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How to Survive a Squirrel Outside Your Window (and other middle school teacher tricks for the end of

As the weather warms and the sun starts to shine, our students just want to be outside--and God forbid they see a squirrel outside the window. It seems like at the end of the school year, the smallest distraction can send middle school students (and consequently their teachers) into a whirlwind.

So how do we encourage learning as the temperatures rise and our kids get antsy to enjoy the sunshine (and quite frankly, so do we)? There are some simple ways that you can adapt any lesson to get kids engaged in learning--and they won't even notice that squirrel.

The key is to make what's going on inside your classroom more engaging than anything happening outside the window.

1. Make it a Game

It is well documented that kids learn through play. At the middle level, play takes the form of hands on learning and games. To make gaming happen in your classroom, start with the standards. What standard or skill are you hoping to teach and how can you get students there in an interactive way?

Students are on their feet matching literary elements to their definitions and examples.

To turn standards based lessons into a game, you don't have to reinvent the wheel: think of games you already know and adapt the rules to fit your needs. Heads Up, Apples to Apples, and the TV show Survivor all make perfect learning games with a touch of creativity and planning.

If you're short on planning time, task cards and flashcards can easily be turned into quick games to use in the classroom. Kids can sort cards with terms and definitions as a simple warm up or review game.

To make it a game, I put students in groups with one set of words and definitions per group. The first group to match all terms wins. Easy. Kids love this activity. It's quick, low maintenance, effective in terms of learning, and it gets kids moving, engaged, and talking. (Check out my task cards for literary elements here.)

Of course, games should never be used as a filler or without purpose. Our kids will see right through it and it wastes valuable learning time. Instead, create standards based games that get kids engaged and learning. It's a win-win.

2. Get Kids on Their Feet

Sometimes we forget how long secondary students spend sitting. They often sit through class after class and we only see a 40ish minute glimpse of that (This article about a veteran teacher who followed her students around for two days made me rethink my teaching).

With a few simple tweaks to already existing lessons, you can get kids moving and in turn, learning. Engage NY and Expeditionary Learning have some great protocol that I use all the time in my classroom (you can find them here).

Two of my favorite protocol are back to back/face to face and GoGoMo. I use these protocol quite often and kids never tire of them. They love the interaction and the chance to walk around and meet with new partners each time.

Back to Back and Face to Face protocol in action.

In the Back to Back/Face to Face protocol, students are told to, text in hand, find a partner and stand back to back. I read a text based question to the students and give them a minute to think through their answer and find text based evidence to support it.

When students are ready (I wait for the uncomfortable silence feeling that forces students to really dive into their books), I shout, "Face to face!" Students face each other and take turns sharing answers and evidence (encourage them to ask for evidence if their partner forgets).

As discussion winds down, I cold call students to share answers with the class. All students will have had the opportunity to work through their answer before sharing with the class. I love this activity because it gets all students involved and gives struggling students a chance to work through their answers before whole class sharing takes place. Back to Back/Face to Face levels the playing field.

GoGoMo stands for Give One, Get One, Move On. In this protocol, students write answers to a question that has multiple answers or they write examples of a term or concept (ex. Name a trait of the main character and find text evidence to support it). Next, the teacher instructs students to bring a piece of paper and GoGoMo. Students find a partner, give an answer to their partner, get an answer from him/her, then move on to a new partner and repeat.

When I use GoGoMo in my classroom, I start by going over the instructions for the protocol and sharing the task. I give students time to compose their answer, then I set a timer for 3-5 minutes for students to GoGoMo.

After students have shared with several partners, we bring the discussion to the whole class. Once again, students are moving and engaged during the activity. Plus, when students are done, they ALL have several answers to share with the whole class, leveling the playing field for the students.

3. Plan Student Directed Learning

Student directed learning is something I aim for all year, especially at the end of the school year when students know my classroom expectations and their roles in groups. Even if you haven't used student directed learning, the end of the year is a great time to introduce it. Give students the steering wheel to their learning. Let them do the work.

Student directed learning takes more planning and upfront work, but it pays off during class time when students are plugged into their work completely engaged in their learning. My two favorite types of student directed learning in the ELA classroom are literature circles and learning stations, which are great for writing.

Literature circles are meaningful and student directed.

To set up literature circles, gather enough sets of novels for students to read in groups of three or four. Establish group roles so each student has a specific purpose. For my literature circles, I used the roles of Discussion Director, Literary Luminary, Word Wizard, and Taskmaster.

The Discussion Director leads discussion and reviews the day's standards based learning target and activity. The Taskmaster reviews roles for the students, keeps the group on task, and is in charge of timing the group's activities. The Word Wizard reviews powerful vocabulary from the previous night's reading and is in charge of adding powerful vocabulary (especially domain specific) to the group's answers. Finally, the Literary Luminary is in charge of referring back to the text often and making sure the group's answers are text based and backed up with evidence.

Most literature circle activities take about four weeks. My students switch roles weekly, giving each member of a literature circle the chance to try out a different role and take on new responsibilities. I like giving students a comprehensive packet when we start literature circles so all of our activities are outlined and I know when we start that the activities are geared towards mastering specific standards and learning targets.

The rest is up to the students. They lead the way. Each activity is carefully designed so students are using the text as a tool for learning. They dive deeper into the text with each activity, completing analysis of the author's writing with their literature circle , then applying what they learn in their own writing inspired by the author.

I have to confess: at first it's scary to step back from the role of leader to the role of facilitator, but when we do that as teachers, we are empowering our students and their learning. Just wait to see how much students grow when we give them chance.

Similar to literature circles, Learning Stations are also student directed and they can be implemented for almost any study. Learning stations lend perfectly to working through the writing process AND have the added bonus that they cut teacher grading time in half (I'm sold!).

To set up learning stations, decide what standards you want your students to work on mastering, then set up enough activities around the classroom so that students can work through stations in groups of about 4 students (ideally). I like to arrange stations so one of the activities is to conference with me. When students reach this station, I review a specific skill or expectation, then give each student in the group about 2 minutes to share highlights from his/her work.

When my students are in the revision stage of writing, I love using learning stations to help them polish their work. I set up one station for analyzing exemplar writing, one for revising text based evidence, one station for polishing claims, one for word choice, another for sentence structure and paragraphing, one for peer editing, and finally a station where students meet with me.

Since I've started using learning stations in my classroom, I've noticed that students take more responsibility for the quality of their writing and their writing skills have, overall, improved. Students are learning to use tools available to them, like mentor texts and exemplars, to improve the quality of their own writing, a skill that will carry them well beyond middle school. Learning Stations also give me valuable time to conference with students before they hand in their writing. They can apply my feedback immediately and ask clarifying questions. Implementing learning stations empowers our young writers.


In no other profession does one need a survival guide for a squirrel outside the window, but this is the reality for middle school teachers, especially as the weather warms and everyone wants to run outside to enjoy it. As my ninth grade social studies teacher once said, "You have to adapt to survive!" By making our lessons engaging through game play, interactive learning, and student driven activities, our classrooms will BE the place students want to experience.

Enjoy getting your kids on their feet and excited about ELA.


Check out my four week literature circle unit: Narratives as Mentor Texts by clicking here.

My end of year plans: literature circles!

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