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Helping Gen Z Students Balance Digital Life

When we say things like, “Well, I remember what it was like when I was a teenager,” here is John Duffy’s response: “The truth is, you were never this teenager.”

By Dr. Debbie Silver

As a middle school teacher one of my favorite activities was from the Project Learning Tree program, which utilizes the outdoors to enhance learning experiences across all subject areas.

In a forested area behind our school, I asked the students to find separate trees that appealed to them, sit quietly for 10 minutes, and just think about what it would be like to be that tree. They then sketched the tree and wrote a paragraph or poem to express their thoughts.

Their writings were deeper and more meaningful than on any prior assignment, often giving me a glimpse into their inner thoughts and struggles. Generally, their treatment of one another seemed markedly improved for at least a little while following the activity. I remember wondering if there were something magical about being outside and being with nature.

And now I sometimes wonder – is the magic gone for good?

The Ever-Widening Gap

As Richard Louv emphasized in his book, Last Child in the Woods (2005), there seems to be an ever-widening gap between modern kids and the natural world. And think of the revolutionary technology that has evolved since Louv’s groundbreaking work was written. The gap is becoming a chasm.

Children are suffering more anxiety and depression, which many researchers attribute to overuse and misuse of personal devices and social media. Too much screen time has evolved into a big crisis for teachers, parents, guardians and students.


Here’s an activity I often suggest that teachers and parents/guardians try:

Take 3 minutes and watch this Nature Valley/3 Generations commercial.

After you watch the video answer these questions:

      1. To what extent do you think this video is an accurate depiction of childhood today?
      2. Do you think the children’s descriptions of their online activities fall within the parameters of safe, healthy, and responsible use? Why or why not?
      3. What if any steps do adults need to take to ensure that kids get enough outdoor and free playtime?

Free play is important not only for social and emotional (SEL) skill building but also for the development of essential neural pathways in the brain.

Lukianoff and Haidt (2018) report that most mammals play a game similar to the children’s game of Tag. In species that are predators, such as wolves, their pups seem to prefer to be the chasers. In species that are prey, such as rats, the pups prefer to be chased.

Play is essential for wiring a mammal’s brain to create a functioning adult. Mammals that are deprived of play won’t develop to their full capacity. The authors believe that children, like other mammals, need free play in order to finish the intricate wiring process of neural development. They also conclude, “Children deprived of free play are likely to be less competent – physically and socially—as adults. They are likely to be less tolerant of risk, and more prone to anxiety disorders.” (p. 193)

The ”New Tween/Teen”

from Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8

Jean Twenge, a social psychologist at San Diego State University, calls the generation following the Millennials “iGen” which is short for “internet generation.” (Some call this age group “Generation Z.”)

In her 2017 book iGen, Twenge notes that children born after 1995 are the first generation to have grown up with total access to the internet during their entire lives. By the time they reached middle school, they had smart phones and social media readily available to them.

As tech has become more powerful and easy to use, she believes that countless members of iGen or Generation Z have become addicted to their personal devices and have started spending far less time than any previous generation meeting with friends and participating in free play.

Twenge and other researchers are on a mission to alert adults about how much time kids spend on their personal devices as well as what they are doing while they are on them. Currently there are numerous books, articles, and TV specials that raise the alarm bell about dangers lurking in social media and with personal devices.

“Experts” list extensive rules for restricting student access and use of mobile phones and other internet-ready devices, as well as provide endless tips for teachers and parents/guardians on how to censor what children are doing.

Instead of scaring teachers and parents/guardians into micro-managing their learners 24/7, wouldn’t it be much healthier to focus on general safety precautions and sensible use agreements with our kids? Shouldn’t we be preparing students to use self-regulation for making appropriate choices with digital media now and in the future?

Today’s Middle Graders Are Different

Dr. John Duffy (2019) cautions that the transition period formerly called the “tween stage” (students around 10-13) is quickly disappearing. In his practice he sees “children who are developmentally sprung from childhood into adolescence without the cushion of a couple of years to get accustomed to new thought patterns and behavioral draws.” (p. 25)

Duffy explains to teachers and parents/guardians that it is impractical to compare our lives to those of today’s tweens and teens. When we say things like, “Well, I remember what it was like when I was a teenager,” his response is, “The truth is, you were never this teenager.”

Teenage concerns, free of the weight of social media “likes,” the pace of online chaos, the overarching academic pressures, and the wildly unreasonable body image demands, are artifacts of an era gone by. (p. 21)

Two things struck me when I read Duffy’s book. Number one was the statement that none of us were ever this teenager. I think it’s unfortunate, but it’s true. As parents and teachers/guardians we must be aware that the digital world has brought all kinds of unique negative stress to tweens and teens already prone to compare themselves to others as they struggle for personal identity.

Tweens and Teens Didn’t Ask for This

When I become exasperated with kids and their media obsession, I reflect on Duffy’s second point – for this generation, it’s always been this way. They didn’t create it, and they didn’t ask for it.

I remind myself that it is my job to help guide them through the same lessons of resiliency, self-efficacy, autonomy, and growth mindset I teach in other areas. I cannot and should not control every aspect of their experience with the digital world.

But as Silicon Valley-based expert on teen behavior Ana Homayoun (2017) points out, I can guide them and give them reasonable freedom and responsibility with “bumper lanes” when needed.

Guidelines for Tweens and Teens

We teachers, parents and guardians need to keep up a constant dialogue (not lectures) with learners about the amount of time they spend and the quality of what they do with their personal devices.

Ongoing conversations should be calm and nonjudgmental. Homayoun advises us to focus on healthy socialization, safety, and self-regulation. “We need to help kids make better choices intrinsically.”

The following guidelines are common sense practices I’ve assembled since I first read Last Child in the Woods and now. Adjust for your age group.

Helping Kids Find Balance
in the Digital World
  1. Have them write out a plan for all the things they have to do each day – school, chores, reading for pleasure, outdoor play, homework, practice, meals, bath/shower, sleep, etc. and attach times required for each activity. They can fill in the remaining time with preferred screen activities. Talk about the plan together and make any adjustments necessary. As much as possible, hold them to their plan.
  2. Ask them to turn alerts off and check their phones only at pre-determined times.
  3. Look at the screen time function on their devices together and discuss the amount of time spent on various activities. Encourage them to keep a written record of how much time they spend on their devices and what they do during that time. Have a conversation about how their device use aligns with their goals and dreams.
  4. Have a discussion about how digital devices, games, and apps are created to perpetuate addictive behavior. Ask kids to identify indicators in their programs that evidence intentional manipulation by the designer. Once they become aware of how they are being influenced, it is easier for them to resist the beeps and blinks.
  5. Declare a moratorium on device use at regular intervals. It can be for certain hours each day, for one day on the weekend, or something else. Pick times that work best for your classroom or family.
  6. Create a “Cinderella Rule” that indicates the time devices must be turned off and placed in a designated spot (away from its owner). It remains there until morning (home) or the next activity (school).
  7. Regularly talk with your learner in an open and ongoing discussion, free of lectures. Ask open-ended questions about issues they may well be struggling with that you are either unaware of or do not fully understand. Emphasize safe, healthy, and responsible use of devices and social media.
  8. Model the behavior (both digitally and otherwise) you want to see from your learner.
  9. Stay informed about your learner and maintain your precious connection with them.
  10. Don’t forget to play!

Please feel free to provide additional ideas you have in the comment section below. I would love to hear how you are helping your learners make the time to free play and find balance in the digital world.


“Yes, kids love technology, but they also love Legos, scented markers, handstands, books, and mud puddles. It’s all about balance.”

— K.G., first-grade teacher


References:

Duffy, J. (2019). Parenting the new teen in the age of anxiety: A complete guide to your child’s stressed, depressed, expanded, amazing adolescence. Coral Gables, FL: Mango Publishing.

Homayoun, A. (2017). Social media wellness: Helping tweens and teens thrive in an unbalanced digital world. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. London, UK: Penguin Random House.

Silver, D. (2021). Fall down 7 times, get up 8: Raising and teaching self-motivated learners. Revised edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publishing.

Twenge, J. (2017). iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy – and completely unprepared for adulthood – and what that means for the rest of us. New York, NY: Atria Books.


Debbie Silver, Ed.D. is a former Louisiana Teacher of the Year, a popular speaker, and the author of four best-selling books including Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education (with Jack Berckemeyer and Judith Baenen) and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success (with Dedra Stafford). Find Debbie’s other MiddleWeb articles among these posts.

Debbie offers more information and resources on SEL and self-motivated learners in her recently released and extensively revised Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 (2nd ed.): Raising and Teaching Self-Motivated Learners. (Corwin Press, 2021) Visit her website.

Resources for Teaching 9/11’s 20th Anniversary

By Kasey Short

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, it is important to remember that middle school students today were not alive in that year, and their connections to and knowledge about the events of 9/11 vary significantly.

Some students’ families are personally impacted by the tragedy and others may know very little about it.

Twenty years later, it is essential to honor and remember the lives that were lost and the heroes that came together to help. It is also important to acknowledge the resulting Islamophobia and anger toward Muslim and Arab Americans, and to examine the legacy and impact on individuals, communities, culture, national policies, and global politics.

I find that sharing my own memories of that day and encouraging students to ask their parents about their memories helps students make connections, illustrates that it is more recent than it might seem to them, and serves as a starting point before diving into other resources.

There are many free online resources and documents designed to help teachers effectively teach about 9/11. There are also recently published novels written for middle grades students that showcase the tragedy and its continued impact through the eyes of adolescent characters.

Online Resources

9/11 Memorial and Museum

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum website has a multitude of resources designed for teachers to use in their classrooms. The links below are some that I found most useful for middle school.

This year the Memorial is offering a free webinar for students and teachers to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The program will be available on-demand beginning on September 10 and webinar registration is now open.

Other Memorial resources include:

Virtual School Programs – These programs include opportunities to take virtual field trips and for students to ask experts questions about 9/11.

Lesson Plans  – The lesson plans are organized by grade level and topic. There are multiple lesson plans for grades 6-12 and one lesson designed for students in grades 3-5.

Digital Exhibitions – There are multiple exhibitions that include primary sources, art, stories, and more.

Talking to Children about Terrorism – This is an excellent resource for teachers to read before discussing terrorism with students and provides practical tips for approaching the difficult and complex topic with children.

Scholastic

Scholastic Collection: Understanding September 11 – Scholastic provides lesson plans, videos and discussion guides, first-person accounts, and background information about the events of September 11, 2001, and its continued impact. It also includes articles that provide information about how to discuss trauma and violence with children.

The Library of Congress

Library of Congress September 11, 2001 Documentary Project – This collection includes diverse voices about the events of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath. The documents include audio, video, graphics, and written accounts from hundreds of different people recounting their varied 9/11 experience.

Learning for Justice

“Debunking Stereotypes About Muslims and Islam” – This lesson plan helps counter negative stereotypes about Muslims and Islam.

“Bringing 9/11 in the Classroom – Useful Lessons” – This article includes many resources and encourages teaching religious tolerance as part of teaching about September 11, 2001.

AmeriCorps

9/11 Resources – AmeriCorps provides ideas for service learning and volunteering to honor and remember both the heroes and the victims of 9/11.

Book Recommendations

Alan Gratz’s latest book, Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11, is a perfect selection to help students begin to understand the depth of impact the tragedy of 9/11 has on our world today.

The book alternates between two perspectives and timelines. Brandon is a child inside the World Trade Center when the airplane hits the tower on September 11, 2001. Reshmia, who is living in Afghanistan and on September 11, 2019, sees her life change after a battle takes place in her village and she helps to save a U.S. soldier.

Their stories collide and encourage the reader to consider multiple perspectives, examine connections between our past and our present, and gain insight in 9/11.

[Listen to this Scholastic Reads Podcast episode with Alan Gratz: The Day Our World Changed: Remembering 9/11.]

Jewell Parker Rhodes’ novel, Towers Falling, illustrates the impact of 9/11 on a group of 5th grade students, 15 years after the attack. The story reveals to readers how even though the characters were not alive in 2001, the tragic events of that day impact their lives. Rhodes also shows the physical and mental impact on those who were in the Twin Towers during the attack and the impact on Muslim Americans, and leads readers to consider what it means to be American.

(Towers Falling Teaching Guide)

In nine, ten: A September 11 Story, Nora Raleigh Baskin skillfully weaves together the stories of four middle school students living in different parts of the country and their lives during the days leading up to September 11, 2001.

Baskin shows how the tragedy of 9/11 impacted the lives of four very different kids and helps readers to understand the significance and magnitude of that day.

(Nine, Ten Curriculum Guide)

Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi is available for preorder and will be published on September 7, 2021.

Yusuf is a Muslim who lives in a small town in Texas and loves robotics. As his town approaches their own memorial events for the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Yusuf personally experiences Islamophobia as he receives hate notes in his locker and sees its impact on his community as people begin protesting the building of a new mosque. The story shows how prejudice, intolerance, and hate towards Muslims impacts a community two decades after after 9/11.

For more September 11 teaching resources visit MiddleWeb’s September 11: Teaching Tragedy.


 Kasey Short (@shortisweet3) loves to share ideas from her classroom and writes frequently for MiddleWeb. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a bachelor of arts in middle school education with a concentration in English and history. She went on to earn a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Winthrop University. She is currently the Director of Studies at Charlotte (NC) Country Day School and an eighth grade English Teacher.

Adept Questioners Are Empowered Learners

Empowering Students as Questioners: Skills, Strategies, and Structures to Realize the Potential of Every Learner
By Jackie Acree Walsh
(Corwin, 2021 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Helene Alalouf

Oh, how I wish I had had Jackie Acree Walsh’s manual when I was in the classroom! I did not know about the types of questions, how to inspire students to reflect on what they know and their next steps in thinking, and how to optimize the partner “turn and talk.”

In my educational consultant toolbox, Empowering Students as Questioners has become one of the “Top 10 Must Haves” for engaged learning.

The strategies in this book will strengthen teaching through the use of gradual release and facilitation. It is replete with student-centered protocols and routines as well as sentence stems and prompts, so students are empowered as analytical and reflective questioners, optimizing their discourse for comprehension, achievement, and citizenship.

Of course, you want all of your students to talk and be ignited to learn. This book can serve as your guide as you shift from your role as questioner and evaluator (whatever grade or content area you teach, on-site and remotely) to a role of facilitator and guide as your students become more active learners.

The process, Walsh shows us, begins with identifying the question types and the purpose of each, and then discussing what makes a good question.

The four types of questions are:

student self-questioning: meta-cognitive to monitor thinking and learning; and cognitive to make meaning and think through problems and tasks;
academic: to clarify and deepen understanding of content;
exploratory: to spark curiosity and creativity; and
dialogic: to understand others’ perspectives; and to engage in collaborative thinking and learning.

As a coach, I always advise teachers to include questions in their lesson plans. Consider each of these question types, from students’ and teachers’ perspectives, so you can envision what such questioning would look like in your classroom.

Building classroom and school-wide consistency

Walsh explains how to strategically position formal requests for student questions in the unit or lesson, and how to provide feedback about questions to improve their quality and go deeper.

Every chapter focuses on one of the question types and follows the same process for developing student capacity as questioners, with student-facing tables listing skills, sample prompts and stems, plus “use when.”

Build a culture of questioning with school-wide consistency with these three pillars:

  1. recognize and develop the features and functions of quality questions;
  2. employ two think times intentionally; and
  3. engage every student’s voice in class interactions by eliminating hand-raising.
Getting started

Begin with the student’s mindframe as the learning target, with anchor charts, to name the question type and the personal “why” so students understand the value and develop self-efficacy. Rather than responding to the teacher’s questions, students can interact with each other to take learning deeper with dialogic questions such as “What’s your evidence?” and “Is there an alternative explanation of ___?” (page 104).

“Developing student capacity to self-question can facilitate the metacognitive functioning required to put students in charge of their learning,” Walsh writes (page 58). For example: “I ask questions to myself to reflect on and monitor my thinking and learning.”

Replace wait time with think time! Why didn’t anyone ever tell us this? The teacher poses a question, followed by Think Time 1 for students to process – “What is the question asking? What do I think I know?” Then after some independent thinking in Think Time 2, students share with a partner and think together to consider if they agree/disagree, can add on, or have questions, before whole group discussion.

Helpful tips and resources

Walsh includes planning tips to help us use reflection and questioning in the daily warm-up, advice on when to strategically place questioning within the lesson, and how to “afford practice with feedback” and invite reflection. She shows teachers how to model the skills and strategies with think aloud and facilitation notes for each question type; use the thinking routines developed by Project Zero; improve the structures for turn and talk (using Insight-Question Pairs and Praise-Question-Polish); and employ protocols such as Round Robin Questioning, Speed Dating, and The Four A’s.

Walsh notes, “Explicit teaching of these skills, clearly explaining the what, why, and when, is essential. Students will learn these skills from teacher modeling and from opportunities to practice individually and with partners and from ongoing feedback.” (p.53)

These teacher-tested structures – illustrated in many video examples across grades and subjects at the publisher’s website – are also spotlighted for adaptability in online teaching settings. Each chapter’s “Curtain Call” revisits key ideas and questions for personal reflection.

What question do you need to answer in the next step in your professional learning? Begin by reading Empowering Students as Questioners! No question about it, you and your students will become empowered thinkers and communicators!

Read a MiddleWeb article by Jackie Walsh based on this book.

Since attaining her Masters from Teachers College, Columbia University, and later National Board Certification, education consultant Helene Alalouf relishes opportunities to share her passion and informed fluency of research-evident principles. Her goal is to help ensure a productive learning environment, cognitively and affectively, to support educators and families in realizing their vision. Learn more about her consulting here. At leisure, Helene enjoys walking and cooking with family and friends, reading, and knitting.

4 Moves to Help Tweens Overcome Math Anxiety

This school year Chicago teacher Mona Iehl is writing a series about teaching mathematics in the middle grades (5-8) for MiddleWeb. We learned about Mona’s work last spring when she contributed a video-enriched post about her pandemic teaching strategies. In her first post of the new series she focuses on creating a strong classroom culture.

By Mona Iehl

A classroom community is something I work on all year long. At the beginning of the year I pay particular attention to laying the foundation that our middle grades community will stand on throughout the months to come.

Math class brings certain challenges and requires special attention when forming a community. Many of my students enter my math class with negative math experiences and associations. My goal is that each student feels a sense of safety and belonging as we explore math together.

Part of creating that sense of belonging is making sure students feel seen, heard, and understood in our math community. With strong relationships and open communication we will push each other to reach expectations and goals we never dreamed possible.

What Do We Mean by Strong?

Let’s start by defining what makes a strong classroom community.

Creating common definitions is a practice I use when creating our classroom foundations. Involving my students in the creation of these common definitions helps them feel their opinions are valued and builds their investment in the community.

Take a moment to think to yourself about how you would describe a solid classroom community.

Here’s my list of what makes a community strong:

  1. Relationships with students and among students.
  2. Collaboration among students and adults to make sense of mathematics, solve complex problems, and support one another through challenges.
  3. Every classroom community feels like a safe and welcoming home. Students know they can share their whole self and take risks because the community is a safe place to do so.
  4. Every student is an equal member of the community and every voice is valued.

Building the Community Foundation

As we start the year I use these four activities to help establish our math classroom community.

► Math Attitude Survey

This is a simple, one page survey that allows students to communicate their experiences, interests, and hesitancy with math. A few things I ask on the survey include their willingness to ask for help and their homework routine at home.

Each question helps me understand them better as mathematicians and create classroom activities to address their current math mindsets. I use the data gathered from these surveys to fuel class conversations about how we want to form our math classroom.

For example, if I notice that many students “give up when math gets hard” then we might begin by focusing on Math Practice Standard #1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. I use the information from the survey to help me plan lessons to address my students’ math mindset, executive functioning and work habits.

Sharing Math Stories

Telling our math stories allows us to share our math identity with the community. A math identity is how students see themselves as mathematicians. We spend time at the start of the year reflecting on our past math experiences and drafting math stories. Then, students (and teacher) share their stories with the group.

Sharing our math stories helps us get to know one another in ways we may not ever have thought about. Students find affirmation in knowing that their classmates also feel intimidated by math or that others also secretly love homework.

Although it is challenging to be vulnerable and share your personal experiences of struggle, students find this experience helps them identify parts of their math past they want to overcome. Math stories also help me get to know the students better and in turn form better relationships with each of them. 

Establishing Math Norms

Norm creation is a must in math class. So often our students enter math with big feelings, and it is essential we ensure that safety is upheld. My students and I co-create norms for just about everything we do in math- independent work time, group work, homework, discussions, etc.

Norm creation happens in five simple steps:

  1. Describe the situation we are creating norms for.
  2. Brainstorm a list of how you want that time to go, ideally. Then brainstorm a list of how you don’t want that to go.
  3. Share your ideas with the group.
  4. Agree on the list of norms as a community.
  5. Commit to holding each other to following these norms.

This process of norm creation is even better when it directly follows an experience in which norms are needed. So I like to have my students work on a group challenge prior to forming norms. Then as we debrief the challenge and students start to point out some issues they faced while working in groups, it naturally leads us to a great discussion about needing the norms.

Creating a Shared Math Vision

Creating a math vision is essential to keeping me focused on what really matters in my math classroom community. A math vision allows me to prioritize what I value and how I want my students to experience math in our classroom.

To create my math vision I create a list of 5 to 10 statements about my ideal math classroom. Then I develop actionable steps for both adults and students to help enact the vision. I like to get my students involved in creating the vision, as well. Typically we start the conversation with a prompt to dream up their ideal math class.

After partnerships or small groups have had a chance to dream big, they contribute their “ideal math class” ideas to a whole class anchor chart. The best part is when I look at them all *very serious and excited* and say, “This looks perfect!”

Usually they’re very confused and taken off guard, and students start yelling out things like:  “Wait, are you serious?”,  “No homework?”, “We can pick our own groups?”, etc. When I allow my students to create their ideal math class, the buy-in and motivation is unbeatable.

Obviously I always have those few comments that just aren’t ideal, but they make for a great conversation. For example, “I want easy problems with no challenge” allows us to talk about the joy we will find in complex problems this year and how challenges are the way we learn.

I Know It’s Hard – But Take the Time!

Every year it gets a bit more challenging to fend off the start of the curriculum and make the time to establish community. However, I know that when I lay a solid foundation and build sound walls, our math community can withstand a year of wild learning and any storm that comes our way.


Mona Iehl (@LocalLearnersandCo) is a fifth and sixth grade math teacher at Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago, Illinois. Mona started her career 14 years ago teaching in the primary grades at Polaris but found her home in the middle grades six years ago. Mona recently took her passion for helping teachers and students find their inner mathematician to the blog world, and you can visit her Local Learners website for more teaching ideas.

Bringing More Empathy into Your Classroom

By Katelyn Oellerich, Ed.S.

What is Empathy?

Have you ever shared a vulnerable moment with someone about something that’s been tough for you, just to be met with an “at least” or “but look at the bright side…”?

For me there have been many occasions, but one that stands out is when I was having a particularly tough week at work. I shared my frustrations of feeling down about my week with a relative. My relative responded with, “Well, at least you have the summer to look forward to.”

This conversation took place in February. I was livid. I not only felt unheard, but also as though my frustration and general feeling of exhaustion were not worthy of concern because “I had the summers off.”

Soon after this conversation I was introduced to the Empathy Video by Brené Brown. The examples given of responses that people seem to think are helpful but really are not were so relatable to my experiences that I wanted to share the video with everyone I knew.

I restrained myself, but I have since sought to bring this need for an empathic response into my work with students in our schools. The ideas and experiences I share here might be helpful to you as well.

Justin’s Story

If you’ve ever supported a student with challenging behaviors, you’re aware of how hard it can be to remain calm and consider their perspective. However, if you’re able to do this with empathy, it can be life altering for the child.

During my first couple of years as a school psychologist I worked with a student whom we’ll call Justin. Justin was a child that showed a lot of impulsive behaviors. One day Justin ran out of his classroom and into my office.

I was not able to fully grasp his reason for doing this, but I did understand that he came to me because he didn’t feel like he was being heard by his teacher.

After close to an hour of processing in various ways, Justin’s body was calmed enough to return to the classroom. We had thought through what would happen when he returned to his room, and he was feeling good about himself.

We walked up to the room, he apologized to the teacher, and we planned to move forward. However, the teacher was still frustrated. It was written on her face, and when she heard the apology she explained to him all of the things he had missed while he was gone.

I watched as I saw his face droop and his eyes begin to dart. Then he was off. He fled the space and was now running throughout the school again.

Restorative Conversations

Justin is not an isolated student. Although his behaviors were extreme, all kids hate to disappoint us. They pick up on those micro-facial cues, they feel hurt when their wrong doings are continually discussed, and they want more than anything to feel heard and understood.

Restorative Conversations is one powerful tool I recommend to consistently incorporate empathy into classrooms and schools while also positively impacting behavior.

Reflecting on this episode early in my professional practice, the conversation with Justin could have gone much better if it had included more restorative components.

1. A brief discussion about what had happened

Teacher: “Can you help me understand what was going on today during math? I was really surprised when you ran out of the classroom and worried when you didn’t come back for a while.”

Student: (shrugs) “I don’t know. I didn’t have my homework done and you never listen when I try to explain why I didn’t get it done. You just look mad.”

2. Understanding and empathy toward how the student felt

Teacher: “I know you have a lot going on at home, and finding time to get homework done can be a challenge. How were you feeling when you ran out of the classroom?”

Student: “I was feeling embarrassed and mad. You don’t understand.”

Teacher: “Yes, I can see that you felt embarrassed and mad. What could I do to help?”

3. What the student needed

Student: “I don’t have time when I get home to do my homework. I need to take care of my little sister and brother.”

Teacher: “Okay, what do you think about us making time during school for you to try and get more homework done? Maybe before or after school? Or, we could work together during lunch?”

Student: “Yea, maybe that could help.”

4. Who was impacted

Teacher: “Good, so it sounds like we have a plan. Now, I want you to think about how running out of the room impacts others. How do you think that affected me and your classmates?”

Student: “It distracted from their learning and made you feel worried.”

5. What needed to be done to fix the situation

Teacher: “Yes, you’re right. What do you think needs to be done next time instead?”

Student: “I could talk to you and make a plan to do my homework.”

Teacher: “That sounds like a great idea. Now, let’s get back to the class. I know you’re enjoying Dog Boy and we are independent reading right now.”

In addition, if the teacher had been in the middle of a lesson and was not able to take part in such a conversation at that time, a plan should have been made to re-visit the situation with the student while starting by welcoming them back to the class. For example:

“Welcome back, Justin. Right now everyone in the class is learning about multiplication. You and I will take some time to talk about what happened more privately during lunch. Go take your seat and you can get out your math book.”

For more information about Restorative Conversations, this toolkit at WestEd’s SEL Center provides teachers, counselors and school leaders with strategies and resources for engaging in this kind of dialogue with students – including techniques for laying the groundwork and useful starter questions and phrases.

Building Empathy

Just like adults, our students will respond better when we offer an empathic response. They will feel more heard and understood which often leads to better academic outcomes as well.

Our students will pick up and show more empathy the more that we model and teach empathy within the classroom.

Justin’s case of course is meant to be used in as-needed situations. Empathy can be taught and incorporated daily and/or through structured lesson plans as well. Teaching empathy in these ways can help to build your classroom community and set up an expectation of kindness and understanding.


More Tips and Resources

►Mental Health Check-In

Have students write their name on the back of a post it and stick it on a sign that has columns that indicate how they are feeling that day (e.g.; I’m Great, I’m Okay, I’m Meh, I’m struggling and would like a check in, I’m in a dark place).  For students who are feeling low, ask them to join you for a few minutes after class or during lunch to check in.

For more information about the mental health check-in visit, see this Good Morning America story.

►Lesson Plans on Empathy

Utilize Books. Here is an inclusive list of options: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/lists/books-that-teach-empathy

Discuss YouTube videos (e.g.; https://nobully.org/initiative/burger-king/ )

Discussion questions for books or videos might include:

• What example(s) of empathy did you notice?
• What examples did you notice caused harm?
• Have you ever experienced harm in this way (e.g.; someone ignoring, someone laughing, someone being mean)? How did it make you feel?
• Have you ever experienced genuine empathy from someone? How did it make you feel?
• How do you think we can better incorporate empathy into our school?

Note: These types of discussions can be challenging as they involve some vulnerability. Therefore, the lesson might be more impactful if done in pairs or small groups, or if students are given an opportunity to write and reflect.


Katelyn Oellerich, Ed.S. is a school psychologist in Mineral Point, WI in her 8th year and has had experience in both urban and rural settings. She has presented research focused on Mindfulness and Planning and Organization Skills and has additional training in social-emotional learning, art therapy, trauma sensitive schools, Families and Schools Together, and gender inclusive practices. Katelyn enjoys supporting student engagement by empowering relationships at school.

12 Characteristics of Deliberate Homework

12 Characteristics of Deliberate Homework
By Erik Youngman
(Routledge/Eye On Education, 2020 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Michael McLaughlin

As Head of Middle School, I frequently speak with students about their coursework. It is exciting to hear about the labs they’ve completed in science, the novel they are reading – or writing! – in English, or the game-ified review activity that prepared them for their quiz in Mandarin.

Inevitably, the topic of homework will get every student talking: “What is for homework again?” “I have so much homework to do.” “Yes! No homework tonight.” And, of course, “I forgot my homework!”

In as much as students talk about homework, it is vital that educators dialogue about this topic as well. 12 Characteristics of Deliberate Homework by Erik Youngman is a resource designed to encourage educators to think and talk about homework with real intention.

Youngman posits that there are twelve characteristics that can make homework reasonable, meaningful, informative, and consistent.

These characteristics work best when approached through the prism of his ambitious acronym “DELIBERATE” — differentiate, explain, learn, implement, bolster, empower, reflect, ask, terminate, and entrust.

Youngman examines what homework can look like and provides practical and pragmatic strategies for educators to calibrate the purpose and structure of homework.

The Point of Homework

Homework is a vehicle that can enhance student academic outcomes. Homework provides an opportunity for students to build on individual strengths while also being supported in their areas of growth. As an extension of classroom learning, homework should reflect best practices in teaching. Independent practice exercises can deepen students’ understanding of a skill or pique their interest about a new topic.

Homework is also a part of the feedback loop for students, families, and teachers as students develop towards greater independence and mastery. Homework can empower student learners with confidence, curiosity, and a capacity to construct connections between their classroom learning and applications in the wider world. Ultimately, when done well, homework assignments can contribute towards igniting and sustaining a mindset of continuous learning.

What is “DELIBERATE” Homework?

Youngman defines “deliberate homework” as “intentionally planned purposeful school work completed outside of the classroom that is reasonable, meaningful, informative, and consistent.” The “DELIBERATE” homework framework presents 10 action items that teachers should consider when creating a homework assignment: differentiate, explain, learn, implement, bolster, empower, reflect, ask, terminate, and entrust.

Take, for example, the translation of a short story from Latin class and some of the questions that a teacher might think about before students ever jot the homework assignment into their agenda books:

Differentiate: How have I adapted to the learning needs of my students? Do the students have the grammatical and vocabulary background to translate the story accurately at home?

Explain: Have I made my expectations clear about the resources students can use or how they should submit their work?

12 Characteristics in Four Domains

Youngman identifies 12 characteristics that fall under four domains – reasonable, meaningful, informative, and consistent – which both individually and collectively have the capacity to improve the efficacy of homework tasks and our mindsets about homework.

The characteristics of completion time, appropriate complexity, and frequency fall under the umbrella of reasonableness. In this domain, educators are asked to consider the quality of the work and the resources – time, structure, and support – needed for students to complete homework and meet the learning target.

Making homework meaningful will help answer the perennial question students seem to ask: “Why does this matter?”. By being deliberate about purpose, learning targets, learning mindset, format, and sequence, educators can help students to see the relevancy of independent practice to their work as learners.

The characteristics of communication, critique, and grading criteria contribute to making homework informative. Rather than homework being a task for students to complete, these characteristics integrate homework into the feedback loop by providing a mechanism to monitor a student’s academic progress.

Finally, consistency in implementation binds Youngman’s entire approach together. This final characteristic invites educators to evaluate and refine the role of homework within their teaching practice.

Chapter Structure Designed with Reflection, Action, & Growth in Mind

Youngman’s consistent chapter structure allows educators to utilize this resource to monitor and modify their own practice. Each chapter begins with a definition of one of the 12 characteristics followed by a series of self-assessment questions. A narrative section provides a deeper dive into the characteristic by outlining what it is, why it matters, and how to implement the plan.

A series of primary questions is designed to guide a teacher’s reflection on individual homework assignments and a philosophy towards homework. A chapter implementation planner then coaches educators to identify topics to investigate, discuss, reflect on, and change. In this way, Youngman provides a roadmap that encourages teachers to put theory into practice.

Finally, a section of continuous improvement questions about each characteristic – using Youngman’s 10-component “deliberate” model – supports teachers in further elevating their approach to homework.

By offering up to 120 areas of questioning that a teacher can posit about various homework tasks, the book becomes a framework for growth rather than an intimidating checklist of 120 items that a teacher should consider for every piece of homework assigned.

Putting Theory into Practice

Youngman’s book is a helpful resource for novice and master teachers alike. The reflection questions could be used to chart an individual improvement plan or to provide a framework for a team of teachers to explore the design and implementation of homework in a small group.

The consistent structure of the book, examples of implementation, and actionable strategies support educators in fine tuning an important element of their craft. Indeed, as “homework” for educators, Youngman’s 12 Characteristics of Deliberate Homework promises to deliver on the very point of homework — inspiring a mindset of continual learning and growth.

Michael McLaughlin is the Head of Middle School at Austin Preparatory School in Reading, Massachusetts. The 2019 recipient of the A+ Administrator Award from the New England League of Middle Schools, McLaughlin also facilitates workshops for the Salem State Collaborative Project and has appeared on “The Teacher As” podcast. McLaughlin is also on the advisory board of Buckingham Education Limited in the United Kingdom where he advises on virtual learning.

Ways We Can Spark Student Reflection

Help students become metacognitive thinkers through self-conferencing, portfolio creation, and goal setting. Have you tried a single-point rubric?

By Lynne R. Dorfman

If we want our students to learn how to reflect on their writing and reading, then we must look for different classroom routines that build in time for meaningful contemplation.

In classrooms that support authentic reflection, students practice to improve their awareness and their ability to analyze their own thinking processes (metacognition).

In writing instruction, a natural consequence is that they engage in a struggle with the quality of their writing pieces – viewing the writing process as recursive instead of linear, and embedding revision and editing across the process and as early as the prewriting (planning) stage.

Routinely reflecting on reading helps students learn to think about how their reading selections have changed and encourages them to read more regularly – promoting content mastery and fostering student development of monitoring, self-evaluation, and reflection skills.

If we imagine our students as essential evaluators of their process, then we are promising them one of the best opportunities that a classroom can afford – the opportunity to help blaze their own trail throughout their literacy journey.

Reflection leads to good decisions

We must ask ourselves what are the most effective practices we can use to help students make successful decisions about their writing and reading? By exercising our own metacognition and examining how we delegate student responsibility for self-assessment and ongoing reflection, we can determine:

  • what is working for our students and for us,
  • what new strategies we may choose to adapt, and
  • what value our students will ultimately place on reflection as a part of the learning process.

If our priority goal is to teach our students how to learn instead of what to learn, then we must recognize that students cannot blaze their own pathways if they are not regularly engaging in self-reflection. Self reflection fuels self direction.

When students engage in a close reading of their work for purposes of self assessment and reflection, they are making choices about what to keep and what to change. Our teaching practices can help our students learn to value this regular reflection as an essential part of their learning process.

So how do we create these opportunities for students to be the essential evaluators of their reading, writing and, ultimately, learning processes? Here are some ideas.

► Self-Conferences, Portfolios, and Goal Setting

Self-evaluation does not happen magically. Students need to learn to reflect through practice. We encourage students to be reflective by making reflection part of the writing and reading experience: What did you write today that you are proud of? What did you work hard at today? What did you learn about writing opinion today?

Students may pair with a partner to share their answers to these questions, write responses in their writer’s or reader’s notebook, or share their thoughts with the whole class. If we believe self-assessment and reflection are valuable, we make time for this self-conferencing in our daily practice.

When we build in opportunities for reflection, we also ask students to become familiar with goal setting. Portfolio systems usually ask them to create both short- and long-term goals with a teacher or by themselves.

Often, discussion about writing goals begins in writing workshop as a whole group discussion. Later, students and their teacher can work together to set goals in student-teacher conferences, after the students have had a chance to think about possible goals by reviewing their portfolio and writer’s notebook.

Reflection is key to developing an authentic portfolio. Students respond well to the challenge of evaluating their own work by selecting pieces for their showcase portfolio.

A reflective essay can be a whole-class activity. Ask students to write an essay to discuss how their writing (or reading) has improved during the first/second half of the year (or the semester). Ask them to include some examples to back up their ideas, using evidence from their portfolio selections. The students can close their essay by giving themselves the grade they think they deserve for that marking period or year.

These essays can be included in the students’ portfolios as a letter to readers. Above are some questions your students can use to reflect on a piece (artifact) of their own writing. Using a form like this one can be less stressful and threatening when students are learning how to offer reflections. Eventually, students can choose their own format to tag artifacts included in their portfolio or offer final reflections on their writing and reading progress.

Single-Point Rubrics

I first learned of the single-point rubric from Jennifer Gonzalez at her Cult of Pedagogy website. Have you ever questioned the value of typical rubrics that provide your students with stock descriptions of what is proficient, not quite proficient and not satisfactory at all? What if, instead, you help them wholly focus their attention on what you want them to strive for and attain?

The single-point rubric only describes what students are aiming for and lists three or four areas they are going to work on as they draft, revise, and edit their work. There’s a whole lot less reading of handouts for them to do – and that is so helpful, particularly for your striving literacy learners.

A single-point rubric provides open-ended areas for students to comment on their progress toward the criteria. Their comments can help teachers give timely and ongoing feedback during one-on-one conferences.

Students can set doable short and/or long term goals with the teacher before they leave the conference. They might also write a reflection in their writer’s notebook about what they will do this week or in the next weeks to realize their goal(s). 

3-2-1 Strategy

This useful strategy gives students a chance to reflect by using three questions or statements. The beauty of this practice is its perfect fit for use across the content areas.

In social studies class, the teacher can ask the students to summarize three big ideas gleaned from the text, share two insights about what aspects of their reading are most interesting to them, and ask one question about the text.

In writing workshop, students can write about three things they have tried today, two questions they are still wondering about, and one thing they will try in the next writing session.

Another example of the 3-2-1 strategy is to use a reader’s notebook to record the title and author(s) of the book and write about three things they’ve discovered, two interesting or surprising things, and one question they have for the author or another reader of the text.

The advantage of the 3-2-1 strategy is its flexible nature to engage K-12 students actively and meaningfully with text. Here are some ideas about using the 3-2-1 strategy to promote critical thinking and reflection.

The 3-2-1 strategy also gives students a voice in class routines and immediate feedback so you can make adjustments as you move from day to day. Allowing your students to share what they know and what they don’t know helps you provide more support by differentiating instruction and/or doing some reteaching when it’s appropriate.

Using this particular framework as an exit slip will bring closure to class time and allows you to look for patterns and trends related to students’ understanding of the minilessons and strategies/skills presented and developed during class.

Don’t give up on reflection!

Building in reflection isn’t easy – it takes a lot of practice. Growing student writers and readers never happens instantly. It happens over time. But it isn’t accidental either. It takes persistence and a boatload of patience.

Don’t give up if you are disappointed with students’ initial attempts at reflection. As students continue to have opportunities to share their reflections, they will improve. Daily reflection will help them become metacognitive thinkers who imagine the possibilities arising from their own efforts and make choices for independent writing and reading time that are sensible and meaningful.


Lynne R. Dorfman is the author of Welcome to Writing Workshop (with Stacey Shubitz) and many other books. She is an adjunct professor at Arcadia University and a co-editor for PAReads: Journal of Keystone State Literacy Association.

Lynne is currently finishing her eighth book for Stenhouse Publishers, Welcome to Reading Workshop, with co-author and literacy teacher Brenda Krupp. Watch for it later this year!

Prepping for My Next Google Classroom

By Kathleen Palmieri

As the new school year approaches, I’ve spent a great deal of time organizing files, cleaning out, and redesigning my physical classroom. Now I am organizing my digital files and redesigning a fresh new Google Classroom.

However, before creating a new Google Classroom, I need to ensure that I’ve completed a few important tasks that I will detail below.

Leftovers and Exemplars

Prior to archiving my classroom, I need to ensure that all work has been returned to my former students. There are two ways that I can do this. One way is to click into my Google Classroom where I will see four sections listed: “Stream,” “Classwork,” “People,” and “Grades.” I choose “Grades” and check that all work has been returned.

To return any work, I’ll click on the three dots next to the assignment title and choose to “Return all.” This can also be done by going to my Google Classroom screen (classroom.google.com) where I can see all of my Google Classroom tiles. Above the tiles I can select from “To Do,” “To review,” and “Calendar.” I click on “To review” and check for any unreturned work.
It is important to remove former students from my class before I archive. If I don’t, the students may not be able to interact with the new classes, but they will be able to see new assignments, etc. To ensure academic integrity, it is best to unenroll past students. I simply click on “people” and select “all” to remove them from my classroom.

However, prior to doing this, I need to decide on any student work I’d like to save as exemplars for future lessons and make a copy. Once I delete a student from my class, I will no longer have any access to their work.

Under the Classwork Tab

The next two areas that I recommend cleaning up can be found by clicking the “Classwork” tab. There you’ll notice in the upper right corner of the screen “Go to Google Calendar ” and “Class Drive Folder.”

First click on Google Calendar to see a calendar for each class. Next to each class are three dots with options to “Display this only,” “Hide from List” or “Settings and sharing.” You can “Hide from the list” or choose “Settings and sharing,” scroll to the bottom, and delete from the calendar.
Next click on the second tab, “Class Drive Folder.” This is a master folder that is automatically created when you create a Google Classroom. Please do not delete this folder! As you create more classes, Google automatically creates subfolders in the Class Drive Folder.

You can create a new folder within the master folder to use for organizing – name it “Archive 2020-2021” or something similar. This is where you can move the assignments from that year. Also, create a subfolder for any Exemplary Work you copied/saved for ease in retrieving later.

I highly suggest not deleting old work because as a Google Suite for Education user, you have unlimited space, and once work is deleted it is gone forever.

You can also access your classroom folder by going into your main Google Drive interface and find the folder “Classroom.” To create an archived subfolder from this entry point, click on the menu triangle to the right of “Classroom”, choose “New Folder” and save with an appropriate name. Now you can move other classroom folders into this archive folder. Repeat this process to create your “Exemplary Student Work” folder.

Using the Old Classroom as a Template

I recommend making a copy of your classroom from last year before archiving to help build your new Google Classroom. I am going to use my copy as a template for my new class, so I’ll name it “Template.”

My template will have no people or announcements, but the assignments, topics, resources, etc. that I previously posted are now saved in draft form. While I can see them in my teacher’s view, students would not be able to see them until I choose to assign them.

After I create my template for 2021-2022, it’s time to archive my old classroom. I can always get to my archived classes from the upper left menu, scrolling down to “Enrolled” and clicking on “Archived classes,” then “restore.” You can also choose to “reuse (a) post” by going into the menu and choosing the assignment.

Now I am able to use my template to create a new school year Google Classroom. By closing out my previous classroom, I’ve also had time to review what worked and what I will be sure to do in the new classroom. Here are a few items on my list of things to keep me organized, avoid digital clutter, and save time:

► LESSON LEARNED: Hide notifications for assignments on the stream

Go to the Settings gear icon in the upper right corner and scroll down to “Classwork on the stream” and choose to “hide notifications.” The only items I have on the stream are my announcements. Students will learn that all assignments will show up under “Classwork.”

► LESSON LEARNED: Limit student activity on the stream

While in settings, go to “Stream” and limit what students can do by choosing “Students can only comment.” Otherwise, students will be able to create a post and comment which can be problematic. Also, if allowing comments becomes a problem, you can choose “Only teachers can post or comment” at a later time.

► LESSON LEARNED: Labeling within “Classwork”

There are varied opinions on how to label topics within your Google Classroom. One idea is to label using weeks, such as “Week 1:” and then a date range. Teaching fifth grade students, I prefer to use topics such as “Writing,” “Social Studies,” “Resources,” etc. Here is an example of topics from my Math Google Classroom:

  • Math Games
  • Bitmoji Math Classroom
  • Mini-lessons
  • Math vocabulary
  • Exit Tickets
  • Jamboard
  • Math Antics
  • Special Assignments
►LESSON LEARNED: Creating a comment bank

This is a great place to store frequently used teacher comments. To do this, go into “Classwork” and open an assignment, and the grading dashboard will open. There you will find a column with two icons – hover over the second icon, and it will say “Comment Bank.”

Click on the icon and it will open your Comment Bank. Click on the plus sign “Add to Bank”; it will bring up a dialogue box where you can add a comment or multiple comments to your bank. Simply type in each comment that you want to save for later sharing with students in separate lines in the comment box then click add.

If you are creating a longer comment, just keep typing. It will save it as one comment until you create a manual line break. Once you have a line break, each of the lines will come in as a separate comment.

As the school year unfolds and you type a comment you want to use again, simply click on the three dots within the comment box and choose “Add to comment bank.” To use it again, simply highlight text, right click, choose “comment” and type in a “#”. Then you can choose your comment from those you’ve saved. This is a great timesaver when grading!

Checking what my students will see

Finally, once I have my Google Classroom set up, I like to sign in as a student from my other (personal) gmail account. This helps me see how the classroom will appear to my students.

Once I feel my Google Classroom is complete, I will create a fun scavenger hunt as a beginning of the year activity for my students to help them become familiar with how to navigate my Google Classroom.


For more about Google Classroom basics, visit Google’s Help pages.
You can also search for teacher-made help videos on YouTube. Example.


Kathleen Palmieri is a National Board Certified Teacher and NBCT Professional Learning facilitator. She is a fifth grade educator in upstate New York who reviews and contributes regularly for MiddleWeb. With a passion for literacy and learning in the classroom, she participates in various writing workshops, curriculum writing endeavors, new teacher induction development, and math presentations.

As a lifelong learner, Kathie is an avid reader and researcher of educational practices and techniques. Collaborating with colleagues and globally on Twitter @Kathie042500 and expanding her education adventures at www.kathleenpalmieri.com are ongoing practices.

Knowing WHEN to Use Technology in Class

Technology with Intention: Designing Meaningful Literacy & Technology Integration 
By Suzanne Kelly and Elizabeth Dobler
(Heinemann, 2021 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Kathleen Palmieri

Educational technology has never been so important or overwhelming as it has been the last few years. As we try to pull it all together after a tumultuous 12 months, we could use some helpful advice from the field.

Two teacher educators – Suzanne Kelly & Elizabeth Dobler – have written a book that does not simply guide us through incorporating technology into our classrooms. Kelly and Dobler also pose questions that help us decide whether or not to use technology. They ask us to consider our intention and how we integrate the technology with our specific plan for instruction.

Technology with Intention (2021) is part of Heinemann’s crisply written “Not This But That” series (it’s just 96 pages). The authors break the book into three parts, first delving into the negative aspects of letting the tech drive the teaching with a section titled “Not This: Technology Dictating Literacy Instruction.”

Section Two asks, “What Works? Technology That Supports Active Literacy Learning,” and Section Three explores “Responsive Planning of Technology for Literacy Learning.”

Readying teachers and students to use tech

There are many factors surrounding the use of educational technology that need serious consideration. The first is the overwhelming feelings and discomfort some teachers face when asked to keep up with the latest trends.

Sometimes we are so overwhelmed with everything we have to do that we succumb to pressure from colleagues or supervisors to keep up with technology, drawing on what others are doing rather than making decisions on our own. Without an informed sense of purpose, even the best tech will be poorly used.” (page 8)

Then we need to know our students, their needs, and what technology they have available to them, along with their level of skill is using the tech successfully. Equity becomes an issue when not all students have the tech tools available to succeed at learning virtually.

On page 48, Figure 3-2 offers a “Family Survey for Digital Access,” helping to determine need. On page 49 we find Figure 3-3, “Common Problems and Solutions for Digital Access.” Both these resources underscore the point that technology can’t simply be put out as a tool without providing the necessary instruction to use it and explaining the purpose for its use.

The human side of tech

As Kelly and Dobler discuss using technology effectively with digital literacy, we are reminded that “…simply putting devices into the hands of students is not enough” (page 14). While digital software may be able to detect a student’s reading level and track progress, it can’t replace the relationship that develops between student and teacher during a reading conference.

The physical cues and conversational clues that emerge in a conference are not detected by a software program. There needs to be a balance between digital and non-digital reading assessments and opportunities. “A teacher needs to have a strong knowledge of literacy goals, outside of the technology realm, to know how to utilize digital tools to their best advantage.” (page 54)

Offering both print and digital text is necessary, but students need to be some special skills that help them read digital texts effectively. Figure 3-9, “Prompts for Understanding Multimedia Texts” is a good teaching resource (page 59).

Integrating tech into curriculum

Inquiry based learning is an area where technology can enhance a student’s learning experience. The authors offer examples such as viewing time lapse plant growth to offer a deeper understanding of plant life – or using Google Maps/Earth to visit sites such as a World War II European battleground or Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The authors provide Figure 2-4, “Positive Effects for Students from Inquiry Learning with Technology” (page 19) and (building on this idea) Figure 3-7, which offers questions for “Self Directed Inquiry into Technology.” (page 55)

Technology with Intention includes many suggestions and questions to guide decision making in how we integrate technology into our curriculum., among them: “Further Resources for Bridging the Digital Divide” (Figure 3-5, page 52) and “Technology Decision-Making Guidelines for Teachers” (Figure 3-6, page 53).

Although this book is tagged as a K-5 resource, teachers in the upper middle grades will find much to think about and put to use.

My major takeaway from this book is that technology is not simply a tool to keep students busy or to create the impression that we are savvy and contemporary in our classrooms. Kelly and Dobler show us that technology, when used with intention, can help educators provide students with enhanced quality learning experiences.

Kathleen Palmieri is a National Board Certified Teacher and NBCT Professional Learning facilitator. She is a fifth grade educator in upstate New York who reviews professional texts and is a regular contributor for MiddleWeb. With a passion for literacy and learning in the classroom, she participates in various writing workshops, curriculum writing endeavors, and math presentations. As a lifelong learner, she is an avid reader and researcher of educational practices and techniques. Collaborating with colleagues and globally on Twitter @Kathie042500 and expanding her education adventures at www.kathleenpalmieri.com are ongoing practices.

Adolescents Thrive on Advocacy and Agency

Dru Tomlin’s new book The Middle Grades Mindset offers “A Lesson Plan from A-Z.” It turns out that the lessons are often those learned by Dru himself, over years as a teacher, PD coach, and principal – and during a stint on the AMLE staff as chief joy-bringer. We asked Dru to share just a taste from his rich alphabet soup.

By Dru Tomlin

I think advocacy and agency are critical pieces of string woven together in the fabric of middle grades student empowerment. They can’t be pulled apart. When treated with care, the fabric expands and offers security, welcome, and assurance for all students.

From a foodie perspective, they are also essential ingredients in the recipe of positive student growth that cannot be separated. As we allow them to simmer, their flavors complement each other and provide young adolescents with bottomless bowls of emotional nourishment, warmth, and trust.

While they need to always work together, let’s check out each one separately, shall we?

Advocacy First.

As This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010) states, an effective and amazing middle school is a place where “every student’s academic and personal development is guided by an adult advocate” (p. 35).

Yes, young adolescents thrive when they know there are reliable, consistent, caring adults in their lives. People who care about them beyond their content areas. People who think about them beyond their test scores. People who offer safe harbor when the adolescent seas get rough.

People who listen to them when the clouds of worry hover and linger. People who speak up for them when they feel like they have no voice. People who communicate – through both word and deed – that there is no such thing as the forgotten middle.

When advocates like this fill our middle schools, young adolescents don’t just attend school. They thrive.

How does this advocacy work happen? Through both expected and unexpected actions. Through scheduled, consistent mechanisms like advisory, interdisciplinary teams, and looping, students bloom because they are supported members of a smaller learning community.

Advocacy also happens through unscheduled, random acts of caring and relationship-building, making students flourish because they realize that positivity is a possibility in any class, doorway, hallway, bus stop, and cafeteria table.

And to be clear, the goal of advocacy work isn’t to create a system of dependency, where students think, believe, or feel like they can’t progress without an adult holding their hands. Rather, the aim is to foster an environment that encourages students to ask bold questions and explore because they know they have a safe place to land.

In fact, when young adolescents have advocates in the middle grades, they develop another powerful mindset: self-efficacy in all areas of their learning lives. When adult advocates are active in the middle grades, a student’s internal monologue of self-efficacy sounds like this:

“My math teacher cares about me and thinks I can do this, so I think I can do this, too. I may struggle, but she’s there when I need her. My reading teacher listens to me and tells me that I’m making progress, so I’m going to keep trying—even though reading is tough for me.

“I can do this. I can make this happen. I can achieve more than this. Because my teachers have my back.”

As students see themselves as actors in their own success, their self-efficacy grows. That’s one of the key by-products of advocacy in the middle grades, and that’s why it’s so essential.

Advocacy Brings About Agency.

Advocacy also drives agency, which is the invisible elevator that exists in every middle school.

Once students gain a sustained sense of self-efficacy (i.e., “I can do this math problem”), they also learn that they have the ability to change their lives beyond the school house. The empowerment they feel when they fix a run-on sentence, solve a science query, or develop a novel idea in social studies fosters more self-efficacy, more empowerment, and more agency.

Indeed, when young adolescents have a sense of agency, they begin to take on leadership roles in their schools and their communities – fixing neighborhood conflicts, solving local issues, developing novel ideas for authentic problems.

How does this agency work happen? Through our daily practice and through larger efforts. Agency is fostered when we promote growth mindset, challenge all students, and encourage creativity and purposeful risk-taking.

Agency is also grown through larger initiatives, such as service-learning projects. Not only do service-learning projects bring interdisciplinary learning to life, but they show young adolescents that they can research an issue that matters to them, that they can take action, and that they can have actual impact. That is agency in action.

Purposeful and On Target

This kind of learning also transforms how other people see middle school students. Instead of characterizing them as aimless, the community will begin to see them as purposeful and on target. In other words, the invisible elevator of agency has the ability to lift students up and take them to levels they once thought unachievable—and to show the world what young adolescents can achieve.

Here are five questions we can ponder together as we lead our students forward:

  1. How does your middle school advocate for all students?
  2. Do your students have a sense of agency? How do you know?
  3. What specific actions, initiatives, and programs are being used to foster agency in your school?
  4. Who advocates for you—as a teacher, administrator, staff member?
  5. Do you feel like you have agency over your learning life? Why or why not?

So, middle grades educators, buckle up and help me figure out how we take such a big, complex thing like middle level education and get to its essence. Grab the cognitive utensils in your mental kitchen and let’s discover how we can blend advocacy and agency into everything we do.


Dr. Dru Tomlin is Principal of Heritage Middle School in the Westerville (OH) City Schools. He taught middle and high school English Language Arts, Social Studies and Reading for 10 years in Virginia and in metro Atlanta GA, where he also served as principal at both the elementary and middle levels and was a Georgia Middle School Assistant Principal of the Year.

From 2013 to 2017 Dru was Director of Middle Level Services at the Association for Middle Level Education. His first book, The Middle Grades Mindset: A Lesson Plan from A-Z (AMLE, 2021) focuses on middle grades administrator and teacher leadership.

Tomlin earned his Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning and a M.S. in Educational Leadership from Georgia State University, a B.A. in English/Secondary Education from James Madison University, “and a Certificate of Perfect Attendance from Lynnhaven Junior High School.” Follow him on Twitter @DruTomlin4Edu.