The Virtues of Teaching Middle School Online
By Laurie Lichtenstein
I like a good intellectual and creative challenge. But when my school closed last week and my principal said, “This is an exciting adventure!” I gave him a half smile and a silent eye roll.
This was not the particular kind of challenge I was looking for at this particular juncture. Yet this is exactly where I found myself when my district, along with thousands of others across the nation, shut their doors to help flatten the curve of the Covid-19 virus.
Those first few days were a blur as I chased my tail trying to adapt lessons for virtual school while simultaneously trying to manage my own family – which included the painful decision to postpone my son’s Bar Mitzvah and the necessity of moving my college daughter home with a few hours’ notice.
Emotions ran high and I admit I ignored the hundreds of emails that flooded my inbox with resources, suggestions and directives.
Not surprisingly, on launch day I was woefully unprepared. A week later I am still not ready, but feel a bit calmer than I did. Upon reflection, I believe this is due to the unique culture that is found in true middle schools.
Community is essential to surviving this crisis, and by design 6-8 schools are meant to be communities. We are organized in houses or teams where four to six teachers share a set of students each year. This educational family makes it much easier to plan, strategize and meet kids’ needs.
The power of team teaching
I had this epiphany during my first Zoom meeting with my team. We jotted down names of kids we were concerned about, divvied up phone calls and emails, and brainstormed creative ways our special education teacher could help as a virtual educator.
There was a relaxed feel to the meeting. We giggled when my colleague’s four-year-old pestered her to play, and bantered with my 19 year old about how she might cope with her boredom. (Shaving her head was my personal favorite.)
And then we talked. Shared our fears and frustrations. Played with the screen background and launched ourselves to outer space, and a beach in the Caribbean. When it was time to say goodbye (Rudy the Goldendoodle needed a walk), we had been on the phone for over an hour. This was twice as long as our usually thirty-minute meetings where we raced against the clock to check in on our students in a meaningful way.
Our meetings are weekly, but we decided under the circumstances we will touch base sooner. Online learning and the team structure have given us the gift of time to be the compassionate educators that this fragile age group demands.
This is middle school. Elementary and high schools are just not set up the same way. This is not to say that they don’t support one another and collaborate, but when a culture of support is embedded in the system, it becomes natural.
This past week would have been unbearable without my vertical group of social studies colleagues. There are four of us, two in 7th and two in 8th. Our group chat has been a virtual resource to vent and verify, clarify and complain, give tech support, and of course share our favorite corona-related Tik Toks.
And then there are the students.
Middle schoolers are uniquely suited for this type of schooling. So much of the time teachers of the Early Adolescent rightfully complain that – as the middle child of K-12 – we are most often ignored. Our elementary colleagues are responsible for the fundamentals of the three R’s, and our high school comrades are preparing young adults for post secondary life. But us? We get looks of pity or comments of concern for our mental state when we admit the age group with which we work.
Well, this is our time, and we have an abundance of it!
This became clear to me on my first virtual meeting with my classes. It was optional. I had almost 100% attendance. They wanted to be there. We reviewed for a test and went over logistics, but we also laughed, a sign that our classroom community would survive remote learning.
Our class clown, who had expressed tremendous Covid anxiety while we were still in school, wore a mask to the meeting. A little corona humor goes a long way. And speaking of…. They begged me to have at least one synchronous lesson together a week where we could watch CNN10 TOGETHER, or read an article to discuss current events. I told them sure, as long as someone volunteered to show me how to do that. They know their teacher is not tech savvy but game to try.
We had become accustomed to discussing the election after each primary, and I had recently instituted a corona minute where I answered questions and assuaged fears before we got down to the business of the day.
Elementary school students may not understand Super Tuesday and the electoral college, and high schoolers are racing against time to complete a curriculum, and current events rarely fit in. But in middle school our students are able to think a little more abstractly than their younger siblings, and we have a little less pressure than our high school colleagues to prepare students for exams.
I am making an executive decision that if my kids don’t learn about the Mexican American War as part of our Westward Expansion unit, their lives will still be meaningful. Instead, I plan to seize the moment and help them understand the complex world in which they live, and hone their life skills as they master the art of respectful conversations, consider alternate viewpoints, and maybe even find a passion about which to write. They will be intellectually engaged with their world and with each other.
But as a middle school teacher, even a virtual one, I need to stay sane. So I amuse myself as I press the mute-all button on Zoom. This. Button. Is. A. Dream. Come. True. I have been granted a super power! Just knowing I can curtail excessive calling out or silliness with a click of a button will keep me going for weeks.
In addition to my new super power, I will use this time to make the most of all that is the middle schooler: eager, honest and gullible.
Eager: They suggest new learning experiences; I will try to make it happen.
Honest: One cherub on his first-day Flipgrid check-in admitted that he has too much spare time now that his favorite hobby, “annoying his teachers,” has been curtailed. Another one confessed that he will “never again complain about going to school.” Should we be lucky enough to return to school before June, or if old habits creep back, I will hit the replay for them.
And finally, Gullible: I mentioned there would be extra credit on the test for anyone who brought their dogs to our Zoom conference, so I could meet their canine companions. Absolutely no one caught on to the fact that I offered extra credit on a test that I had just announced would be pass/fail. These crazy, wonderful kiddos.
Laurie Lichtenstein has been teaching 7th and 8th grade English and Social Studies in Westchester County, NY for two decades. In whatever spare time she can scrounge up, she writes about education and parenting her three children. Her work can be seen in Motherwellmag.com, the Bedford Patch, and The Jewish Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @thriceblessed. Read her other MiddleWeb posts here.