Motivating students to do their best (especially in project or researched-based units), can be challenging. Traditional teacher-imposed methods are often ineffective, especially for middle schoolers. However, using academic leadership, student expertise, and peer-based teamwork can be an effective way to raise the bar. This requires you to evolve your classroom by transferring the leadership from the teacher to the students. Once students see what other students can do, and what other students can teach, you have grabbed hold of one of the strongest forces in middle school: peer pressure. But this is the good kind. For them, their peer group, not their teacher, is the most important influence in the room. So don’t fight it. Use the motivation of your students’ peers to improve the effort and quality of their projects. Here are a few examples on how to get started:
Projects and research units will likely involve many different implementations of technology. This can be challenging when you have 15 students asking you how to cite a video in Noodletools or how to access one of the library’s databases. Well, several years ago, a close colleague, Peter D., gave me great advice. Find the two or three “computer nerds” in the class, (who, by the way, are usually less inclined to step forward and contribute to your teacher-led activities), show them how to use the application, and let them help the other students. Over the course of just minutes, the often quiet and reserved student turns into an academic leader, and finds a place on the team. They are now the tech experts of the project. Rule here: Give your helpers the recognition they deserve and never, ever answer another technology question in your class again. That’s what your new tech experts are for.
Written and Oral Presentation Projects
In middle school, students produce written and oral presentations that vary from excellent to just awful. And, unfortunately, this variation has less to do with the students’ ability, and more to do with their ideas around what is expected. I have found that an easy solution here is to set the bar by having some of your high-achievers present first, allowing for the lower-achievers to see their work. Then make sure the remaining students have a little time to upgrade what they have done. For example, if you are asking students to write a paper, chose 3 or 4 of them to read their first draft papers aloud in front of the class on Friday. The final draft is due on Monday. Try it and see if the quality does not go up for the entire class. Do this several times, then begin to put your once struggling writers in front of the class. You are not only defining your expectations better, but you are developing academic leadership in the classroom. Rule here: Recognize your improving writers by letting them read their papers in front of the class, once you have given them a chance to improve the quality of their work.
Student-Led Class Lectures and Socratic Discussions
As a geography and history teacher, I often give a reading assignment and then begin the class with a short lecture and discussion on the reading. I always require that students turn in short reflections on the reading, based on two or three questions that I assign. However, once the basic content is established, the teacher should step out of the way. On a rotating basis, assign the lecture and discussion to a student. Tell them in advance so they can prepare for the discussion. Give them a sample of one of your lesson plans. Ask them to prepare one, too. Here is what you will discover: One, as good as you think you are, there are better student teachers in your room. Two, in student-led lectures/discussions, the number of students participating in the discussion doubles. And three, your students will respect you even more after they realize that leading a class requires a lot of preparation. Rule here fight the temptation to correct or interject during the student led discussion. If you need to clarify or correct, wait until it is over, or do it by playing the role of a student and ask some leading questions.
Team and Collaborative Projects
Personally, I think students are in their best learning mode when talking with two or three other students about their ideas and discoveries. The problem is that this wonderful image often goes up in flames when you ask the small group to turn in a group project that requires them to meet after school. This is often when you get emails from your students or their parents about how they are doing all the work, or that Peter has done nothing on this project, or that the student has too many after-school activities to make time to meet with classmates.
So, what is the answer? Let them collaborate, brainstorm, take notes, and research together in class. Of course, monitor their progress and assess their collaborating, brainstorming, noting, and researching. Then, have each member of the group turn in their own final product.
Like most things in my classroom, creating effective student-led learning experiences is a process. But each of the four examples described here is fairly simple to organize and initiate. And, I think each has helped me raise the quality and quantity of learning in my class. It all boils down to this: if you are going to call your classroom or school a learning community, then make it as egalitarian as possible.