Elevating the Hearts and Minds of Middle Schoolers
Ask a great middle school teacher, “What is the best part about teaching adolescents?” Invariably they’ll tell you, “Middle school students are passionate about ideas and love a challenge!”
Novelty and challenge are essential for the adolescent brain to continue learning. Anya Kamenetz talks about this in a recent Mind Shift article Plumbing the Mysteries of the Teenage Brain. It is true for all children, but for adolescents it is even more crucial to keep the level of challenge high to maintain students’ interest. The adolescent brain is primed to learn self-reliance through newness and a certain amount of risk-taking. By putting students into many new situations in school they can gain self-reliance within the bounds of safety.
For example, in a recent week our sixth and seventh graders explored the mysteries of combustion engines in science class. Four engines and four well-stocked tool boxes were presented to small teams of students for this intriguing project. A scenario was posed: A polar science station has lost all power. You must repair the engines so scientists can continue their work.
This hands-on study had a large dose of novelty and challenge and was a recipe for keen interest, motivation and fun. Not to mention deeper understanding of engine mechanics, forces of motion, power and energy. (And using a spark plug gapper, feeler gauge, and torque wrench!)
The self-reliance and determination that it took to complete this week-long project engaged students fully. As an assessment, they wrote newspaper articles describing the engineering and energy principles involved. This project revved students’ hearts and minds in a way that a text book chapter with a quiz at the end just couldn’t do.
Middle school can be one of the most positive and exciting times in a student’s life. It takes the imagination and will of great educators to turn middle school into a time of inspiration and growth – a time when the brain is uniquely open to self-discovery and capable of tackling complex issues of ethics and responsibility.
Read about Parker alumni Jesse Pickard ’98 whose experiences in middle school inspired him. Jesse founded the tech company Elevate Labs that has designed what Apple rated the top app for 2014.