Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Buffering Capacity of a Middle School Student: Managing the Ups and Downs

In environmental chemistry the pH of a water supply can be significantly altered and have it's ups and downs depending on environmental pressures.  At times, acids can lower the pH of a water supply and alkaline substances can raise the pH of a water supply.  I often use this clip to demostrate to students these "Ups" and "Downs".

So what does pH and color changes have to do with teaching Middle School Students?  The middle years can often be difficult times for students, as their bodies are adjusting to physical, emotional and chemical changes which can sometimes make learning a challenge.  As teachers, it is our job to adjust our pedagogy to ensure that these "Ups" and "Downs" translate into small changes that are manageable.

In environmental chemistry, we often use buffers to help water supplies withstand significant changes in pH so that the water supply does not undergo drastic alterations.  What might these "buffers" look like for Middle School Teachers to help their students?

Problem (Up or Down)
Buffering Technique 
The student is inconsistent on  summative assessments.
Ensure that students have been exposed to a rigorous formative assessment regime.  Like learning a new sport, students need extensive practice to ensure they have mastered the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed.  This should include the opportunity to retry assignments without penalty.  Furthermore, are you scaffolding your teaching/learning to ensure students are given the necessary steps along the way?  Here is a link to more resources on middle school assessment strategies:   formative assessment
The student seems bored or disengaged during lessons. 
Are you using a variety of teaching, learning and asessment practices in your classroom?  Within each lesson, try and incorporate a little bit of everything.  Research indicates that there is no one best teaching strategy.  At this age, the more you can personalize learning and make it interactive the more engaged the learner will be.  Tecnhology is an excellent tool to help ensure you are differentiating.  Have you considered using Learning Centres?  Here is a link to Learning Centres for Middle Schools:
The student is sometimes disorganized, loses things, and forgets things.
Not coming prepared for class with appropriate materials is a common complaint by many Middle School Teachers.  How can we teach students to come to class prepared without punishing them?  The practice of docking marks and/or sitting them in the hallway when they are not prepared for class are ineffective strategies.  So, what does work?  Patience has to be one of our first tools.  If a student forgets their book, binder or material, don't take it personally.  Often we want the disorganized student to fix the problem instantly!  I often wait at the door and greet the students as they enter my class.  I take time to remind some students as I see them coming down the hallway to check if they have their books, etc.  
The student is sometimes an emotional roller-coaster: sad, happy, or aloof.
Take time each month to have individual conferences with your students to discuss academic and social/emotional progress.  I often set up a desk just outside my classroom to meet with each student privately.  While students are working on individual projects or in Learning Centres, I meet one on one with students to listen to what they have to say about their portfolios as well as their social growth.  Depending on the student, I might ask specific questions like, "I notice yesterday that you looked really tired, is everything okay?" Or, I might challenge them with a scenario like, "Let say you came to school and found out that you didn't make the basketball team and you have a big test that day; how would you handle this situation?"  Being a mentor or advisor to the students you teach will help them enjoy your class more because they know you care about them.  Here is a link to a great article about helping Middle School Students succeed: 
The student is not completing their homework on a regular basis.  
Homework should be meaningful and only assigned when necessary.  If you have to assign homework, keep it to 15-20 minutes.  Students need to live a balanced life outside of school.  There is no definitive research to say that homework translates into higher gains in academic scores.  In fact, too much homework can turn students off school.   If a students comes to school and homework is incomplete, work with them to find out why.  I believe assigning a "0" or deducting late marks for homework is not a good idea.  Instead, I keep students in at lunch to help them finish the work assigned and work with the student on strategies that can help them complete homework in a timely manner. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Power of Interactivity and Engagement

There is no denying the premise that increasing student engagement can translate into greater learning. Easier said than done!  With larger class sizes and greater diversity of learners in our rooms, how do we keep students thoroughly engaged?

This Asics commercial is a great example of how interactivity can turn passive people from slightly interested into active participants that are fully engaged.  Have a look:

So, what lessons/inspiration can we take from the clever Asics marketing team that designed this interactive advertisement?

1.  Use technology to generate and harness the power of interactivity.  Often technology can generate individual experiences which allow everyone to participate, instead of large group experiences when only a few are part of the action.  For example, equipment might not be readily available for every student to conduct math or science type experiments. However, there are simulations sites like and, which enable students to interact with material in a one-one-one situation, creating a much more engaging experience.  Ipads, Ipods and computers have many apps that can help generate a more engaging and interactive experience for every learner.  Here is a great place to start to investigate more about using apps in education

2.  Differentiate with Learning Centers.  When it is time to address content, teachers of older grades (8-12) often address the whole class to explain new concepts and review old ones.  Why not explain content in small groups or with individual students?  As a husband of a grade 1 teacher, I often marvel at how elementary teachers design "center based learning".  Learning Centers are designed so that students can explore and learn instructional material alone or in small groups.  Teachers in the older grades could use a similar strategy.  The room could be filled with various small group learning centers and one of the centers could be meeting with you in a small interactive and engaging discussion of new content.  Here is a great place to start to think about modifying learning centers for older grades

3.  Use Games and Role Play to learn.  Games are often interactive, fun and therefore engaging.  Kinesthetic games whereby students have to get up and become active are a great way to learning concepts.  Once such game, I designed as a project for my Masters of Education was called, The Hypnotic Game.  At the start of class students would be given "hypnotic cards", which outlined that if the student heard a specific word during class they would pretend to do something, like get up and erase the whiteboard or read an excerpt out of a book.  Then, after every student was given a card, I would pretend to hypnotize the audience/class with a stop watch.  Once all students were "hypnotized", I would snap my fingers and begin the lesson.  As the lesson evolved, certain key words would trigger student responses, interactivity and engagement.  This type of role play was based on humor, personalization and the premise that is better to be active.  It was well received by most students.

Here are two links related to learning games;