You want to teach mathematics to students in the middle grades—but are you ready? Early adolescents have very unique characteristics that you need to be aware of and can capitalize on to facilitate productive lessons. Your students will be innately curious, enjoy active learning experiences, and prefer social learning over passive learning activities (Kellough & Kellough, 2008). They will experience swift physical, intellectual and social-emotional developmental changes. They enjoy humor and are keenly interested in authentic problems. They need to see how academic exercises can be applied to their lives (Kellough & Kellough, 2008).
Here are 6 tips for teaching mathematics in the middle grades that capitalize on middle school students’ characteristics.
1. Enthusiasm is contagious.
Plan lessons you can be enthusiastic about. Smile often. Use humor (limit sarcasm). Minor behavioral infractions can be made into mountains or, with a little humor, de-escalated into non-issues. On days when you are a little down, fake enthusiasm. Through your actions, expressions and posture let your students sense that you truly enjoy doing mathematics with them. Soon they will enjoy it too!
2. Be current on research.
Opportunities abound to keep current on the latest research. Take advantage of workshops on current methods for teaching mathematics to middle school students. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has conferences throughout the year as well as publications aimed specifically at teaching mathematics in middle grades. The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) is another excellent organization. Their report, This We Believe: Keys to Educating Adolescents (2010), is a valuable primer to help getting to know what to expect from your students. Another very useful tool, The Lesson Planning Handbook for Grades 6-8 (2019), is co-published by NCTM and AMLE. This book fuses techniques and methods for teaching mathematics to middle school students based on their characteristics. The more you know, the more confidence you build in yourself to meet the challenges of working with middle grades students each day.
3. Plan social lessons.
Middle school students are very social. Take advantage of this by planning lessons where students work in groups or pairs. Promote classroom discourse by planning your questions in advance to spark mathematical conversations/debates. Let students present their findings/solutions/answers to problems and encourage classmates to ask questions of one another. Use prompts such as, “[Gregory], what do you think of [Sonia’s] solution? Does her answer make sense to you”?
4. Make the mathematics relevant.
Your students are innately curious and want to see the relevance of the mathematics to their lives. Pull topics from current affairs (national, local and school level) that involve mathematics. One example is comparing the amount in spending categories in budgets of different countries by calculating the proportion of each category to the whole budget. How does proportional reasoning change how you look at the raw numbers in the budgets?
5. Challenge everyone.
Use tasks that have multiple entry points. Find tasks that all students can solve or attempt to solve at some level. Some students may be more efficient and solve it abstractly while others will draw pictures and diagrams to justify their work.
6. Use time efficiently.
Be prepared for those extra minutes when a lesson ends early or some students complete a task before others. Keep your students focused on mathematics from bell to bell. Whether your classes are 45-55 minutes in length or you are on a block schedule, this is the only time your students have you. Keep them engaged. Have math puzzles and games available for the times when you are aiding a child one on one and others need to work independently. Be sure your students know that when they complete a task they have options for using their time wisely such as a non-routine bulletin board problem, a computer program, etc. Be sure you have planned a useful closure activity. In The Lesson Planning Handbook for Grades 6-8 (2019) there are many suggestions for closure activities that will add reflection/formative assessment to complete your lessons.
These tips will help you get off to a good start whether you are new to middle school mathematics or a seasoned pro!
Kellough, R. & Kellough, N. (2008), Teaching Young Adolescents: A guide to methods and resources for middle school teaching, (5th ed.) New York, NY: Pearson.
This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents. A position paper of the Association of Middle Level Educators. http://www.amle.org/AboutAMLE/ThisWeBelieve/tabid/121/Default.aspx
Williams, L., Korbett, B., and Harbin-Miles, R. The Mathematics Lesson-Planning Handbook, Grades 6–8: Your Blueprint for Building Cohesive Lesson (2019), Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.