children jumpingBefore landing in Portland for the AMLE 2012 Conference, I just spent three fun-filled days with my nieces and nephews in Idaho, two of whom are in middle school. It reminded me how crucial the middle school years are, and how too frequently we lose students during these years because we don’t engage their natural curiosity, their need to move, to collaborate, or really take advantage of many of their strengths.

When I asked my niece each day to tell me about school, she shared that she spent the day listening to boring teachers talk—each day it was the same.  Katelynn’s a good student and has an active social life, so it’s not that she’s not good at school or doesn’t have friends there; she’s just not being allowed to be an active part of her own education.

Similarly, the highlight of Dillon’s week was an after-school trip (school-sponsored) to go rock climbing—I immediately thought of him when Dr. John Medina (check out his book Brain Rules) shared his research on how important physical activity is for supporting learning.  I know Dillon would learn much better if he were more physically engaged during his classes.

When I helped Dillon with his 6th-grade homework, I mostly understood why he was doing multiplication drills. As a former teacher, I recognize that it’s important to maintain speed. Still, I would have been happier though if he had been encouraged to set some personal goals for completing the math worksheets. It’s important for students to learn to monitor their own learning and to understand the purpose of their homework.

I was, however, appalled that he had to complete two language arts worksheets that were fill-in the blank sentences—with three choices provided! The words were appropriate for 2nd grade, not 6th grade, and Dillon’s reading on at least a 9th grade level. Instead of these language arts worksheets, what if they had done carousel brainstorming, or flipped word parts to understand prefixes and roots, learned compound words by using cards to match pairs, or used the jigsaw process to do a close reading collaboratively?

Contrasting the homework worksheets was our trip to the vet for Dillon’s two leopard geckos. I was struck by how much knew about their habitats, diets, shedding cycles, etc. He had investigated which vets handled reptiles and scheduled the appointment himself, and was incredibly articulate with his questions for the vet. Dillon had also done extensive research before choosing the species, drafted several sophisticated arguments as to why his parents should allow him to buy them, and had designed a budget for their maintenance.  He had to understand why the tank had to be kept at a certain temperature and humidity, why he had to add calcium to their food, and how to calculate their medicine doses. This was true learning—so different than filling in science worksheets!

Middle school students will go to great lengths to teach themselves when they care about the subject matter, yet we rarely tap into their natural curiosity.  I know some amazing middle school teachers who truly understand how young people learn—I just don’t know enough of them.

I’m looking forward to being inspired by the remaining AMLE presentations over the next two days!