Blog Series

Engaging Middle Schoolers: A Visit with an Awesome Teacher

by Dr. Matthew Hunter on Mar 15, 2018

  • Classroom Management
  • Education Technology
  • General Education
  • Literacy
  • Student Engagement

Matthew Hunter, Ed.D. is a former teacher and Senior Vice President of School Services for Voyager Sopris Learning

The week before I began my first year as a teacher, I walked into my first classroom and noticed there were no student desks in the room. There were no books, supplies, shelves, people, or anything other than a large, wood-fading teacher’s desk. Upon that mammoth teacher’s desk sat a concrete sculpture of a very realistic turtle with two glass eyes, about the size of your standard pet turtle.

My first action as a teacher was to immediately remove the large teacher’s desk from the classroom. I kept the turtle.

A couple years ago I visited an inspiring classroom in North Dakota. The teacher had decided to keep his teacher desk, but the fact that three students were utilizing it as their desk for the day simply meant he was not about to be sitting at it any time soon. During the visit, I was able to juxtapose his classroom to my classroom more than 20 years before. I was proud to see some of my old habits in this teacher, but more in awe of just how effective he was in his practices to constantly engage his students, maximize every instructional moment, while also involving his students in a larger storyline. With digital tools in a modern classroom, he was a lot better than I ever was.

As soon as the bell indicated the start of class, the teacher called out, “If you are not logged into the program by the time I count to 10, you will be forced to share lunch with me during playground time. I have a very smelly egg-salad sandwich! 10, 9…”

Every student was logged in and focused before the teacher reached the count of five. He had a great plan for the day: while all students started with some digital instruction, he called five students aside for some one-to-one instruction. When the first student said he had a log in problem or tech issue, the teacher reminded him of the established procedure of trouble-shooting/moving on to a back-up instructional item. During the next transition, 15 minutes later, he swung by the same student for some one-on-one technical intervention and helped remedy the situation.

As I learned, his game-day tactics were just a part of the broader picture.

I paused for a moment and reflected upon my own experience years before, when a regional instructional coordinator observed my teaching. I had clearly knocked it out of the park on my lesson that day, where every student was actively participating in a $100,000 Pyramid-like game I had “orchestrated”.

“Wow, you really had every student engaged,” my observer said. “Tell me a little bit about the instructional depth of that lesson.”

Wah-Wah….I knew in that one comment I had won the lesson battle for that day—kind of. But I also realized in that moment I hadn’t been thinking about the bigger picture and the journey all students needed to be making toward an in-depth learning accomplishment. The day’s lesson should have been more content rich and it should have been a component of a larger learning achievement.

Back to North Dakota, and the elements of this master orchestrator were plain to see across his classroom and in the language he used. Student success was evident in context of the benchmarks of instructional content. When he spoke about the instruction going on, students knew the language of the context of today’s instruction, but they also could see where they were going instructionally.

That memory makes me realize how proud I am to be involved with a great program like LANGUAGE! Live, which provides many great tools to help teachers orchestrate an in-depth classroom experience and lead students on a journey toward achieving extensive learning of meaningful skills. Having a rich, individualized online experience in Word Training helps students take ownership of working through foundational skills. LANGUAGE! Live’s Text Training components utilizes the expertise of the teacher to provide small-group intensive instruction. Both components are wrapped in an online social experience that promotes student interaction and uses motivational tools to keep the story going.

This year, we introduced a concept of Teach Four Achieve More, illustrating that on average, students who experienced at least four units of Word Training and four units of Text Training made more gains on LANGUAGE! Live benchmark measures. While that may seem somewhat predictable, my appreciation and awe always go to the teachers finding a way to keep the story line going from the first minute of the school year to the very end. It was rewarding to see this evident in their data.

As I reflect on that classroom visit, and how we must engage middle schoolers to keep them learning, I can’t help think about what we’ve learned from schools across the country who use LANGUAGE! Live:

  1. During a technology lesson, have a strategy for students to get logged in and be ready to tackle any disruption thoughtfully, calmly and quickly.
  2. Like a great orchestra conductor, teachers must manage each instrument while hearing the entire symphony come together. All students are watching and the second you drop your baton they are ready to stop playing.
  3. Allow students to see and be able to speak the language of your strategies and goals. If they are a part of the team to accomplish it, then they not only hear their instrument but I believe appreciate the beautiful sounds of an effective classroom.

All these years later (26), I’m still in education and I still have that turtle in my office. Many times chipped and now lacking one of its glass eyes, the turtle reminds me that my career as educator is part of a larger story. One of my favorite parts is being one of millions of people across the country who are committed to the same goal, and every time we engage with another educator, our learning is re-enforced or we are provided new learning. 



LANGUAGE! Live is a comprehensive blended learning solution for struggling adolescents that inspires a new level of confidence and drive to help students become proficient readers.


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