Hiding the Aspirin in the Applesauce. . .

Ask anyone who has ever worked in schools and they’ll tell you that middle schoolers are an interesting breed.  Trapped in developmental limbo and stumbling through three years of near misery, they drive everyone that they know crazy along the way.

I love ’em to death, though!

At no point in life outside of birth do kids go through as many changes—physically, socially or emotionally—as they do when they’re in middle school.  Being able to watch the hearts and minds of humans change in front of your eyes is nothing short of an amazing experience.

Teaching sixth graders makes middle school even more fun because I have the opportunity to watch a handful of kids for three full years.  Students that I have connections with tend to hang around my room until they “graduate” to the local high school, having grown in confidence and competence.

And that’s cool.

For teachers of tweens, however, motivating early adolescents ain’t always easy.  After all, succeeding in school requires sifting through growing bodies, growing minds and growing emotions.  Socrates, sentence fragments and photosynthesis just plain take a back seat to growing pains for anyone wrestling with puberty!

So what’s the trick to connecting kids to content in middle school classrooms?

I’ve found three during the course of my 16 years in a sixth grade classroom:

Creating opportunities to interact:  Most middle schoolers care more about their friends than they do about breathing, right?  Yet as soon as they walk into our buildings, they’re SHUUUSSHHHEED for 8 hours a day!

We’re constantly hustling kids out of bathrooms—where they willingly congregate around unflushed toilets just to steal a few minutes talking to their peers—and hallways with a focused determination to get them back into classrooms working quietly.

I can’t remember what it was like to be a middle schooler, but I’ll bet that drives our kids nuts!  After all, social opportunities are VITAL to their continuing growth as people, providing chances to try on new identities and craft the kind of person that they plan to be.  To put it simply, connections matter—yet we run buildings where connecting carries consequences.

The most accomplished middle grades teachers find ways to wrap their curriculum around activities that involve interaction.  Socratic seminars, for example, are always a huge hit in my room.  We wrestle together with questions like:

  • Is bullfighting an example of animal cruelty or an important element of Spanish culture?
  • Why do people hate?
  • What responsibility do we have to stand up to those who abuse power?

And my kids dive in to every conversation head first!  They read and annotate articles related to the topic of our Seminar, they contribute freely to the dialogue that happens in our classroom, and they willingly extend conversations on playgrounds and in the lunch room for days.

This unparalleled participation in Seminars isn’t because my kids like content we’re studying—if I gave a worksheet, research report or reading assignment on the same topics, I’d generate far less enthusiasm—but because they like interacting with their peers. Seminars are just a way to slip a bit of content into their interactions.

It’s like hiding aspirin in the apple sauce of your infant!

You can pair that interest in interaction with the teenage addiction to digital gadgets by using Voicethread, a free online service that facilitates conversations between users.  Here’s a page from my PD wiki on how Voicethread works.

Creating opportunities to compete:  Changing rapidly, tweens never quite master everything about their new minds and bodies—and they’re rarely convinced of their own strengths and weaknesses.  That’s why competitions are so appealing to middle grades students.  Through competition, kids get a chance to test out new skills and to measure their developing ability against others.

In my room, the competition that kids like the best is called Battle of the Books.  Battle is a reading competition where teams of 6 students work together to read a collection of pre-determined books over the course of several months.  Each week, teams compete against one another trying to answer questions about the books on the Battle List.

The team that answers the most questions correctly in an individual battle wins—but we record scores for every team every week, creating a ranking that changes throughout the year.  Then, during March Madness, we fill out our own brackets and have a head-to-head “Reading Smackdown” to determine the team champion for the school year.

About 80% of my students live and die for battle—-which becomes a great lever for me:  “If you guys behave and work hard all week, we’ll battle on Friday.  If we don’t get everything done, though, there will be no battle.”

I battled EVERY Friday!

Some of my colleagues complained that they couldn’t afford to give up an entire class period once a week to do battle.  For me, it was easy because my kids worked harder Monday through Thursday when they knew that Battle would come on Friday.

Others complained that competition was unhealthy, creating winners and losers.  Competition, however, is a vital part of the developmental growth of preteens—who need opportunities to test their mettle against others in order to gain a sense of who they are as learners and as people.

All I know is that healthy competition in any form has been motivating to my students—-and a repeating competition like Battle of the Books that can be used as a reward increases student attention all week long!

Creating opportunities to study justice and injustice or issues of fairness:  If a child cuts someone else in a middle school line, what do you think the kid who got cut says?  How about if you take away recess time?  What happens if you don’t let a kid go to the bathroom when they want to go?


Middle schoolers are hard wired to wrestle with issues related to justice and injustice because they’re beginning to think beyond themselves for the first time—losing the egocentricty of the elementary years.

So I find ways to incorporate studies of justice and injustice into everything that I do.  We study world-wide poverty, animal cruelty, genocide, and the treatment of women throughout history.  Every time that I’m teaching a lesson, I try to find ways to focus on the idea of what’s fair because fairness resonates with kids.

Once I find an issue that touches a nerve, I try getting my kids to create blog entries that raise attention about the issue—convincing them that raising awareness is one of the best actions that tweens can take when they want to influence an issue.

“Kid bloggers,” I’ll say, “can raise attention just like adults!  No one knows how old you are when you write online.  Your ideas matter just as much as mine—-as long as they’re written well!”

(Slipping aspirin into the apple sauce again, right?!)

This worked wonders in my classroom last year.  We got into a study of the genocide in Darfur that shocked my kids—-so we started creating public service types of announcements on our blog.  You can check them out here:


The kids wrote and wrote and read and wrote and created and read and wrote some more, convinced that they were making a difference by raising awareness.  We also created two different Voicethread conversations about Darfur.  Check ’em out:


http://ed.voicethread.com/share/85497/The kids didn’t do these projects for a grade—in fact, none of this work was graded at all!!  They also didn’t do it to use technology—–they did it because they thought what was happening in Darfur was unfair, and they wanted to feel empowered to make a difference.

It touched their instructional funny bone, so to speak.

Perhaps most importantly, middle grades teachers have to believe that IT IS POSSIBLE to motivate every learner.  All too often, we slip into the false belief that kids just don’t want to learn.  “They’re lazy!” we cry.  “Nothing I do seems to work.  They don’t care about ANYTHING.”

This kind of thinking is flawed at best—and unprofessional at worst.  Watch middle schoolers—they’re persistent little buggers that will spend thousands of hours sending random instant messages to their peers, creating their MySpace pages or trying to beat the latest PSP games.

They’ll practice their favorite sport for days without eating if you let them.  They’ll refuse to miss their favorite television program for years.  They’ll learn the lyrics to a thousand songs.  Heck—they’ll even wear the same shirt for two straight weeks because they love it so much!

Motivation isn’t an issue.  It’s finding ways to make our instruction more motivating—-and that’s something we haven’t always been good at.

Does any of my thinking make any sense to you?

Do you buy into the idea that today’s kids are more difficult to motivate than their predecessors?  Do you believe that the kinds of lessons that kids find motivating today are drastically different than the kinds of motivators your teachers used?  How have you reacted to this new reality?

What other ways have you found to motivate middle grades learners?

7 thoughts on “Hiding the Aspirin in the Applesauce. . .

  1. חדרי מלח

    Hey Guys, this article is really amazing and mind blowing. In this entire world how many of us can do such a great job, being a small kids they are creating a useful blogs for us with out expecting any thing, and to create awareness for us…
    Even I’m trying to learn something from these student articles. And I heart fully thank those teaches who are motivating these students, and also the supporters…

  2. Pat

    What great suggestions! I think your ideas work for special education students extremely well. I used them with my special education students and they were very motivated. Class discussions helped them share their knowledge even if they had reading difficulties and this helped their self esteem. My students loved competition but I feel that is human nature. I also liked to learn something new along with them so they can see that I went through the same process of learning as they did.

  3. Carly Albee

    Bill- I love your shameless plug for competition in the classroom. I have a colleague who asked us to help her figure out why the only kids with D’s or F’s in her class were boys. I immediately thought about the article you twitted about: “Don’t teach your students to be girls.” I suggested some competition might be healthy for them. Her response was, “There are two schools of thought on competition. One, is you nurture their competitive side. The other is that you don’t engage them in competitive activities so that they can nurture their team skills.” I’m not sure where competition got such a bad rap. As an extremely competitive person, I see the value that healthy competition has in the classroom. I slept through any school work…unless it was a competition. AND, I needed to learn how to compete with style and grace. If I never got to compete (in school or athletics) I would have never had the chance to realize how dumb you feel after throwing a competitive tantrum.
    So, in a sentence: “I heart competition.”

  4. Bill Ferriter

    K Borden wrote:
    I have been blessed with a child who is intellectually curious, loves to learn, creative and far more motivated to explore, engage, and interact with the world around her than school allows.
    What a profound quote, K—and one that I agree with completely. Schools really don’t provide children with the kinds of opportunities to interact with the world that you describe.
    And that hurts me as a teacher as much as it hurts you as a parent!
    It’s a by-product of lots of things, isn’t it:
    1. The “test ’em till their dead” approach to holding schools accountable for learning.
    2. The difficulty of being able to afford learning environments with fewer than 30 kids per class.
    3. The inability of teachers to effectively advocate for more meaningful learning experiences.
    I guess the list could go on and on….and that’s frightening!
    More later—I’m likely to convert this into a post of some kind…
    Rock on,
    PS…If you’re ever interested in serving on a county committee of parents that meets with the Superintendent and his senior leadership four times a year, contact me directly via email.
    I think you’d like the meetings—and from your comments I’d love to see you involved….even if your own daughter leaves our system.

  5. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    You asked: “What other ways have you found to motivate middle grades learners?”
    This will likely not be the response you were seeking (tactics and strategies in a classroom) but it is my honest answer to your question as a parent with a child currently in fifth grade, making decisions for the “middle school years”.
    The way I am increasing leaning toward to “motivate (a) middle school learner(s)” is to homeschool. It is an option I have spent a tremendous amount of time researching, considering and investigating. I have been blessed with a child who is intellectually curious, loves to learn, creative and far more motivated to explore, engage, and interact with the world around her than school allows. She also has challenges, a handwriting disability, year round allergies, asthma and is at risk of developing type 2 diabetes despite a healthy diet, extensive excercise and extreme effort on her part.
    The day before school started this year her grandfather passed away. The second day of school she broke her arm at school. A couple of weeks into school she contracted pneumonia (6 days fighting a 103 plus fever and struggling to breath), a slow but steady and impressive recovery continues. Now, she is being treated for a nasal infection that developed. All of this and this is only the eigth week of school.
    Is she motivated? You betcha! Throughout it all she has worked to keep up with assignments, done volumes of extra work to assure she does not fall behind and continues to independently explore, learn, and engage. Whatever grades she receives this quarter will never begin to demonstrate an assessment of she is able and capable of doing. Report cards will come out soon and frankly although her grades will likely be ok (3’s), they will say very little about her.
    When she returned on a half day schedule to school, she was allowed to attend only math, science, and language arts. No recess, no lunch, no electives, just the basic subjects. She just didn’t have the stamina to do a full day recovering from pneumonia.
    Any doubts I had about homeschooling have been eased as a result of this experience. Why? Because it has become clear to me she will learn (she is internally driven to do so) and the reason she goes to school is to be with other kids. The reason she is motivated to do what is assigned to her by her teachers is because despite her competing desire to learn other things she knows that the work at school is the price paid for time with other kids her age.
    She generally enjoys the assigned work, but sometimes she becomes frustrated that the schedule does not allow her to dig deeper when her curiosity is sparked. A recent example: she asked me to explain how the stock market functions. I had to tell her we couldn’t take time for that for the next few days because there is only so much time and there was homework and makeup work to be done. Teachable moment lost. This is one example, our days are filled with far too many.
    So yes, to insure my daughter’s academic and intellectual motivation is encouraged I am planning to homeschool. To insure her motivation and enthusiasm to enjoy the company of same age peers and people generally I am going to expand her already busy extracurricular life (dance, art, theater..) with more opportunities, including more time to just “be” with other kids. Her recent struggles lead her to the same conclusion. She found she liked being allowed to move ahead in math at home and she has expressed excitement about being able delve deeper as she was able to do during her recovery. Assuming the cosmic forces throw us no further obstacles, we will finish this school year in “school” and begin our adventure and challenges in life and learning for sixth grade.
    We have the resources, curriculum is abundantly available and the internet has opened options not possible years ago. We wont be able to provide a daily supply of @28 other kids per academic subject, for 180 days each year. But friendships can be nutured, opportunities to learn working in groups furthered and diversity of public encounters explored. Doors will close, but windows will open.
    I believe the reason your students reacted enthusiastically about the Battle of the Books, is because you recognized that what they are motivated by is interacting with others dynamically. In order to be part of what’s happening they are willing to do some legwork to prepare. As they do, they find they enjoy both the human interaction and the material.
    With gangs, violence, drugs…yes, some things have definitely changed about what competes to motivate students. Whether a particular child is involved in them or not, they are all around them and demanding attention. More sports, clubs and activities that encourage healthier outlets for expression, exploration and companionship wouldn’t hurt middle-schoolers. Another factor weighing on this parent’s decision of how to motivate a soon to be middle schooler.

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