By Ivy Dalley
6th Grade ELA and Social Studies, Mancos Middle School
Finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year
When I look back on my own educational experiences in middle school I never remember the math test that I took or the daily homework assignments at the kitchen table each evening. When we look back at the awkward moments of growing up I am sure we all can remember the experiences and the moments where our own educators took a risk in escaping the norm of the workbooks and the whiteboard lectures. One particular example that surprises me is that I can remember odd facts about soil quality. Growing up in a rural community where farming was prevalent we went out into the backyard of our school to a local corn field and monitored the quality of the soil and gave real world advice to the local farmer. As an eighth grade student this was powerful.
Taking a Risk and Breaking the Norm
As educators we need to be comfortable with breaking away from traditional educational practices and taking risks. For example, heading out into our historical surroundings and getting students outside can be a risk. There is the typical stress and worry about all of the things that can go wrong in a field study with students. The learning benefits I see outweigh these risks. Students get to experience history first hand rather than just reading about this history in a book. In my class we take multiple field study trips each year. Our goal is to incorporate life skills, outdoor skills and standards into our curriculum for these trips. When we get outside with our students we see a different side of them. This is my favorite part of these field studies. Students thrive when they are put in a setting where they get hands-on experiences and they get to explore their natural world.
Middle school students want authenticity. They crave it. How many times have you heard a middle schooler ask when they will ever need to use this specific content information in their lives? Giving students voice and choice in their lessons allows them to really connect with the project and grow in their education. Sometimes it can be intimidating to give our students the creative freedom they crave. When my students decided they wanted to create an interactive museum exhibit and showcase it in a real museum I panicked. I was so worried about the idea of failure and whether or not we could pull off this grand idea. Once I embraced the idea of failure and thought of it as a learning opportunity I could see all of the benefits that were to come from this project. My students had to make connections with their surroundings and use the people and resources available to them. In the end they created exactly what they had planned, allowing them to learn skills that extend beyond the confines of our standards.
Using our Community
Colorado is rich in history and outdoors experiences. No matter if we teach in a rural or urban district, there are opportunities right out our doorsteps. If we take the time to build connections within our communities with our middle school students, maybe we can change the sometimes negative perception the world has on middle schoolers. Brainstorming projects with your students and looking at how you can incorporate their ideas on how we can improve our communities can change our projects from ordinary to extraordinary. This gets our students thinking about their communities and ways they can apply their skills and knowledge to real world situations. One way I have engaged my students with the community is involving them with the town board and having my students present their projects for improvement of the community to them.
Ivy Dalley is a middle school ELA and Social Studies teacher. She was recently recognized as one of 7 finalists for the 2024 Colorado Teacher of the Year.