Alan Green

Episode 9 - Working with Middle School Learners / Transcript

Blog Post created by Alan Green on Mar 16, 2021

NAAE Connect Podcast | National Association of Agricultural Educators 

 

Alan Green:

Welcome to Connect. A podcast by the National Association of Agricultural Educators. No matter how long you've been in the classroom, we as agricultural educators know the power that connections play in bettering ourselves as educators and strengthening our profession. Connect is a podcast by the National Association of Agricultural Educators and works to educate listeners about NAAE resources, inform them of new and innovative practices and connect current and future agricultural educators and supporters.

 

Alan Green:

I'm your host, Alan Green. We are excited that you're here, so let's get started. Hey there and welcome to Connect a podcast by the National Association of Agricultural Educators, I'm excited that you're here. In today's episode, we'll be talking all about working with middle school students. The ups, the downs, the good, the bad and the ugly and how you as an agricultural educator can make the most of their unique qualities. In my past experiences as a high school and middle school agricultural educator, I know that middle school students can be some of the most fun, unpredictable, excited, engaging students to work with.

 

Alan Green:

Yet, they can also sometimes be some of the most challenging to work with, too. I think it's important to acknowledge that this topic may be applicable to some listeners more than others and that's okay. No matter where you sit in this topic, from working full-time with middle school students, to never working with this age group, we hope that you enjoy this episode and can find a few takeaways to implement into your own teaching practices.

 

Alan Green:

For today's episode, we're joined by two agricultural educators who have vast experience working with middle school learners. Today we're joined by Dr. Jessica Jones, agricultural educator at Tunstall High School in Virginia and Mr. Matt Detloff, who teaches at Chiefland Middle School in Florida. Jessica and Matt, thank you so much for joining us and we are excited to have this conversation with both of you.

 

Jessica Jones:

Thanks for having me.

 

Matthew Detloff:

Glad to be here.

 

Alan Green:

So to kick off our conversation, Jessica, would you like to introduce yourself to our listeners? Who you are, where you teach and how you're connected to this topic?

 

Jessica Jones:

Awesome. So I'm Dr. Jessica Jones. I started teaching long ago in 2004 and I currently teach at Tunstall High School in Virginia. And my experience with middle school students includes when I was an undergrad, I actually helped to host our state middle school CDE's, like Quiz Bowl and Food and Fiber. And I got to interact with the students then and see from a different perspective, what it looked like to set up a contest but also how students process that information. And when I first started teaching, I taught at William Campbell Combined, where I had middle schoolers, as well as high schoolers, grades six through 12. And then I moved into Pennsylvania County where I became the Agricultural Sciences teacher at Chatham Middle School and spent about seven years there before I came here to Tunstall High School.

 

Alan Green:

Awesome. Thank you, Jessica. Matthew, would you want to introduce yourself to our listeners?

 

Matthew Detloff:

Sure. Matthew Detloff. I am an agriculture teacher in Florida at Chiefland Middle High School. I have been teaching agriculture for 11 years. I started in 2008, took a couple years off, then came back to teaching. I've taught primarily at middle school. About five years ago, I took on a high school class along with my middle school classes but I'm still, a majority of the time, teaching middle school.

 

Alan Green:

I'm really excited about today's conversation because I've had the opportunity of working with middle schoolers in the past. And I think sometimes they get a bad rap and sometimes they can seem really scary and intimidating. There might be a little bit of truth there, but I also think that they are some phenomenal students to work with. So my first question for both of you is, what is your favorite part about working with middle school students as compared to traditional high school students?

 

Matthew Detloff:

I personally think it's the excitement they have. My sixth graders run to class still today. I have them for semester long classes and I've had them for a full quarter now, but yet they're still running to class because they're just a very high energy, highly excited group.

 

Jessica Jones:

I would say, I agree with that. And it's just the newness. It's being able to see their reaction when they connect information and it's like, "Wow, that's a really cool concept." And then they latch on to it and then you can see in them, like, "Show me more, show me more." So I really love the excitement that middle school students have but when you can see in them that they've learned something and they have a hunger to learn more, it's just super exciting and very fulfilling.

 

Alan Green:

Absolutely. I remember thinking that, sometimes I would present a lab to high school students and I'm four years older than the majority of them and it was difficult for them to be engaged. But with middle school students, I always found that they tend to be always right in. They want to be a part of it. They want to know what they're learning about. They want to be excited, which I think is really cool. On the flip side of it, you both have tremendous experience working with those middle school students. What is challenging? Where do you find you're struggling with teaching middle school students? How do you address those issues? What are your challenges with middle school students?

 

Jessica Jones:

To me, one of the greatest challenges is where some students are the middle of the road, particularly seventh grade because they look back and it's like, "Oh, I want to do things that are in elementary school." But then they want to spring ahead and, "I want to drive and I want to be able to be independent." And sometimes it's being able to communicate with them in that space, in that place at that time. And sometimes it just doesn't connect. And it's that level of maturity as they're going through things like puberty and literally no two minutes are exactly the same with the middle school student. And it's being able to ride the wave with them and help support them as they continue to grow.

 

Matthew Detloff:

I have to echo the fact of, it's a very awkward stage for them. Seventh grade especially, they're wanting to still be the sixth grade student or the elementary school student, but they're also realizing they're beginning to get their independence and they want to be more like the high school students. It's really apparent at my school just because we are a middle high school. So they see the high schoolers and all the things that they're able to do. And sometimes that gets to be the challenging part, reminding them, "Hey, you're not in 10th, 11th, 12th grade yet, you're still a middle schooler."

 

Alan Green:

And so going off of that, when you have those students who, I guess, want to push the boundaries a little bit, how do you bring them back in? How do you keep that classroom control? When they're excited to move on and they're excited to be at that high school level, how do you keep that control in your classroom?

 

Matthew Detloff:

One thing I have to remember is that you can't hold grudges or get frustrated with them and carry it into the next day. I joke around that sixth graders are like goldfish and instead of the 24-second memory, it's like a 24-hour memory. So even if they've made you completely aggravated one day, you have to let it go with them because the next day they're not going to remember it. But when trying to get them back on that day, it just takes patience some days. It's funny because one of my groups a few years ago told me that I had telltale signs when I was getting ready to raise my voice and biting my upper lip. And I always told them, it's to keep me from saying something that I shouldn't say to them.

 

Alan Green:

Right. Right.

 

Jessica Jones:

So, when you talked about the 24-hour selective memory, I had a flashback and I quietly was laughing inside because I remember very vividly having students that would do just crazy, bizarre things. And the next day, like, "Okay, I'm ready to go." And I'm like, "What happened to you?" So it's having that thought process of, okay, they may not really recall what they did and we're going to have to move on. But instead of yelling at them, I would do the exact opposite. I'd just get dead silent and they'd be like, "Oh no, we angered her." You know?

 

Jessica Jones:

And it would be like the shh across the classroom, like, "Shut up, shut up. Be quiet, be quiet." And then they would start to regulate themselves. So I thought that was pretty interesting knowing that their pressure point was, we don't want to upset her. And if she gets quiet, what did we do wrong? Was one of the things that helped them realize, "Okay, we went way out of bounds, let's stop." And that helped me a lot.

 

Matthew Detloff:

They definitely still like to please in middle school, which is a benefit and something you have to use to your advantage.

 

Jessica Jones:

Exactly, definitely. And I think that's one of the things that people miss out on. They forget that in that phase of life, they still want to be loved. You know, they want to be rough and tough and like, "No, I'm independent." But they still want love and affection and they want to be able to say they did a good job. And I know that most of the middle school students that I've had would just bust their behind wide open, just so I can say, "Good job." And that to me is something that's very special and very unique about middle school students. It's just that desire and drive to want to do good but know that their acknowledged for it.

 

Alan Green:

And I've noticed in my past experiences, too, that not only do they want to be loved by the teachers and by parents, they also want to be loved and recognized by their peers. They want that attention, they want to be known for something specific or unique, at least in the school that I taught at. My next question for you is, and Matthew, you talked a little bit about this. Middle school students, they have a very short attention span. How do you keep middle school students engaged and excited in your class? Do you structure your time differently when it comes to middle school students versus high school students? What are your methods for keeping them excited and engaged when they're not really able to sit in one spot for very long.

 

Matthew Detloff:

You got to use that to your advantage. We all have our ag ed programs that show us how to break down the lesson planned into 15-minute intervals. And as long as you're following that, I feel you get a lot of that out of there. Sometimes it's just, you got to make sure in those 15-minutes, you're giving them a chance to get rid of some of that energy. You're also got to give them a chance to be engaged or to give their opinions about it because if you try to keep a class quiet the whole entire time, you might get lucky and get it done once or twice, but it's not the norm.

 

Alan Green:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Jessica Jones:

I would lean on the agreement of that. I know that with my students, regardless of what County I was in, it was very similar in nature. Give them something that they can focus on and then manipulate. And then ask them questions along the way, just to see how they're processing the information and then give them the ability to explain how they got to the end goal. And that to me helps satisfy some of that, "Oh, okay. The attention's on me right now."

 

Jessica Jones:

The other part is keeping them from hurting or maiming each other in the process. Because if you try to keep middle-school students in the seat too long, they do get fidgety and they get agitated. And then they start attacking their peers because they really don't know how to handle themselves. So just being able to give them something that they can manipulate, discuss, explain, get up and move, discuss, explain, keeps their mind engaged and then moving and active and it also minimizes class disruption.

 

Matthew Detloff:

Yeah, the energy level. You definitely have to monitor it and make sure that you're giving them enough outlet with it.

 

Alan Green:

Matthew, I really liked what you said about using that towards your advantage. And I would argue, too, that as a middle school ag class, you have so much power. They're sitting in classes that maybe, I hate to say it, are a little bit boring for them. And so you have an opportunity to really make the class exciting and engaging and get them excited about agricultural education. When we're talking and Jessica, you mentioned it a little bit, too. What are some of the rules and expectations that you have for your middle school students that might look a little bit different then high school students? Again, referring back to how do you control the classroom but still give them that creative freedom or that ability to express themselves within control?

 

Jessica Jones:

Okay. So interesting enough, I have five basic rules to follow and it's all around the purpose of, this is our house. So we don't fuss, we don't cuss, we do not tear our house down. We work together because we're all here to learn and grow. So the first thing is to respect one another and we spend time talking about that. Like, what does respect look like to them, so that they understand how they should model that for other people and be able to identify when they see it, not just in the classroom, but somewhere else.

 

Jessica Jones:

The second rule, be polite at all times. Being able to show middle school students, here's a model or expectation of what it means to be a teenager and an adult and to use your manners. Yes ma'am, no ma'am, yes or no, sir. Please and thank you and you're welcome. And why that's important for not just what goes on in the classroom but what you do in life. And then how those expectations tie into when you get a job and you're working and how you want people to treat you.

 

Jessica Jones:

And then the third rule is, no victim language. We use the language of the responsible. We don't say, "I didn't know, nobody told me," or bad words because we need to be responsible for ourselves. We need to be able to say, "Yes, I made a mistake. I own up to it and I will fix it." Because again, that's a part of the growth process. But using that in the classroom as a rule, helps them to understand how to use that when they walk out of the classroom.

 

Jessica Jones:

And then the fourth thing is, follow the rules. So if you know you're supposed to do it, then do it. And if you're not supposed to do it, don't do it or I would give you the sha- [00:14:44]no- [00:14:44]- no [00:14:45] shame, the shake of a finger, like tt,tt,tt, don't do that. And they would know, "Oh no, I did something that was a rule and I broke it." You know? And it would bring to attention in their minds that I should probably not do that again because she gave me the sha-no-no no shame.

 

Jessica Jones:

And then to repeat steps one through four. And that would be something that would be done on a daily basis. And then I turned it into, this is how you get graded on a daily basis because it counts. It counts for not just how you perform in life but how you perform academically, as well. And for those students that left out and went to the high school, they were like, "Oh yeah, that really helped." And I said, "You're welcome."

 

Alan Green:

I love that. I love those five basic rules. I think those are wonderful. How about you, Matthew? How do you set ground rules for your middle school students?

 

Matthew Detloff:

I guess I would say as far as middle school versus high school, I keep the same rules just because I keep a very basic set. You don't want to have 50,000 rules for them. You want to have some very simple ... The respect, is the biggest one for me. Like Jessica was saying, respect is a big thing, especially with the middle school kids because they're trying to find their place. But if you tear them down, even if it's between each other, it's not a good thing. But I have the respect, the listen, the hand raising is always a big thing because they do get excited and they all want to say the answers, which rolls right back into respect.

 

Matthew Detloff:

But I just try to keep them simple and same thing with the consequences. You got to keep them simple and you have to enforce them. The first time you start letting the kids get off with the rule is when that rule no longer will stand. So it's the same principles to me, middle school, high school or even elementary school. And I don't really vary between my middle school and my high school kids with what rules we have.

 

Alan Green:

And I saw that in my teaching experience, that I remember my first year. I set rules but I didn't necessarily enforce them or refer back to them. And then when I made that conscious change in my mind that I was going to enforce them, that's when I really saw the power of them. Which I would argue that that's valuable in any classroom, to set those ground rules but also enforce them and use them and continue to reiterate them when students are doing things that are against them or when students are doing the opposite and they're performing as you wish.

 

Alan Green:

So those are, both of you, great points. Thank you for sharing. Let's talk a little bit about energy. I remember thinking middle school students, they require a lot of energy. How do you keep up with that energy requirement and how do you find and keep that energy to keep your classrooms going when you're working with some really energetic students?

 

Matthew Detloff:

I think you got to feed off of theirs, more than anything else. Because as adults, it's a lot harder for us to stay high energy. Sometimes you just have to go with it and if they get that energy level, you got to jump on it and go with it. Other than that, staying positive yourself is something that I have to remind myself. And for a lot of it, the FFA component is really where I gained a lot of energy from my middle school kids and with what I'm doing. The excitement they have for these competitions, the drive they have for it, it pushes me to want to do even better with them in it.

 

Jessica Jones:

I agree, just getting silly with them. I remember just being able to sit in the classroom and just look at the giggles and then just start giggling with them and not judging them. I know that middle school students, in their awkward phases of life, they're hyper sensitive to everything. But being able to let them know, "I see you, I hear you. And yes, that's funny to me, too." I think helps with that energy level because then when they see that you can connect with them, you can actually control it, as well. So it's like, "Oh, we're all laughing, we all laugh together." If we're not all supposed to be laughing, then you bring it back to center.

 

Jessica Jones:

And then, too, with the FFA events, when they get super pumped and excited and they're like, "Yeah, we're going to convention," or "Yeah, we're going to do forestry judging," just the littlest things make them happy because of the experiences. And then when they have those low points of, "Oh man, I didn't get first." It's like, "Okay, you can try again next year." You know? And then they're like, "Oh, right." It's always maintaining, like Matthew said, the positivity and keeping them focused on, "We're in this together." And then riding that energy wave with them, which can be tiring but it's a pretty cool ride.

 

Matthew Detloff:

Yeah. Sometimes you just have to take a break. Some of my kids want to start practicing during lunch and I finally had to tell them, "Look, lunch is time for me to eat with other teachers, so that I can have a break from you guys." And you just have to have that sometimes.

 

Alan Green:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think, too, capitalizing on that energy. And if you have one student who's really excited about doing an FFA contest or really excited in class, jump on that opportunity to get other students involved and excited. I think that they're at that age in their life where they have so many opportunities and they want to do so many different things and they want to experience different things, capitalize on that and get them excited and engaged.

 

Alan Green:

So that rules a little bit into my next question. Middle school students, really for the first time, they're really being introduced to a lot of different opportunities in front of them, whether that's other extracurricular activities, different classes that are at school. My question for the two of you is, how do you get students engaged and excited about agricultural education? How do you almost ... What's your hook? How do you get them to be successful and to join agricultural education and stay involved through their high school years when they're middle schoolers.

 

Jessica Jones:

So this might sound strange but I literally think I have one of everything on the planet that deals with agriculture. And if and when we would change to something, that would be the focal point of the conversation. To give them the hands-on, the look, feel, touch, to open up their sensories. And then to ask them, "Have you seen this before? Have you experienced this before? Would you like to? Here's how." So just being able to give them something that they could tangibly say, "Oh, that's how it connects to this thing that we're about to do."

 

Jessica Jones:

And I think over time, I evolved from let's do videos to hear things to, "Okay, talk about your experiences. What are some of the things that you're already doing and how do you want to grow from that? Let's see how we can match where you already fit into this particular thing that is being offered." And that really hooked a lot of kids to go, "Well, I didn't know. I was already doing that." Well hey, well, let's keep working on it. And then to watch them grow, that's the spot top of the list experience to be able to see that they started it and then they continued on with it. And it came from that spark of, "I didn't know."

 

Matthew Detloff:

I think, Alan, you may have mentioned it earlier but we are their first time, besides special area classes in elementary school, where they get to do something outside of the norm. We have a lot more to offer as far as being engaging stuff, being able to go to a land lab, physically doing things, kinesthetically, growing plants, messing with the animals. So I think that is a big selling point for a lot of these kids. It gets some out of the norm and I think with their energy levels it just excites them that much more.

 

Alan Green:

Absolutely. And Jessica, I was going to add to, that there's a lot of great first day activities out there to really build that connection of what agriculture is and how they're connected to it. So yeah, I think that middle schoolers are such a fun age to work with and there's so many opportunities to get them excited early on.

 

Alan Green:

So in 2020, one thing that we've learned is that things can change and there might be some agricultural educators out there who are finding themselves teaching middle school classes for the first time. Maybe there was a staff change or maybe the program is expanding and they've been asked to take on middle school classes. What would you say to them? And how would you guide them? How would you guide someone who's never had experience working with middle school students before?

 

Matthew Detloff:

The first thing, jump right in. Don't be afraid to interact with them. They're tiny adults in a sense, they want to be treated with respect and as adults don't be afraid to have fun with them. As Jessica said earlier, laugh with them, make jokes, create those connections. And if you can do that, you can definitely tap into their energy, keep up with them. And they also, like I said earlier, learn so much about you and how you react and engage that they're enjoyable. They're just awkward.

 

Alan Green:

I love that.

 

Jessica Jones:

I would agree with that. They're just little people and they're going through a really rough time in life. And to understand that you've been given the position to help guide them through that and they're going to rely and depend on you. And quite frankly, you're shaping that seventh grader to be the 12th grader that you're going to watch graduate. And a lot of those behaviors that you put into them then, don't come back out.

 

Jessica Jones:

So it's really awesome to be able to have almost that shepherding ability to be able to shape them early on and then help instill those values in them as they move on. And to realize that they really maybe don't mean to do things that they do and then don't be so hard on them. Make things a teachable moment as much as possible because they are literally trying to learn and grow in real time and it's really fast for them. And they're trying to keep up with all the changes going on in their minds and bodies, as well.

 

Matthew Detloff:

And if I can interrupt real quick, life lessons are important with these middle schoolers. I find that I give them more life lessons in the middle of my class when they do things, then really getting mad at them or wanting to have to punish them. It's more of, "Okay, so we did this. Why?"

 

Jessica Jones:

Exactly, exactly.

 

Alan Green:

Those are, both of you, wonderful points about working with middle school students. Now we could probably have an entirely different episode about this topic. So maybe just a couple of thoughts that you have. If there are teachers out there who are interested in expanding their agricultural education programs to include middle school, what would you say to them and how would you direct them so that they could hopefully make that happen?

 

Matthew Detloff:

Well, this may answer the last question a little better but I know when I'm creating my curriculum for my classes, I always look at my activities that I want to do along with what I need to teach. So I'm like, "Okay, FFA officers, for example. The activity we're going to do, we're going to do OCC." And then I start there and then I go back to, what else am I doing with them to make sure they understand the importance of FFA officers and why the opening and closing ceremonies is so important.

 

Matthew Detloff:

As far as the resources, there's a ton of stuff out there. National FFA has offered a lot of stuff. The Communities of Practice has a ton of stuff and almost everything that is out there that's for high school can be used in the middle school. The biggest thing, as far as recruiting, is give these kids an opportunity to take your classes. And there's a lot of them who just want a chance to take an ag class in middle school.

 

Jessica Jones:

I would say flexibility, adaptability and focus. So you want to make sure that you integrate all the pieces of the three circle model for those students right when they walk through the door in sixth grade. Don't feel like they can't handle it, it's quite the opposite. They can handle it and they want the challenge so they can prove that they accomplished the task. So to the point that Matthew made, I was giving high school material to my middle school students, intentionally. So they would be able to process the information faster and they would be able to do that.

 

Jessica Jones:

And then I would be like, "Okay well, let's expand on this." And seeing that transition between those in sixth and seventh and eighth grade, as they went through the entire middle school program, when they went to ninth grade, they were hungry for even more. So I would encourage anybody to just take a pause and realize that you can give them as much as you can handle. They can handle it, as well. And then to give the challenge to them that these are all the three pieces of what we do in ag ed and that you can grow from that and continue to grow through it when you get into high school. And then that makes them more familiar with the information. It makes the transition for them a little easier, as well.

 

Matthew Detloff:

Well I'm going on with what Jessica's saying in the three circle model, I'm lucky enough to live in a very rural area and teach in a rural area where these kids are doing the SAE part, the at home learning. And being able to bring that in and say, "Hey, you're already doing it" just gives them that much more of a buy-in. So understanding who your customer is of these students, is also very important. And I agree with, if you set a bar at a certain level, they will try to work for it. They will rise as far as they can go.

 

Alan Green:

Matt, you and Jessica, as we wrap up tonight's conversation, do you have any last thoughts or words of wisdom for agricultural educators in regards to working with middle school students?

 

Jessica Jones:

I would say give them a chance. I know that I've heard teachers, including my colleagues, when we were coming through school and even those are pre-service. Well, I want to teach at my home high school but then the middle school program might be open. It's still about teaching agricultural science and agricultural education for the bigger picture and give the kids a chance. They want to learn and they will do, they just need to have you as the teacher to help guide them through that process.

 

Matthew Detloff:

Echoing with Jessica, I hear a lot of high school teachers tell me it takes a special person to teach a middle school. And I really don't think it does. I think it just takes someone who's willing to give them that chance and to give yourself that chance to open up and have fun with it. If you don't have fun doing it, you're not going to connect with them. And they're going to realize this person's here just to have a job. And when they know you care about them and the fact that you're there for them, they want to do for you.

 

Alan Green:

I love both of those points. Jessica and Matthew, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate the insight that you provided and the encouragement that you've also offered to our members for working with middle school students. Take care.

 

Matthew Detloff:

Thank you.

 

Jessica Jones:

Thank you.

 

Alan Green:

Thank you for joining us for this episode of Connect, a podcast by the National Association of Agriculture Educators. It's always hard to say goodbye but we'll be back with more episodes to help you build even more connections to help you grow as a professional. If you like what you've heard, we'd love to have you subscribe, rate or give us a review on iTunes or whatever platform you use, so we can help connect more agricultural educators through our podcast. Until next time.

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