the piece of paper, or plants produce seeds and "nuts." As life science teachers, the worst is when a student messes up the word "organism" - we're sure you can guess where it goes from there.  And of course, once the chuckling begins you know you'll end up laughing, too. Once an episode or two of riotous laughter has occurred, you'll either find yourself avoiding those words or using them on purpose because you love to see student's reactions. What are some of your favorites - please share in the comments below!

2. Herding cats: Have you ever tried to corral a hundred cats at once? Taken a hundred or more tweens on a field trip to a museum where precious ancient artifacts are carefully laid out on tables and shelves and then ask them not to touch anything? Spent your lunch duty trying to keep students at their assigned tables when someone realizes that it's so-and-so's birthday and they want to sing happy birthday to said so-and-so and would like to involve the entire cafeteria?  If you teach middle school, then we know your answer is YES (at least to #'s 2 and 3). Middle schoolers are all of those things we mentioned above, but they are also curious, insightful, audacious, fearless, thoughtful and socially energized people, and their lack of shyness at this age, while exhausting, is also refreshing.  It's tough and it'll keep you on your toes, but the impulsive nature of these kids is what keeps them engaged in class and asking those meaningful and insightful questions throughout lessons.

3. Reminding you of YOUR youth: Ah, yes. When's the last time you learned a step routine, ate a Taki, or popped 15 Skittles into the air and caught them in your mouth just before lunch?  How about the last time you wrote a phone number on your hand, passed a note, or jumped on a desk and acted like a fledgling bird?  Depends.  If you're in a corporate office board meeting, probably never.  But, if you're a middle school teacher, you probably did all of those things yesterday with a bunch of giggling 11 and 12 year old kids. Being a middle school teacher allows you the unique opportunity to relive your middle school years... perpetually.  Like, for real.  You're probably thinking, ugh... WHY would I want to do that? The great thing about reliving middle school when you're not a student is the sheer fact that you've done it once, and you survived!  And now, NOW you get to do it with all of the wonderful knowledge of a seasoned middle school veteran, and enjoy it for the fun and amazing ride that it is, without all the drama and tears... although your name may still end up on the bathroom wall (like Gerdy's)!
Five GREAT reasons to consider teaching middle school!

4. Finding themselves: When a fresh new group of young faces enters the halls of middle school, they are often bright and innocent and full of youth.  Then... they change. While it can often feel like a Jekyll and Hyde kind of experience, it's important to remember that this period of self exploration and reflection is so important to the creation of the adults that these adolescents will one day become. Seems like a long time ago when we teachers were in middle school and we'd be willing to wager that most of you would say that those were your least favorite school years. If you look back though, on how awkward, confused or even lost you felt and how other times you felt excited, crazy, and in awe of your new independence, we'd also be willing to bet that those years helped to shape the person you are today. Take a moment to put yourself in their shoes. Remember your firsts: a boy/girl party, time alone at the mall, movie with friends, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, staying up all night - nearly everything had to do with the social aspect of life. Everything was so new and exciting.  It's so fun and interesting to watch as your students experience freedom and individuality, and that you get to be a part of that.  And as their educator, you can draw from your own personal story and, with your guidance, help to mold and shape them into the people they will be as adults. This is an amazing time of self exploration and they will try you, they will test the boundaries, they will not stop talking when you ask them repeatedly, but by the time they leave middle school they know a little more about who they are and you helped them along the way.
Reaching the middle school student and four other reasons to consider teaching junior high.

5.  When you finally reach them: Nothing feels better than to see the lightbulb go off in a middle school classroom.  Middle school can be like an arcade - there are lots of bells and whistles and pings and pongs and bleeps and bloops to constantly distract students from the ultimate mission of winning the game.  For many of them, it's not only the distraction of being a teenager (a lot of distraction in and of itself), but their home lives can also add to the noise. Life is very overwhelming at this age and students are just understanding how their bodies and brains work.  As we mentioned before, we get a unique opportunity to help guide these children, not only in the ways of science, math, language and the arts, but also in life. Whether you reach out to a student who is struggling in class or personally, it's such a gift to be able to see when they finally get the equation or understand the advice, and to know that you are a big part of that.  

So there you have it.  We may be crazy, we may be saints, but one thing is for certain, we love being in the middle. Have you hugged your middle school teacher today?

Student Created Webpages

Hope everyone who is in the snow zone is staying toasty warm! My area just missed getting slammed, but it still didn't stop our school from having a snow day yesterday. Part of me was cheering for the day off, but another part of me was disappointed. Why in the world would a teacher be disappointed about having a snow day? Well, my students just started a project on Thursday, and I am bummed that I didn't get to see the excitement from Thursday carry over into Friday. I know come Monday that excitement will be there, but have you ever had that feeling of starting a project with your kiddos, and you just didn't want class to end?

What are we doing that is so exciting this teacher was *slightly* bummed about having a snow day? We are in the beginning of our Latin America unit, and we are getting into the history. I knew I wanted to have my advanced students create some type of project because our first topics are the Aztecs and Incas. And even though not all of my students would find the Aztecs and Incas as fascinating as I do, I did want to get my students excited about learning. They are going to build a website about the Aztecs and Incas.
**Side note- I teach 5 classes of 6th grade social studies. Three of those classes are advanced and two are on-level. I differentiate for my advanced classes, so I either come up with a variation of an activity my on-level students are doing (or sometimes I come up with something for my advanced kids and tier it for my on-level kiddos), or I plan something completely different for them. As long as my lessons are standards-based, I have complete freedom in the activities I plan for my kiddos, and I can vary the activities as much as I want between the two levels of classes.

**Another side note- I am totally fine with turning my kiddos loose on a project I have never done before. I like to live dangerously. And my administration fully supports us teachers. If this project turns out a flop, I am OK with that. I take note of what worked, what didn't work, and tweak it for the next go around.  I know my kids will learn the knowledge they need to from this project, it just may or may not be a pretty process!

I planned this project just for my advanced kids. Why? Well, because this project is very much self-directed, and students will be learning without me. I know my advanced students can do this. My on-level students will need more involvement from me to learn the content.  I totally know that my on-level kids will enjoy creating a webpage just as much as my advanced kids, so they are going to have a project like this later on this year with information they have already learned.

Let's Get To It!
I chose Weebly, but you could also use Wikispaces. I have never used Weebly before because my district uses an on-line learning platform. All of my class correspondence and resources are uploaded there. However, I wanted my kids to create their own webpages.

Why a webpage? It's very real world, and most of them are technologically savvy enough to figure out how (in other words, they know how to tinker really well with technology). I wanted them to explore the Aztecs and Incas on their own because they would be way more engaged than if I led the discussion, and I wanted them to have some type of record of what they learned. They have made posters before, but not very many have made their own webpage, so I knew this would be a very intriguing project for them. My students have completed anticipatory activities before learning about specific content, but I honestly just wanted them to be able to explore on their own with a few guidelines. I wanted to keep this portion of Latin America history as self-directed as possible with as little as me as possible.

Independently or groups? I explained the project to my kiddos and let them decide if they were confident enough to create their own by themselves, or if they wanted to team up with a pal. I allowed up to 3 in a group because I wanted to make sure each member put in work. Thankfully my school as plenty of technology to go around, and I am able to check out one Chrome Book per kid. If you don't have one-to-one technology, your students may not have the choice to work alone. I *gently* persuaded most of my students to team up with at least one other person because you can only get 40 free students accounts with a teacher Weebly account. I have WAY more than 40 advanced students, so I knew I needed some groups. Yes, students can create their own Weebly account for free, BUT I wanted easy access to their webpages. Per district policy, the webpages must be set to private, so the only way I will be able to assess their webpages is to have 90 usernames and passwords. Um, no. With student accounts under my teacher account, all I have to do is log into mine and I can simply click theirs. Easier and time saver.

Putting it into action. I feel like my advanced kiddos are pretty independent and the majority are very motivated, so my intro was really just explaining the project to them, giving them the project guidelines/rubric page, provided some text resources, gave them some reliable online resource sites, gave a quick overview of Weebly, and I turned them loose. This may not work for everyone. You may need to give a more detailed intro to your kiddos. You know them best. I knew that the time of year (snow day, no snow day???) leaves my kiddos pretty wiggly and restless if I talk for too long. Letting them tinker may take a bit more time, but at least I know they are engaged in the task at hand, and I don't have to struggle to maintain their attention. I also have no problem letting my kids take the reins. One of the biggest lessons I learned moving from elementary to middle school was that I had to give up a lot of control. In elementary school I did tons of centers, my students moved a lot, it was not quiet. But for the most part, I couldn't give an overview and turn them loose and let them have complete reign to tinker and hope that academic work would get accomplished. In middle school I can. One more reason I love middle school and will not go back to elementary school without crying, screaming, and kicking.

Reliable websites- BiographyHistoryDiscovery,  and National Geographic. I gave my kiddos a run down on why Wikipedia is not the *most* reliable source of information out there.

How it's going. I feel like so far it has gone very well. Granted we are only going to be on day 2 when we return to school, but my kids tinkered with Weebly for about 15 minutes, felt comfortable, and started researching. They used library books I checked out, the websites I listed above, and whatever else they searched on line. Many of them working in groups created a Google doc to share their research and simultaneously add information. I didn't even tell them to do this. They just did it on their own! #winning

How long it will take. I am giving my students 6 full class periods to work on this. Each class is 55 minutes long, so I am hoping this is plenty of time. I did tell them, though, if they are making this elaborate webpage, they might have to work on it at home. Keep in mind, many of my kiddos will work on it at home. If push comes to shove, and it is nearing the 6th day and most of my kids aren't anywhere close to being done, I will give them extra days. I am OK with that. Yes, we have set curriculum we have to get through, but I fully believe that to become a better teacher, you have to be willing to take risks and sometimes just fly by the seat of your pants. See where the adventure takes you. Jot notes of what went well and what went horribly wrong, and improve with the next project.

Project page and rubric. Here is the project detail page and rubric I gave to my kiddos. Nothing fancy, and it would be easy for you to create something similar if you didn't want to have the topic be the Aztecs and Incas.

I will be back when we finish to post some screen shots of my daughter's webpage when she finishes (yes, I do get to teach my daughter since she needs advanced SS and I am the only advanced SS teacher.....difficult at times? Yes. Would I trade it for anything in the world? Never!). I promise I will show it whether good, bad, or ugly because teaching is messy sometimes, and so are student created projects!

Have you had your students create their own webpages before? What were your biggest victories and defeats?

Happy Teaching!
Heather- Brainy Apples