Learning Matters: A helpful dose of middle school

I wasn’t sure why I decided it was time for a visit to middle school, that magical and sometimes challenging place between fifth and ninth grades.

Perhaps it was the longstanding invitation from Wilson Middle School sixth-grade teacher Gail Dunham, whose classes I’ve visited in other parts of the district over the years, including Columbus Elementary and a summer school English-language-development class at Glendale High.


Maybe my weekly musicianship classes with students of middle-school age was another motivation for the visit. As a perennially part-time teacher, I knew I could benefit from a few hours with “a real teacher,” and as I expected, she more than welcomed my request for a visit.

“This year’s group is amazing,” she said in an email. “… I don’t remember having so many strong students ever.”


And the few students who struggle, she said, are helped by the others, “since so much of the work is collaborative.”

I saw that collaboration at work in her five classes of English and social studies.

When I arrived, she was leading her students through a vocabulary exercise to identify definitions and parts of speech. As students gave and defended their answers, Dunham entered their responses on a computer that projected them on a screen to facilitate further discussion.

One lesson moved quickly and seamlessly to the next, with instructive and encouraging feedback.

“Thank you for looking at each word before saying ‘no’ (to providing a definition),” she said to one student.

“You can’t use a form of the word to define the word,” she responded to another, in a matter-of-fact tone meant for everyone.

In her writing assignment, Dunham asked students to state an opinion about the characters in Theodore Taylor’s 1969 novel, “The Cay.” She reviewed the grading rubric, reminded students to cite evidence in the story, elaborate on their opinions and close convincingly.

Then she explained the importance of “the hook” in essay writing.

“Beginnings are an important part of writing a strong essay,” she quoted from a handout, before setting her timer.

“For the next four minutes, work on your [opening] paragraph,” she said, as she began walking around the room answering questions.

While Dunham was answering questions, I asked them, “Why are you choosing one character in the novel over the other as exemplifying courage?”

Sixth-grader Koko Haboian was quick to answer: “You gotta support your argument.”

Like several of the students with whom I spoke, he had started out thinking one character more courageous, but he couldn’t find the evidence to support his opinion.

“It’s like we’re scientists,” he told me. “If you don’t have evidence, you can’t tell it to the public.”

I was not surprised when Haboian told me he hopes one day to develop business products to help people. Meanwhile, he’s enjoying some experience as an actor. His table-mate, Maria Kanayan, is aiming for law school so she can be a human rights activist, and Gabriella Yax said she hopes to do something to help people find affordable housing.

Several of the fifth-period students also participate in journalism, and they willingly described their research projects.

“You get the opportunity to work with other people,” one student told me. She and a classmate are writing about the inconveniences and noise created by the construction of solar panels on the school playing field. Others started investigating unused cafeteria food, but found “there’s not a lot of food left over.”

Bodi Ligons applied to join journalism because he likes to write and was excited when he saw “an experience learning the new things about the school.”

I can relate to Ligons’ enthusiasm after my visit. From what I saw, most students are responding to the school’s focus on positive behaviors. They’re paying attention to the posters around the school encouraging them to be “responsible, kind, reflective,” or “Before you post, think: Is it true? Helpful? Inspiring? Necessary? Kind?”

I’m grateful for my dose of sixth grade. Looking at a copy of “The Cay” from the pile of books Jaqueline Harper was placing in her backpack at the end of class, I noticed the author’s dedication. “To Dr. King’s dream, which can only come true if the very young know and understand.”

The young people I met show many signs of understanding.