It’s Emmy Award Time: Why Should We Care?

Most everyone still watches television, even if that watching means streaming from a mobile device or a smart TV.

We know our students watch less traditional television than earlier generations, but in 2019 (before Covid quarantining) the typical 13-year old spent about 40 hours a week (outside of school) looking at screens – network, cable, YouTube, Netflix, and other video sources included. (Source)

Television is still a huge industry. The advent of streaming services has meant more programming than ever before. Not only do many millions of us watch weekly, there are hundreds of thousands who are employed in the medium and related industries.

The annual prime-time EMMY Awards (honoring television’s best) are scheduled for Sunday September 19 (broadcast on CBS-TV and Paramount+). The awards are presented by the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences, also known as the TV Academy.

Our students’ continuing interest in media recognized by the Emmys the subject of this blogpost.

More about the Emmys

The Emmy Awards recognize those both in front of the camera (actors) as well as those behind the camera (cinematography, scriptwriters, casting, art direction, lighting, costumes and much more). In 2020, awards were given in 28 areas of the industry, broken down into 123 categories.

Traditional TV networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC) and cable (HBO, Showtime,  National Geographic, etc.) now compete with streaming services (Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, Disney+ et al) for EMMY Awards.

Nominations for major awards are announced in July each year and the winners are revealed in September in a globally televised ceremony. See who (and what) got nominated for the 2021 Emmy Awards in this Variety story. According to Variety:

HBO and HBO Max combined to take in a leading 130 total nominations, followed closely behind by Netflix with 129. Disney Plus had a significant jump from last year with 71 nominations in its second year of eligibility.

Netflix’s “The Crown” and Disney Plus’ “The Mandalorian” tied for a leading 24 nominations each, followed by Marvel and Disney Plus’ “WandaVision” with 23 and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” with 21.

TV & Diversity in the News

Historically many television watchers have paid little attention to who is “left out.” In recent years, however, advocacy groups have increasingly called attention to the general lack of diversity in front of and behind the cameras and this has become a major issue in the film and TV industries.

The diversity concerns include both workers in the industry and the representation of groups of individuals in scripts and on-screen. Issues of race, gender and physical or mental status are all part of the diversity debate. Misrepresentation and stereotyping of certain groups is another related topic worthy of exploration by your students, who might begin with the latest annual study (10/2020) from the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report.

What Does It Take To Win An Emmy?

Every year, TV-producing studios go to great lengths (and spend millions of dollars) to promote their shows, hoping to get the attention of Academy voting members.

That attention can take the form of “For Your Consideration” (FYC) advertisements in trade magazines; billboards in the areas around New York City and Los Angeles; and specially produced booklets highlighting what critics have said about a particular program. This year, Disney and HBO created “drive-in” theatre events to screen programs for voting members.

Here is an excellent site to view and analyze FYC advertising. Students might be interested in comparing heavily promoted programs with their eventual success (or lack thereof) in the Emmy Awards. Numerous FYC ads can also be found in the August 2020 issue of The Wrap magazine.

Activity: Task your students with creating a print advertisement touting a favorite series, similar to those used to promote TV shows during Emmy Award season. (Showing students current ads may be helpful here.) Most of these ads contain one or more testimonial quotes from critics.

Students should choose a program to promote and research previously published critic testimonials. Ask them what else must be in their ad? Who are they trying to reach? Where might they publish their ad to reach the Emmy voting audience?

Language of the Moving Image

In many of my previous posts here at MiddleWeb, I’ve referenced the fact that media are texts, which can be read, analyzed and deconstructed. Television is no different.

I define the “language of the moving image” as both the tools and techniques which create and imply meaning. How a camera moves; how lighting creates mood; how costumes and setting convey information; how music builds emotion – these are all ways teachers can explore how television communicates. See my specially designed web page for education resources.

The Common Core ELA standards encourage students to learn how the technical aspects of a medium contribute to its meaning and effectiveness. The middle grade standards also encourage students to “Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium’s portrayal of the subject.” An example would be a novel with its made-for-TV adaptation.

The PBS “Masterpiece” series is an excellent starting place to locate English literature productions which can be used to satisfy this specific standard. I also found teacher guides to “Jane Austen” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Identifying Structures within Genres

Since most English language arts teachers introduce genre in instruction, it seems natural to include TV to extend this learning. Asking students to name a science fiction program or series (for example) may result in answers such as “Stranger Things” (Netflix), “Star Trek” (Paramount/CBS), or a host of similar shows. See this brief discussion of TV genres for more insight.

In my workshops, I challenge teachers and students to go beyond simply identifying genre. They might also consider that specific genres use formulas.

For example, in the long running hour-long TV drama “Law and Order,” typically the crime occurs in the first few minutes, followed immediately by an investigation, a search for suspects and even some interrogations. By the second half-hour, the program moves into the trial phase. This is formula and you can almost set your watch to it. Even sit-coms (situation comedies) are formulaic. [See this revealing Atlantic article, Cracking The Sitcom Code.]

Activity: Using the list of current Emmy nominations, ask students to divide the nominations by genre and TV network. What conclusions can they draw? For example, what genre appears to be the favorite among this year’s Emmy voters? Which networks garnered the most nominations?


Students have favorite TV shows and genres. Experienced educators already know that they must take the time, and make the effort, to explore the popular culture texts of their students in order to engage them in learning.

Using television as an example is another great way to show we appreciate TV and acknowledge its ability to attract and build an audience.

I hope you will consider how you can encourage your students to conduct a close reading of television and how it can benefit their learning.

For even more background about the Emmys
see these earlier columns by Frank Baker:

Use the Emmy Awards to Teach Media Literacy

Use the Emmy Awards as a Versatile Teaching Tool

Recommended Resources

Just What Are The Awards Shows Awarding? (by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)

Diversity and Entertainment (Black Lives In The Media)

2 in 3 Black Americans Don’t See Themselves Represented in TV and Film

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

How To Win An Emmy: Secrets Revealed

Teaching Television to Empower Students (Subscription required)

Critical Media Literacy: TV Programs (lesson plans)

Media Literacy: Examining the World of TV Teens (lesson plan)

Can Television Be Considered Literature and Taught in English Classes?

Commercial and Advertising Techniques (lesson plan)

Read/Download TV Scripts Online

Emmy Magazine/website


Build a Joyful Bridge to Independent Reading

By Meghan Duermit and Sunday Cummins


Ever met a student who loves being with you during reading instruction? Who seems to thrive as a reader when you are present to coach but struggles during independent reading? Or fails to pick up a book on their own?

This actually may not be the reader’s problem. It may be a problem with reading instruction being detached from independent reading.


For many students, the two occur in different parts of the day, in different places, and even with different teachers. Students are left to make the jump on their own from a sheltered place for risk taking to the wilder world of reading on their own.

So how do we bridge the two experiences so that we ensure students actually practice what they have learned? In a previous article, we shared approaches Meghan has found helpful in her practice as a literacy specialist:

  • maintaining a small library of high-interest books for students to choose from;
  • coaching students on how to pick “just right” books; and
  • making time to confer with students while they begin to read those books.

Since we wrote that article, Meghan has added another approach – inviting students to give a brief talk about a book they are enjoying reading independently. This “quick talk” has a lot of potential for bridging the gap between instruction and joyful independent reading. The table below includes tips for implementing book talks.

A Sense of Community Develops

When students share, they may reveal more about who they are beyond the reading table. One of Meghan’s fifth grade students, Evelyn (all students’ names are pseudonyms), arrived in the United States from Nigeria when she was in third grade.

The book talks (as well as other conversations during instruction) became a way for Evelyn to share the connections she made to her life in Nigeria – connections that helped her make better sense of what she was reading.

Evelyn’s book talks revealed to her peers not only a book they might want to read and what they could do to make sense of texts, but also how wide the world is. In a sense, as part of the book talk experience, our students become more visible to others, including us.

Reading Interests Expand

Over the course of the year, students shared titles in a wide variety of genres and formats from picture and chapter books to graphic novels. Due to the pandemic, Meghan taught much of the year virtually so students also shared digital texts they were enjoying like webcomics.

When Meghan surveyed her students at the end of the year, over and over again, students expressed gratitude for being able to hear about what their peers were reading. There were comments like “it was interesting what other people were reading” and it was “helpful learning about books.”

Evelyn from Nigeria said, “I like sharing ideas. If you like it very much, you might share it and they might like it.” Many students noted that as a result of the book sharing, they read specific titles someone recommended. Addy, a 4th grade student, shared, “I got interested in The Baby-Sitters Club series from someone that presented!”

Teaching Points Emerge

The titles students are sharing can become a data point that can inform instruction. Meghan kept notes on a simple chart with details about who shared, the title of their book and a little bit about the content of their talk. This helped her identify useful teaching points. The table below includes possible teaching points that might surface.

The Joy of Personal Reading Increases

Some students do not enjoy reading. This may be because it is difficult or because they have not encountered reading materials that spark their interest.

Last year Meghan surveyed her students about their interest in reading at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the year. Many revealed an increased interest in reading. While it’s impossible to say why this happened for each student, effective instruction and their opportunity to engage with a community of readers sharing books they’d enjoyed probably had some influence.

Whatever the reasons, book sharing seemed to have a positive impact on many students’ sense of agency as readers. As student Diamond responded when asked about the benefits of the book shares, “You get smarter.”

Meghan Duermit is a Reading Specialist in Indian Prairie School District #204 in Aurora, Illinois. She has been a Reading Specialist in the district for many years and has worked with struggling readers in Kindergarten through Grade 6. She teaches interventions to strengthen student’s reading skills and also provides professional development at the school and district level and at state conferences. Over 22 years, she has been a classroom teacher, literacy coach, and reading specialist and loves to share her joy of reading with her students.

Sunday Cummins is a literacy consultant and author and has been a teacher and literacy coach in public schools. Her work focuses on supporting teachers, schools and districts as they plan and implement assessment driven instruction with complex informational sources including traditional texts, video and infographics. She’s the author of several professional books, including her latest releases, Close Reading of Informational Sources (Guilford, 2019), and Nurturing Informed Thinking (Heinemann, 2018).

Sunday is a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University, and has a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana. Visit her website and read her regular blog posts on teaching information literacy. Follow her on Twitter @SundayCummins.

Quirky Calendar Days Offer Fall Learning Fun

By Anne Anderson

Teaching middle schoolers taught me three things:

  • they love a celebration,
  • they love knowing something nobody else knows, and
  • they love all things weird.

Listening to teachers in my PD workshops has taught me three more things: middle grades teachers worry about school material their students don’t remember, they worry about real world information their students don’t know, and they want to have fun teaching.

With these observations in mind, I began to develop an idea from my own classroom career that always intrigued and engaged my students: Calendar Celebrations. They always liked the quirky ones best, so I’m sharing some favorites of mine (for September through November) with you.

Through the years I collected tidbits of weird information, birthdates of the famous and not-so-famous, and a list of lesser-known celebrations. By linking those bite-sized pieces of information to the calendar, I engaged students’ minds, encouraged their dreams, and captured their curiosity. I reinforced previously taught skills, strengthened vocabulary, and built general world knowledge. Best of all, we had fun!

Calendar Celebrations is a learning strategy that provides instructional opportunities suitable for all ability levels. The activities are designed to be quick – they make good warm-ups and class starters – and some can be extended to meet the specific needs of your students or curriculum.

Here’s the good news about this approach: it’s not about standards or curriculum, it’s about common sense and best practices. Here’s some better news: it is an opportunity to have some fun learning with your students. Best of all, there is nothing to copy and nothing to grade. A win-win!

Getting Started in September

In September we celebrate Library Card Sign-up Month, National Chicken Month, Better Breakfast Month, National Piano Month and National Honey Month, plus Labor Day, Grandparents Day, National Iguana Awareness Day, Ask a Stupid Question Day and National School Picture Day.

Among the many interesting September birthdays to explore are: Christa McAuliffe, Aliki, Paul Fleischman, Grandma Moses, Gloria Estefan, Jack Prelutsky, Jon Scieszka, Taraji Henson, Milton Hershey, Roald Dahl, Mildred Taylor, Ray Charles, Lemony Snicket, Will Smith, William Taft, Robert McCloskey, Park JinYoung, Tomie dePaola, Paul Goble, Jim Henson, Jim Murphy, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Shel Silverstein, Bernard Waber, Serena Williams and Stan Berenstain.

To introduce poetry in September, you can share a couple of poems on the 8th to celebrate Jack Prelutsky’s birthday. On the 25th to celebrate Shel Silverstein’s birthday, read a couple of his poems. No test, no analysis, just an opportunity to enjoy the works of these two poets.

To celebrate Tomie dePaola’s September 15 birthday, share background information before playing the three-minute YouTube video of his response to the question “Why is reading important?” Later in the week, the month, or the school year, use his response as a writing topic. These tidbits from your calendar celecrations can be a springboard for future activities, or they can be a one-time mention.

While this may seem to be unintentional or even frivolous, it is intentional and important from my standpoint. In three minutes or less, I introduced a new word, reminded students of a writing rule, and engaged them in brainstorming. What’s exciting is days or weeks later when a student asks, “What was that thingy called – you know, that thing for and?” Stand back and wait for it…wait for it…somebody will respond, “Ampersand.” A win-win, in my opinion.

To engage students in the day’s planned lesson, engage their emotions with the Play-Doh first. (My hope is that most of them have pleasant memories associated with that smell.) Again, in three or four minutes I use the word debuted – a new word to some students – and I allow them to share memories from preschool. I bring the discussion to a close and move ahead with the lesson.

Taking a Look at October

Calendar Celebrations helps build and strengthen critical thinking skills. World Octopus Day includes a brief explanation about the octopus followed by some octopus riddles. Yes, riddles! Riddles and jokes help improve students’ critical thinking skills. Students often have to predict or create a visual image in order to get the humor. Here’s a fun way to play with language and set students up for a positive learning experience.

Laughter is good for the brain. It causes an endorphin surge and gets more oxygen to the brain. Let’s hear it for the lame riddles and jokes. Ham it up and have some fun!

What’s Happening in November

Introduce some days as “Throw-n-Go” days. In my classroom on those days, I delivered a tidbit of information with little or no fanfare. Throw-n-Go sounded like this in my classroom: “Hey, guys. I almost forgot. Today is the day…” Allow a few seconds for students to process the information, then move into your lesson or activity. An example is November 28, the date a patent was issued for the traffic light.

Calendar Celebrations help fill in learning gaps and make teaching fun. Remember: nothing to copy; nothing to grade. These light-hearted activities can win over the most disengaged students when they realize their birthday falls on National Taco Day (Oct 4) or they share a birthday with Mickey Mouse (November 18).

Some quick resources:

Black Celebrity Birthdays

Famous Immigrant Birthdays

Next Birthdays (daily notable birthdays – global)

Weird Holidays in 2021-22

Anne Anderson always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She graduated from East Texas Baptist University with an English major and History minor and did graduate work at Louisiana State University and Louisiana Tech University. After teaching 8th graders for 24 years, Anne served as a content coach. Since retiring in 2011, Anne has worked as an wducational consultant, presenting at national conferences and offering onsite trainings for public and private schools.

Calendar Celebrations: September, October, November is Anne Anderson’s first book; watch for sequels covering other months of the year! Anne has also published articles in IDEAS Plus and Voices from the Middle, publications of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is a frequent reviewer of professional books for

A Deep Look into the Middle Grades Mindset

The Middle Grades Mindset: A Lesson Plan from A – Z 
By Dru Tomlin
(AMLE, 2021 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Cheryl Mizerny

Dr. Dru Tomlin’s new book, The Middle Grades Mindset: A Lesson Plan from A – Z, will be a valuable resource for administrators and teachers alike. Why am I not surprised?

Full disclosure: Dru is a friend and colleague and I have worked with him through the Association for Middle Level Education, where he led the professional services program for nearly five years before returning to his first love: middle school principal.

I know him to be a dynamic, dedicated, honest, effective educator. He’s whip-smart and the master of the extended metaphor. A wise person to listen to.

A good read if you’re ready for renewal

My professional philosophy aligns with his, and I hoped his beliefs would translate to the page when I read the book, and it did not disappoint.

So this is less of a review and more of my sharing the parts from his A-Z format that really resonated with me and renewed my excitement for the classroom after the most difficult year for teachers ever.

Anger: Tomlin stresses that adolescents have anger issues they cannot always handle on their own. This is an opinion not often expressed in education books and I appreciated it. He also shares his experiences helping adolescents channel and redirect their anger rather than stigmatizing them for it.

Construction: As an educator who takes a constructionist approach, I enjoyed this chapter. Dru has a fun way of expressing this education style: YBYS + IBMS = WLMST (You Bring Your Stuff and I’ll Bring My Stuff and We’ll Learn More Stuff Together). This is a good refresher discussion, reminding us that the classroom does not belong solely to the teacher.

Discipline: In this chapter Dr. Dru reminds us that nurturing relationships and “seeing” students outside of our class are the best proactive solutions to discipline problems. He describes how important it is for administrators and teachers to be in the common spaces during transitions each day, “taking in information, listening to students’ chatter, seeing their body language, moving to key areas, being available, and asking questions if you sense an issue.” In my own career I’ve found this to be true. I find out so much more by observing and interacting outside of class than I do for the 45 minutes a day a student is in front of me.

Exceptional: As a former special education teacher, this chapter was near and dear to my heart. I found myself nodding and smiling when I read, “When we separate students based on their measured intellectual prowess and provide only those ‘advanced’ students with more challenging learning activities . . . we are doing ourselves, education, and all students a disservice.” I have long advocated for this and usually meet resistance. It was refreshing to see an administrator support the same ideas.

Inclusive: Another area in which Dru and I align is our belief that good middle schools are inclusive. It is not only academic and athletic stars that shine in a healthy school – everyone finds their place to belong. He encourages schools to examine their advisory programs to ensure that this inclusivity is happening.

Keep: After the challenges that Covid has presented to schools in this country, I appreciated Tomlin’s acknowledgement of the desire among both teachers and students to sometimes just keep things the same for a little while. It seems as if there is an imperative among administrators to implement the hot new thing on an annual basis and pursue change for change’s sake. This is mentally exhausting for all involved. He does encourage educators to continue to improve, and to become the best version of ourselves.

Numbers: Dr. Dru reminds us that grades should not be used punitively nor to label a student. He knows that when there is no hope left to pass a class, there is also no way to motivate a student.

Questions: I believe in the power of deep questions and the need to foster an inquiry culture. In this chapter, Tomlin provides a brilliant list of nine simple steps to build a culture of inquiry in our classrooms. These include suggestions such as modeling curiosity and implementing genius hour.

Read an article by Dru Tomlin here at MiddleWeb
“Adolescents Thrive on Advocacy and Agency”

Relationships: No book about teaching in the middle grades would be complete without the mention of relationships because they are at the heart of what we do. Dr. Dru says, “Be. There. Every. Day. When you can understand, value, and relate to your students’ worlds, you will be more insightful, more ready, and more able to make learning more relevant for them.” Yes!

Xenophobia: In this chapter, Tomlin reminds us not to celebrate other cultures in a tokenizing way, but rather to celebrate every student’s culture throughout the year and to recognize that every family has its own culture even if they are not from another country. This is important.

Zen and the Art of Mulching: This chapter shows Dru’s expertise with an extended metaphor. He relates facts about the benefits of mulch to implications for our school success. For example, we know that “Mulch can beautify your garden.” School pride and celebration is the mulch we use to keep our school vibrant and productive month after month and year after year.

Although I have the honor of calling Dru Tomlin a colleague and friend, our connection was  not a prerequisite for enjoying this book. Whether this is your second year or twenty-second year in education, you will find something that confirms your “why” of teaching middle school –  and you may even pick up a tip or two.

Cheryl Mizerny (@cherylteaches) is a veteran educator with 25 years experience – most at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches 6th grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Read her rich collection of MiddleWeb articles here.

Historical Hypotheses Give Students Choices

By Jennifer Ingold

“Which would you rather visit, Dull or Boring?” I asked my 8th grade students during one of our virtual interest-building polls. “The answer just might surprise you,” I added.

Most of them said they were “undecided” and thinking they would not want to visit either. The reason was obvious – until they learned that Dull, Scotland (pop. 80) and its sister US town Boring, Oregon ( pop. 800) were actually teaming up to boost tourism and interest in their rather obscure locales.

How amazing for my 8th graders to learn for the first time that, in fact, Dull and Boring were more than just a cultural cliché in social media. Dull and Boring were a phenomenon that spanned two continents! Who knew?

Setting the Learning Stage

The post COVID-19 world will continue to challenge every aspect of our educational think tank: from reevaluation of our current educational practices to reexamining how we develop meaningful relationships with our curriculum, our students and their families, and the real world.

While our teaching approach going forward may look quite different, some things in our “new normal” education world will remain the same. And one of the most significant – especially for middle schoolers – is the need to establish opportunities for stimulating and compelling inquiry.

So how can we use the lessons learned from our COVID teaching best practices to reintroduce our in-person students to the “new world” of inquiry immersion? Here’s a key strategy of mine I’ll be carrying over in the new school year.

The Historical Hypothesis

How do we help students jump the gap between regular “classroom practice” and meaningful, relevant historical interconnectedness? I use what I think of as “sparks of engagement” – in this case the Historical Hypothesis. (If you were thinking that a “hypothesis” is just for Science Lab, read on and think again.)

In my class, the real world connection between Dull and Boring was more than just a simple tale of two little towns. It became the spark of inquiry for our study of American expansion, mimicking the geographic significance of relationships created during America’s Age of Imperialism in a simple and accessible way for adolescents.

After my students observed the data collected during the class PearDeck poll we conducted in real time, they were automatically drawn into our work. Upon digging deeper and realizing that these two cities not only actually existed, but were also socially, economically and historically connected, students began to reevaluate their responses to the possibilities of Dull and Boring.

This set up our prediction stage and the beginning of an intellectually stimulating conversation about how America’s interconnectedness with other countries and continents impacted the Age of Imperialism:

This Is How It Works

HYPOTHETICAL AIM: “How has Imperialism changed and challenged America?” By offering them an open-ended compelling question, students are allowed to make a determination (devise an initial hypothesis) and share what they believe to be true about the question or topic based on the amount of information that they currently have.

OBSERVE: Students are then asked to complete a task in order to carry out observations and collect information about the question through our structured framework – utilizing various resources, such as audio, video, or authentic written primary source documents.

In my class, choice board maps, such as the one for Imperialism below, are very common. They are visually appealing for all learners while providing both repetition and continued practice with the basic foundations that students need in order to fully understand – in this case – how America “grew up” and matured on the global stage.

The presence of essential questions also continues to remind students how to approach analyzing each source highlighted on the map.

ANALYZE: Students then review and re-evaluate their newly collected “evidence” in order to try to prove their projected hypothesis, while being encouraged to “go where the evidence takes you.” At this point, students have collected information that either supports or disproves their hypothesis.

Over time, this part of the process not only allows students to better articulate their thoughts about what they believe to be true, but also allows them to gain a greater appreciation for the alternate viewpoints of those they might disagree with. Analysis is done both individually and as a group to encourage appreciation for multiple perspectives.

EVALUATE: Historical Hypotheses are designed so that teachers are never telling students what to think. Rather, they promote the idea of teaching all students how to better think for themselves. Students’ self-evaluation of their own initial hypothesis and repeated consideration of multiple viewpoints are both essential to developing a growth mindset. Some students find that their original conclusion was justified, while many others change their mind based on their findings.

Using the Power of Provocation

The highlight of the learning experience is the post-lesson poll that asks students to take a position, such as this: “American expansionism did create a BETTER interconnectedness between THE U.S. and the rest of the world.”

Their hypothesis has now become a full fledged claim, which is either supported or refuted by the evidence collection.

For the vast majority of students, I typically see a transformation throughout the year as they become accustomed to posing and exploring hypotheses. Students often become empowered by understanding how to do this. Their conclusions are formulated, while also being intellectually challenged. Their ability to acquire information gives them options.

Those students who initially could only identify with their own viewpoint find themselves able to see, identify with, and appreciate other viewpoints. Often students witness their classmates changing their minds in real time as they listen intently to the powerful conversations that occur as a result of this process.

In education this is the “Power of Provocation.” Provocation presented in this way becomes an open ended activity designed to stimulate ideas and imagination rather than to simply lead students by the nose to accepting a prescribed outcome.

It lets the student choose – and lets them see they are really making the choice. And, for a middle schooler, that’s HUGE!

Jennifer Ingold (@msjingold) was chosen as both the NCSS and NYSCSS Middle School Teacher of the Year in 2019 and has received the Cohen-Jordan Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year Award from the Middle States Council for the Social Studies.

Jennifer currently teaches eighth grade social studies at Bay Shore Middle School in Bay Shore, New York. She has been a speaker at local, state, regional and national conferences, is a lead blogger for, and has had her work featured in major publications such as Social Education, Middle Level Learning, and AMLE Magazine.

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


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 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.


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.

Meeting the Challenges of Our Mask Mandate

A MiddleWeb Blog

Back to school. Most years this phrase elicits an excitement that is almost palpable.

Teachers are eager to get into the classroom and meet the new faces that will make up their classes.

Students are eager to be with friends that they haven’t seen all summer and to show off the latest styles that they’ve adopted while binge watching some of their favorite shows.

Parents are happy to watch grocery bills go down because their children aren’t home eating everything in sight (I speak from experience here). And administrators are eager to hear the hallways filled with the noise of students and teachers and all that start of school brings with it.

Unfortunately, the back-to-school spirit that usually permeates our nation in August and September has been marred by an issue that has made many school districts and school administrators villains. MASK MANDATES.

It’s seen as a dirty phrase. It invokes hateful words and discord among parents, stakeholders, staff, and students. In my Alabama community, it has made the beginning of the school year a living nightmare, dragging many of us, kicking and screaming, into a political debate that we never wanted to enter into in the first place.

My district’s decision on masking

I currently live in and work for a school district that put a mask mandate in place at the beginning of our school year. Our superintendent did it knowing he would receive push back from parents who were not on board with the need for masks in school.

As a district, we stood alone among our sister districts as we started school with everyone required to wear a mask regardless of their vaccination status (as of 8/27 Alabama was 51st among states with a fully-vaccinated percentage of 37%).

The first school board meeting following this announcement was marked with irate parents who, in an attempt to have their voices heard, called our school board and our superintendent to the proverbial carpet to answer for the decision that was made about students wearing masks.

Experts and advocates spoke for both sides and the debate lasted for several hours. Ultimately, however, our district decided to stick with the mask mandate and informed parents, staff, and students accordingly.

Letting go of the Fall we hoped for amid verbal assaults

And so the school year began. And we as educators tried to make masks fun, again, for this new school year. It’s not what we had in mind when we imagined this school start-up. We were full of hope. We wanted to start the year without masks and attempt to bring back a sense of normalcy after a year of masks, hybrid schedules, and virtual schooling.

We wanted to teach students and help them enjoy learning. We wanted to plan field trips and concerts and awards ceremonies so that parents could come into the building to celebrate their students’ accomplishments. We wanted a normal year that didn’t require us to be a part of a political debate. Yet, here we were, facing the reality that pandemic wasn’t really over.

As administrators, our job became much more difficult under the “mask mandate.” We have had to field parent complaints and anger as we enforced mask wearing in the schools. We have had to read slander against us for doing our jobs and listen to parents belittle our professionalism and integrity. We have had to stand silent and endure.

Our focus is on the students

And yet, through it all, we have maintained our dignity and our professionalism, knowing that we were in education, not for the parents, not for the district, and definitely not for the politics, but for the students. It’s the students and what we need to do for them that gets most of us out of bed early in the morning, five days a week.

And for me as an administrator – it’s also for the teachers. Those professionals that come to work every day and do the best they can with what they have been given.

I’ve watched them redesign lessons that can be taught outside so that students can remove masks for a while. I’ve watched them collaborate to ensure that students can do some type of group work even if it’s through digital platforms or for no longer than 15 minute work sessions.

I have watched staff come together to make the best out of an unwanted situation and do it with smiles on their faces (hidden, of course, by their fashionable masks).

And once again I have been amazed by the people that I am privileged to work with every day. They have adapted and overcome. They have put the needs of their students above their own political inclinations. They have looked at what was given and have decided to make it work.

And because of this hard work and complete dedication to our students, we have watched our students grow despite the hardships placed before them.

Working hard, anticipating more buy-in

I realize that we have only been in school for a couple of weeks, and I know that things may change. But I cannot help but feel a sense of pride as I watch my colleagues get the job done. It’s not easy, but they are doing it.

And changes are coming. In the past couple of weeks, as I have watched my local news, I have heard about more and more of our surrounding school districts implementing mask mandates as more and more of their students and teachers have been affected by the new wave of Covid.

I have listened to the superintendents of these districts refer to ours and our low numbers of students and faculty that have to go home due to close contact and/or positive test results. And I’ve realized that, although our mask mandate wasn’t the popular choice and many of us weren’t very happy with it when it was made, it may just have been the right choice.

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.