english, language arts, middle school, reading, teacher

4 Ways to Appeal to a Middle Schooler’s Inner Child (And Help Them Learn!)

5 Steps for Dealing with all the Information (2)

In a lot of ways, it might seem that middle schoolers, especially on the 6th grade end, are still little kids. But as they approach 8th grade and then head off to high school, they have many of the capabilities of an adult (and they’ll make sure you know it, too!).

However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a small child inside them that delights in the ridiculous and silly. They don’t mind indulging in the “little kid” stuff if everyone else is doing it, too. It’s also a great way to build community and increase student motivation in your classroom. Here are a few ideas to consider for a middle school language arts classroom:


A couple years ago, there was a crazy good deal on Play-Doh at a local dollar store, and on a whim, I purchased a few sets for my classroom. (Disclaimer: I did this without a Clear Plan at the time, which I know can be dangerous, but it was only two bucks.)

Then, our first full week of school, we were reading the short story Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs, and I had a few groups of students who finished their reading and assignment ahead of the rest of the class. We were talking about the ending, where the reader never actually sees what’s behind the door, and who — or what — was knocking on the door, and then I had the idea that my students could sculpt out of Play-Doh what they thought the thing at the door looked like.

As soon as I got out the Play-Doh, there was an immediate chorus of oohs and aahs and squeals of, “Is that for us?”  Students were saying how they hadn’t played with Play-Doh since kindergarten, and how they liked the smell, and best of all, they were talking about the story in a deeper way, with “what if’s” and good-natured disagreements with one another.


Remember, I’m teaching ELA, not Advanced Sculpture.

So occasionally, throughout the rest of the year, I would get out the Play-Doh when people got done early and have them make a sculpture that was relevant to our current text in some way. It was win-win-win — a reward for being focused and getting work done, a way for me to have students engaged without giving additional work, and a strategy for interacting with the story in a different way.

Read Alouds

I have seen a few blogs recently write on the benefits of reading aloud to kids of any age, and not just in elementary grades, but it seems like it is still not very common. And I’m almost 100% sure the primary reason is — time.

That was my biggest concern before I started last year, and I still worried about it while I was doing it, but it seemed to work out in the end. And my students really enjoyed it. I always read at the start of class, and I could visibly see them relax, settle into their seats, and just listen, knowing they could just enjoy the story for itself.

Now, some teachers say you need to read a little bit every day, and/or you shouldn’t have students do anything while you’re reading, and I have to admit I didn’t do either of these. I read a lot of days, but if I truly felt crunched for time, I would not read that day. And for the most part, students just listened, but I did also use that time for papers to be passed back and organized quietly and notebook inserts to be taped in. I made sure they were tasks that were silent and automatic, so they could still listen to me read.

While we didn’t formally discuss the book, I did like how the students would naturally fall into conversation with their classmates or me when I was done reading, discuss that day’s events, and get emotionally involved with the characters. I also used some sentences from our read alouds as mentor sentences. Overall, I felt like the extra time was worth it, and I’m definitely going to continue reading aloud his year.

I would strongly recommend Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, especially for 8th graders, as it’s about an 8th grade boy throughout his school year, and his little brother’s battle with cancer. Despite the subject matter, it’s also really funny. An English teacher, Jordan Sonnenblick, wrote it!

drums girls

Playing Pretend

As developing writers, I want my students to seek creativity in everything, and still feel the magic of when they were kids and believed in pretend worlds and people. This all depends on my students that year, and what types of situations come up, but here are a few ways their imaginations have been used in class:

  • Pretending that there is a secret passageway behind my bookshelf (I’ll have to take a photo once my classroom is put back together, but it is door-sized, and is always filled with binders). I gave them a journal prompt where they had to think about how it opened and what was behind the shelf.
  • There is a squirrel family that lives in the tree outside my classroom windows. Convenient, I know. They always manage to be extremely active during my classes, especially when I’m instructing. But rather than yell at the kids for looking (especially when I sometimes have to give in to temptation and watch them myself), I had them come up with the squirrels’ names and origin story.


Senior portrait of one of the squirrels outside my window.

  • Last year, I had 79 students, and it really bothered me that there wasn’t an even 80, so I made up an imaginary student to get to my desired number. His name is Herman Melrose. He likes to wear hoodies and take solitary walks on the beach. I didn’t expect him to become as accepted as he did, but Herman quickly became part of the class, and he would get casual references all the time. Poor Herman also got blamed for things that went missing, but most of the time, he was a great student.


This photo really captures Herman’s personality.


Who doesn’t love stickers? I use them as little rewards or put them occasionally on assignments. I know we’re supposed to go easy on the extrinsic rewards, but sometimes it’s nice to just get a good old-fashioned sticker for a job well done. My students were proud to have their collections build throughout the year. Here’s the sticker book similar to the one I used last year, inspired by a post from the fabulous teacher blogger Love, Teach:

sticker book.jpg

What are other ways you appeal to your older students’ inner children?