Getting Middle Schoolers Ready for HS Writing

A MiddleWeb Blog

I was a high school teacher for the first few years of my teaching career, and I loved it. I remember my department chair mentioning that if budget issues occurred there would still be a position for me at the middle school.

I’m not going to lie. I was horrified. I taught juniors and seniors. We read The Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter, and The Handmaid’s Tale, and I taught Whitman and Thoreau.

How would I ever manage if I were sent to middle school where the content would be so easy? Flash forward to my 17th year in a middle school, and as you may have guessed, I have quite a different opinion.

Stirring up middle school cupcakes

However, my initial thoughts about the content being “easy” weren’t entirely false either. Teaching Transcendentalism and contemplating the Oversoul is on a different plane than what I do now. Yet I find my job now to be entirely more difficult. Why? Indulge me with an analogy of cupcakes.

Elementary school is the gathering of all the ingredients to make cupcakes – ”enough” of all the key ingredients. Literacy, critical thinking, numeracy, cooperation, and so many more.

Middle school is taking those raw ingredients, mixing them all together while determining what to add next, and even improvising when an ingredient is lacking. Middle school is watching those ingredients develop and (we hope) rise.

In essence, my job is making 117 different “cupcakes” presentable for the high school, where, you guessed it, they will be decorated and turned into (hopefully) a beautiful final “product.”

What my cupcakes need to rise

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about how I can send the high school the best possible “cupcake.” What I mean by that is that I am examining what I provide the high school with as starter material, allowing the teachers there to be more elaborate in what they are able to teach, ultimately allowing them to do more with our students.

The way this is playing out right now is in student writing. Because The Giver is such a big unit for us (you can read about it here), I decided to include an essay this year. Students will still be doing the collaborative essay, but I wanted to give them more writing because the number one complaint I’ve heard from high school teachers about the “cupcakes” we send them is that they crumble under the pressure of the increased workload, including writing.

When the cupcakes crumble: reviewing the writing process

Any guesses what happened when I added another piece of writing? Crumbling. However, this is where the work of middle school teachers is crucial. What can I do to help students face thesis statements and argumentation, particularly because this is the kind of work they will encounter next year?

The answer in this case is a very old school pre-writing task that might seem like an assignment from your own schooling, back before computers and search engines. They are doing a topic sentence outline.

My students balked when I handed this out, and having anticipated this, I pointed out that I was counting it as a quiz grade. (I wouldn’t exactly blame them for complaining about having to do a big pre-writing piece that wouldn’t be graded.)

This very basic topic sentence outline, along with mastering the thesis statement, is crucial to improving the “cupcakes” I send to the high school.

Click to see the entire document.

After overt writing lessons on introductions and conclusions, my students completed the outline. Today, as they are typing their essay, I’ve heard a few students noting how quickly their writing is going. I want to jump in and say, “I told you so!” but I’m holding back. Another one of the jobs I see as important as a middle school teacher is leading students to key conclusions about how to “do school” (which I talk about quite a bit in my new book The Flexible SEL Classroom and more recently at AFT’s ShareMyLesson website here.)

Middle school’s contributions to student success

As a high school teacher, I didn’t have the best appreciation for all the work that teachers before me had done. Now, as I take a broader view, I can see the panorama. One of the ways I’ve shifted my thinking is instead of pondering what someone else “should have covered,” I’m figuring out structures like the topic sentence outline that will help students as they move forward from here.

This has been a roundabout way to share why all of us – from elementary through high school – have a hand in creating that final masterpiece. You can blame my newfound addiction to The Great British Baking Show for the oven-oriented analogy!

I’d love to hear how you think we should be supporting each other from elementary through high school, and specifically, what is the role of the middle school teacher?

Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school teacher and the author of The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8 (2018) and The Flexible ELA Classroom (2017). Amber blogs regularly for ShareMyLesson and Getting Smart, contributes to AMLE Magazine, and provides NBCT candidate support for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Follow Amber on Twitter @MsAmberChandler and join her website Amber Chandler's Flexible Class for practical tips and resources.

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