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Teaching the Middle Level: "I have found true happiness"


Middle school students are on the bridge between childhood and young adulthood, often beset by newly surging hormones, curious about the bigger world they will soon join, and wondering how they will fit in. 

In this issue we interview two educators who excel at educating students in this age group: Beverly Ann Chin is a professor who teaches future and experienced educators, with a middle level emphasis; Sandra Kowalczyk is a middle level teacher and reading specialist. We asked them to share their discoveries about middle level instruction and the advice they have for other teachers.

What I so much enjoy about middle level students is that they are so open to possibilities,“ says Beverly Ann Chin. “They are in this mode of natural inquiry—wanting to know why things are the way they are . . . and trying to figure out what differences they can make individually and also collectively.” 

Sandra Kowalczyk agrees. “Middle level learners are a wondrous group. They are sensitive, idealistic, full of concern for oppressed groups and ready to embrace social activism -— a bundle of unbridled youthful exuberance.” . . . 

Connecting to the Larger World 

Both Chin and Kowalczyk take advantage of middle level students’ natural spirit of inquiry and desire to find their identity by designing curricula that help students make connections to the larger world.

Chin favors creating units and lessons centered around big ideas—the essential or guiding questions that deal with “what makes us human,” and all that this entails, including how society and community work, how people relate to the natural world, and how they relate to each other.

These big questions should lead students on journeys of discovery both outward, or world-centered, and inward, or “me-centered,” she says.
Teachers can lead discussions and Socratic seminars focusing on “the kinds of questions students are asking,” making sure the questions are “truly open-ended, thought-provoking, ‘what if’ or ‘how’ questions.” For example, students might look at how they deal with conflict personally but also at how the world and society deal with conflict and how their schools handle bullying.
Text sets are a way to support investigation into these big ideas. Teachers can use diverse sets of texts to  offer multiple readings at different interest levels or with different protagonists and author voices—a man, a woman, someone from their own area, someone from another part of the world, and so on.
“If teachers artfully create these text sets, these readings invite students to enter that inquiry from their own  abilities and interests,” Chin says. Having multiple points of entry for students increases the chance of engagement and with it the likelihood that students will join in the conversation and share their unique perspectives.
Teachers should ask students, Chin says, “to truly read and think carefully and critically, to look for evidence and take positions and support them— but to be open to learning more and perhaps even changing their position.”

They also should be encouraged to write not just for the classroom and teacher, but for the wider world as well, using social media and whatever technologies are available, and pursuing varying modes of writing beyond the traditional academic essay. 

Kowalczyk too believes in bringing the outside world to her students, who include a rising number of English language learners. (Currently students in her school district speak 37 different languages.)

“We live in a global age, yet middle school students know far too little about the 90 percent of the world outside our borders,” says Kowalczyk.

Kowalczyk is a frequent world traveler who decorates her classroom with artifacts from her travels—including Malaysian sarongs, Polish puppets, and West African batik tablecloths. She also runs the Go Global Club, an extracurricular program to increase awareness of other cultures and enhance classroom learning. . . . 

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A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts