Connecting with Your Most "Difficult" Students

While teaching can often be an incredibly challenging profession, I really do love teaching, especially at the middle school level. I enjoy teaching this age for many reasons. First of all, there is no other age like middle school. Every single day is different with these students; they keep me on my feet. They also have some absolutely hilarious antics. It is fun to make lessons exciting for my students and see them show their understanding in creative ways. Helping students understand the material and witnessing their growth during the school year is very rewarding. Working with other middle school teachers, learning from one another, and sharing the exciting things that happen in our classrooms make for a happy work environment. However, there is one aspect of teaching I like more than any other.

Ever since student teaching, I've found the thing I love most about teaching is working with the most "difficult" students. I realize not every student has had a great experience with school (or sometimes even life in general). I value making a connection with these students and seeing them become successful individuals. Once I have a positive connection with the students, I've found that they are willing to work hard and accept the assistance they need to grow. Helping bring about a positive transformation in a student who needed a little (or a lot) of extra help is the most fulfilling part of teaching for me. Recently, I feel like I haven’t had the ability to make these connections as much as I did in the past. The reason why? Class size. Last year I had almost 200 seventh grade students in my science classes. Making the impact I want is significantly more difficult with so many students. Nevertheless, I was still able to reach some of them and help them with achievements both academically and in their daily lives.

Here are some of the ways I've found effective to develop a connection with the “difficult” students in my classes.
  • I start by figuring out what they are interested in (student surveys are especially helpful with that) and ask them about it or bring those things into the lesson or classroom somehow.
  • Greet them every day with a smile. Ask them how they’re doing. Comment on their new shoes or haircut. Even if they don’t reply initially, most of them appreciate this and begin to respond after a while.
  • Share like interests with each other. If a student loves a certain movie and you do too, let them know and talk about it together.
  • Recognize their good aspects, abilities, or skills and mention them. (Everyone has some good traits, even if it doesn't seem like it at first.) For example, a student might be good at making people laugh or be a strong leader or even have good handwriting. Tell them. It’ll be meaningful to them.
  • If they are acting out and need to be corrected, don’t let it slide. Be fair. Hold them accountable for their misbehavior and discuss it with them. They might not like it initially, but it shows you care and expect them to behave appropriately.
  • Explain why you have rules and consequences. If they break a rule, explain why you have that rule and why students who break that rule get the consequences they do. Be honest about this. If you yourself don’t know why you have certain rules or consequences, you might want to revamp your system. (I've done this in the past and it makes a huge difference.)
  • Show you care by asking what's bothering them if they seem upset or not themselves.
  • Whenever they do something notable, recognize it! One thing I like to do is write a short letter to their parents or guardian about the great things their child has been doing, put the note in an unsealed envelope, and give the note to the student to take home. I keep the envelope unsealed to ensure the student takes a peek at it before delivering it. Another way I recognize great behavior is by mailing a short letter to the student. This takes them by surprise and means so much to them. I've had students turn completely around simply with one letter.
Keep in mind these connections and transformations take time, persistence, and patience.

Teaching can be a difficult and trying profession, but for me the rewards are huge. Interacting with middle school students and teachers is exciting and fun. The potential for making positive differences on the lives of my students, especially the most “difficult” ones, provides the greatest fulfillment. That is what I really love about my profession.

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Memorable Teachers and How They Made Me a Better Educator: Part One

I am lucky to have had five memorable teachers who made a powerful and positive impression in my life and, looking back, I realize they greatly influenced the kind of teacher I am today. For this five part series, I will talk about why the teachers were important to me and how I use what I learned from them in my own classroom.

Part One: Third Grade with Mrs. Linenberger

Up until third grade I really disliked school. I got frustrated easily, especially with math and reading, because I just didn’t get it. Sometimes I got so upset with myself in class that I would just cry. That changed when I met Mrs. Linenberger. She was a very tall woman (especially to a little third grader) with brownish-red floofy hair and a big smile and a bigger laugh. I loved being in her second floor, corner classroom.

Mrs. Linenberger believed in my ability to read and got me started on chapter books.  She stressed to my parents how well I was doing and how much I was improving. My reading abilities grew so much that year. Somehow, she turned my extreme dislike of reading into one of my favorite activities. One project I really remember from her classroom involved reading groups. One reading group I was in read a book about a boy digging up worms in his yard. My task was to relate to the story by bringing in an object to share. Being the strange little girl I was, I brought in worms and had my group predict how long the worms were and measure them. Mrs. Linenberger sent me to the principal’s office, not because I was in trouble, but because she thought it was such a clever idea and wanted to make sure the principal heard about it. I remember on the walk home telling my mom I got sent to the principal. I tried to make her think I was in trouble but couldn’t keep a straight face because I was so pleased with myself.

Ever since third grade, I have loved school. Later in high school I decided I wanted to be a teacher. Not just any teacher—I wanted to be a third grade teacher, just like Mrs. Linenberger. Since then, I’ve learned I’m better suited to middle school.

Mrs. Linenberger taught me much more than just how to love reading. She taught me how one teacher can turn around a student’s entire outlook on school. Every time I start a new school year as a teacher I identify and hone in on the students who dislike school, and I try to make as big of an impact on them as Mrs. Linenberger made on me.

Take a look at the other teachers who are a part of this series.
Part Two: Middle School
Part Three: High School
Part Four: Graduate School
Part Five: School of Life

Steps of the Scientific Method: An Activity with Rappers

My students used to have a hard time with the scientific method; I think because they thought it was boring without the experiments that go along with it. I always told them they had to understand the scientific method before they could do real experiments. To get them excited about learning the steps of the scientific method, I created an activity involving two of their favorite rappers: Lil Wayne and Drake. The students loved it and know and remember the steps much better after the activity.

The activity centers around an imaginary scenario about Lil Wayne wanting to increase his concert ticket sales. In the scenario, he goes through each of the six steps of the scientific method. I made six different cards for the activity.

Students work in groups to correctly organize the cards into the order of the scientific method.

After students organize the cards and the class goes over the answers together, the students individually reflect on the activity by completing a worksheet. Part of the worksheet asks students to explain in a paragraph how a card demonstrates a particular step of the scientific method.

Whenever possible, I try to bring student interests into the classroom in creative ways. My students learned a lot from this activity and remember the steps of the scientific method because they had fun learning about them.  After this activity they were ready to put the scientific method in action with labs and experiments.

Here is another version of the Steps of the Scientific Method Activity with Rappers. This version features the fictional rappers X-Kon and M.T. Nside.

 Rapper Activity

Take a look at what other teachers are doing in their science classrooms by clicking on the picture below.
 What's Going on in Your Science Class?

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Out of the Deep Freeze: Secondary Smorgasbord Blog Hop

This month's Secondary Smorgasbord blog hop's theme is "Out of the Deep Freeze." During this cold Korean winter I've been working on an idea that's been "frozen" in my mind for a while now.

Over the last three years in my seventh grade science class I have done an "Organ Trail" project, posters, short presentations, and worksheets, but none of them were quite what I was looking for. One day over this winter break I came up with a much more creative way for students to demonstrate their understanding of a particular organ. A job application! Students pretend to be an organ of their choice (or an organ that has been assigned to them) and fill out an application for a job in the human body.  I spent much of my winter break determining what should be on the job application that would be relevant and truly show knowledge of the body and how it works.

To complete their application, students need to have a good understanding of an organ, what it does, and the organ system it is a part of. I think students will enjoy the application assignment while demonstrating understanding in a new and deeper way. Once the students have submitted their Organ Application to "Human (Body) Resources," the teacher can decide which organs are "hired." The hired organs can receive some kind of reward like extra credit, a homework pass (free here), or a treat. Get ideas for other easy and inexpensive student reward ideas by visiting this blog post.

The Human Body Organ Application Assignment includes a job announcement page, a blank Organ Application, a completed example application, a grading sheet, and teacher information pages about the assignment and how to use it. You might also be interested in my Cell Job Application Assignment.

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Once again, thank you to ELA Buffet and Desktop Learning Adventures for including me in your blog hop!

Using Weird Al Songs in the Classroom

Believe it or not, the first concert I ever attended was in my early twenties when I went to a Weird Al Yankovic concert at the Corn Palace in South Dakota with my parents. Weird Al has been one of my favorite musical artists ever since I can remember.  Once I became an educator I began to listen to his music differently, recognizing how many of his songs can be used in the classroom. Here is a list of songs teachers can use in middle school or high school English, social studies, and science.

  • Bob” is a song written entirely in palindromes (a word or phrase that reads the same way forwards and backwards) and is a fun way to expose students to that concept.
  • Word Crimes” is a much better version of “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. In Weird Al’s version, he goes over all sorts of grammar rules. I recommend using his music video in class, maybe as an introduction to what students will learn during the year.

Social Studies:
  • Canadian Idiot” isn't quite as insulting to Canadians as it sounds . It is a parodied version of “American Idiot” by Green Day, and it compares and contrasts the US with Canada.
  • Headline News” is a parody of the Crash Test Dummies' "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm." Weird Al's song contains three news stories from the early nineties (Michael Fay and his Singapore caning, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan’s troubles, and Lorena Bobbitt using a knife on her husband). While the news stories are older and not entirely appropriate, using this song could be a way to get students interested in writing song lyrics summarizing current news stories.

  • Germs” is a fun attention getter to use at the beginning of a unit about bacteria.
  • I Think I’m a Clone Now,” which parodies Tiffany’s version of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” is a catchy tune that can be used in a genetics unit.  After listening to the song and learning about cloning, students can discuss the ethics of human cloning.
  • Living with a Hernia” is Weird Al’s spin on “Living in America” by James Brown. The song can be used in a unit on the human body. It gives listeners a general idea of what hernias are and lists many different varieties of hernias.
  • Pancreas” is a way to introduce this organ and give surprisingly detailed information about what the organ does for the human body.
  • Sir Isaac Newton Vs. Bill Nye” is part of the series Epic Rap Battles of History. It has great physics information. Know your students before you show this video. It does contain one curse word near the end of the video, but teachers can stop the video before this part gets shown without limiting the science content the video contains.
Are there any fun songs you use in your classroom? Do you have ideas for how you can use these Weird Al songs in your classroom?

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