Bob Sullo

Helping Students Succeed in the Middle Grades

It's no exaggeration to suggest that the middle grades represent a critical time in the education of our students. Over the years, I've seen countless students do wonderfully well as elementary school students only to crash and burn in the middle grades. As we try to structure classrooms that offer academic challenges that are both rigorous and realistic, it's helpful to keep in mind some of the things that characterize middle grade students and what we can do to maximize their chances for success both academically and socially.

The most important developmental task of adolescence is identity formation, a process that begins in earnest as students move through the middle grades. For this reason, many students in the middle grades are painfully—and appropriately—egocentric. As they struggle to determine who they are and who they hope to become, they filter everything through the lens of "what does this have to do with me?" Inspiring teachers don't fight adolescent egocentrism. Rather, they wisely create lessons that students can connect to easily. Asking students their opinion, having them pretend they are a character from a piece of literature or history, or considering how what they are studying impacts them personally are some ways to engage students in the middle grades.

In both Activating the Desire to Learn and The Motivated Student, I highlight the importance of giving students ample opportunity to self-evaluate. This is never more important than in the middle grades. If we want students to become effective decision makers and develop a strong internal locus of control, we need to invite them to self-evaluate as often as possible. Self-evaluation should not be limited to academics, although it's a wonderfully effective strategy to build academic competence. It's just as useful when we consider the whole child. Asking students what kind of person they want to be/become helps them consciously focus on the identity they are creating. Chapter 10 of Activating the Desire to Learn ("Being What We Choose") illustrates what happens when a middle grade student is invited to examine the kind of person she wants to be as opposed to simply asking her what she wants to do. Self-evaluation and identity formation go hand in hand.

All of us are driven by a need to be free and self-governing (as well as the needs to connect, be competent, and enjoy ourselves in a safe, secure environment). The needs that drive us are more strongly felt at certain times in our lives. Students in the middle grades are especially driven by the need for freedom. When they are given no options, they will often resist even if what they are being asked to do is perfectly reasonable and appropriate. Providing choice is crucial if we hope to engage students in the middle grades. This doesn't mean that teachers forfeit their authority. It simply means that effective teachers of students in the middle grades are wise enough to know that they will help their students achieve more success when they are given adequate freedom. In Chapter 10 of The Motivated Student ("Plan With the Students' Needs in Mind"), I offer a simple and powerfully effective lesson-planning process that will help you create need-satisfying learning experiences for your students, something that will promote increased achievement and minimize classroom disruption.

The middle grades are a crucial time for students. It's where many begin to forge a success identity while too many of their counterparts begin to lose interest in school. As important as academic tasks are—as well as the academic skills being developed and refined—students in the middle grades are making equally important decisions about the kind of people they want to become. To more easily make their way through the middle grades successfully, they need us to have a "both/and" mentality: we are equally committed to both their academic and personal growth and well-being. Understanding and accommodating their struggle to create their identity, giving them frequent opportunities to self-evaluate, and offering them considerable autonomy, facilitates their academic and social development. When teachers offer these opportunities to middle grades students, they give them the best chance to become successful both academically and socially in high school and beyond.

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