It seems like it’s getting harder to get my middle school students interested in a topic. I’ve strained my brain trying to come up with new ideas. Am I the only one in this situation? —B., Arizona
You are not alone! Students have many distractions (e.g., electronics, social media), extracurricular activities, and other responsibilities competing for their time and energy. I’m sure you’ve used activities and investigations, multimedia, and a variety of instructional strategies, but it’s still a challenge.
Rather than taking on the entire responsibility of making science relevant, ask your students about their interests. This could be on the questionnaire you give them at the beginning of the year or periodically on an exit ticket in class. You can refer to the list of interests to make connections to lessons and build on student interests.
A KWL (Knows, Wants to know, and has Learned) chart can also provide insights into what students know or want to know (or wonder about). But in my experience, when asked about their interests, middle schoolers often will say “I don’t know,” try to leave the W column blank, or shrug their shoulders. Sometimes they’re afraid to try or think about something new. Sometimes it’s “cool” to act disinterested in anything academic. And sometimes students honestly don’t know much about the world beyond them.
We shouldn’t underestimate the teacher’s role in broadening student’ interests and horizons. For a professional development project, I conducted focus group interviews with high school students. One of the questions was “Did you ever think that a topic in class was going to be boring, but it turned out to be really interesting?” The students all responded positively and we followed up with the question “So what made the topic interesting to you?” All of the students said that it was something the teacher did that changed their minds: the teacher’s passion or enthusiasm for the topic, the teacher sharing a personal interest or experience, the teacher assigning interesting and challenging projects with options the students could choose from, or the teacher helping them make connections between the topic and their own experiences and interests.
Your enthusiasm can be contagious, as students enjoy hearing stories of your personal interests. When I shared some photos I had taken of coral reefs in the Caribbean, my students were intrigued—”You actually were under water?” I just happened to have some of my gear with me to show them. Several of the students had traveled with their families to the beach (our school was not in a coastal state) and shared their experiences, too. We took a vicarious dive with a brief video. At that point, most students were hooked on learning more about marine environments.
Providing options and choices is another way to engage students. Technology provides many options. As an alternative to formal reports, students could demonstrate their learning through creating videos, infographics, or presentations, working independently or as part of a team. This requires work and organization on your part, but seeing the students’ enthusiasm and creativity is worth it.
Encouraging students to take ownership in the classroom can be engaging, too. One of my colleagues started the school year with blank bulletin boards. During each unit, students added to them—vocabulary cards, reports, news and current events, drawings, photographs, maps, and so on.
Some student interests are independent of what the teacher does. Definitely encourage students to explore on their own through independent study and provide the resources to do so. One of my life science students shared her illustrated journal. She had made a list of biology terms based on Greek and Roman mythology, from the Io and Luna moths to Cyclops, Hydra, and Medusa. I learned a lot from it myself!
Keep trying. It’s hard to say what activity, strategy, or content topic will connect with a student. Think about the teachers that inspired you. What did they do?