Middle School Learning: Finding Your Perfect Struggle

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Imagine being good at everything you ever tried. You enter a basketball court, pick up a ball, take a shot and “swoosh” the ball goes in. You pick up a paintbrush and, like magic, you create a masterpiece. You sit down at a piano and are able to play by ear. You ace each assignment and test. You win at every competition. Everything comes easy to you. Really, I want you to imagine that.

You may be thinking how great that would be. You’d never have to work hard at anything; you could be anything you wanted or dreamed you could be. But how long would it hold your interest? Every day would be like the last. The outcome would always be the same. Every day, you would know how the end looks: the ball goes in, the art piece looks as it should, the “A” is guaranteed. Where’s the fun in that? Isn’t part of the journey to not know the destination?

When things come too easy to us, we get bored and look for something new; something to challenge us. I experienced this firsthand when I enrolled in my first fitness boot camp. At the end of the hour, I wasn’t out of breath and had barely broken a sweat. I thought, “Perhaps this is just a one-off.” So I continued to go for the next several weeks. After each class, I felt I wasn’t being physically challenged enough. I eventually got bored and stopped going altogether.

On the other hand, sometimes the challenge can be too great. About a week after I stopped going to boot camp, I enrolled in a cardio burn class. It was a 60-minute class that had me begging for mercy from start to finish. By the end of class, I would be completely shattered. The class was too challenging for me and, just as I had with my boot camp, I eventually stopped going.

What and how we learn at school can be like that sometimes. Sometimes the material we learn comes too easy for us, sometimes it’s too much. Either way, we avoid the task, complain, don’t try, give up.

At the Middle School, we aim to find the right amount of challenge for each student; I call it the “perfect struggle” – that perfect balance between it being challenging enough to keep you interested, but not so challenging that you feel defeated before you even begin. When Middle School students find a concept or task easy, teachers often offer extension activities to provide them with a challenge that will keep them interested and engaged. This can come in many forms.

Within the world of information technology, we recognize that our students have a passion for constructive, collaborative or competitive play. Minecraft has provided a challenge to teach real-world skills in a simulation setting using MinecraftEdu. For the hardware buffs, Mr. Floyd maintains a small collection of computer hardware, tools and robotics equipment which students can use during exploratory or tech club; sometimes to disassemble, and sometimes to construct new and interesting products. Just one example last year was when old computer fans were wired up to create a working pie plate hovercraft. Using a green screen and digital video editing and streaming tools, students have participated in diverse projects such as video broadcasting and creating most of the special effects for our 2015 production of The Wizard of Oz.

In Humanities classes, Ms. Vachon offers an exceeding expectations option, that is generally a higher level on the Bloom’s taxonomy. Students are coached on whether or not they want to take on the challenge by asking them if it matches their areas of strength, if it is an area in which they wish to challenge themselves and if they have time to take on this more challenging option.

In Grade 6 Math, students who need a challenge are pulled out of several classes in the rotation to work with a small group of students on a variety of fun problems and discussions related to class work.

In Science class, crime-scene techniques are available using resources like toy cars, Plasticine, eye droppers, and ink for students to use at any time. As well, students are offered to dig deeper into a concept by posting videos and questions on Google Classroom for their classmates to watch and discuss.

When a student at the Middle School finds a concept too challenging, there are a number of options he or she has. First, teachers always make themselves available for extra help. Often, there are extra help tutorials held over the lunch break. Students can also attend homework club; a teacher is always there to answer any questions they may have or offer feedback on assignments.

Teachers also strive to develop a growth mindset as we work through challenges. The goal is that no student ever gives up when faced with a challenge because they think it’s too hard and they’re “never gonna get it.” At the Middle School, we know that it’s not that you’re never gonna get it – you just haven’t got it yet, and with the right support and encouragement, you’ll get there.

Finding your perfect struggle is what Middle School is all about. It is in these formative years that you have a pretty great foundation of skills, so now it’s time to try new things, develop your passions, pursue your interests, take risks and grow as an independent learner. It’s about learning that, if it’s too easy, it’s up to you to seek out opportunities for extension, and if the challenge is too great, it’s up to you to be courageous enough to ask for help. It is there, that you’ll find your own perfect struggle, and that is where the deepest learning occurs.

Tanya Lee teaches Humanities 6, and Communication Skills 7 and 8 at the SMUS Middle School. She is one of four SMUS teachers who dedicates a portion of their time shepherding St. Michaels University School’s plan to implement an integrated and excellent approach to personalization. The personalization team explores current best practices of personalized learning and looks at how SMUS can integrate these methodologies into our programming in a way that provides outstanding preparation for higher learning and for life.

You can also read more about personalized learning at SMUS on The Head’s Blog, written by Head of School Bob Snowden.

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Tanya Lee
Tanya Lee teaches Humanities 6, and Communication Skills 7 and 8 at the SMUS Middle School. She is one of four SMUS teachers who dedicates a portion of their time shepherding St. Michaels University School’s plan to implement an integrated and excellent approach to personalization. The personalization team explores current best practices of personalized learning and looks at how SMUS can integrate these methodologies into our programming in a way that provides outstanding preparation for higher learning and for life.

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