7 Keys to a Positive Classroom Culture in Middle School

By Darlene Anne

This post originally appeared on the blog ELA Buffet by Darlene Anne.

My first year teaching middle school was challenging. In my infinite new teacher wisdom, I decided that the best way to prevent another difficult year would be to start off by being tough and putting on my “meaner than a junk-yard dog” face.

Thankfully, I came to my senses. Because I know better. We ALL know better. Kids are not going to learn if they don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel respected, and if they don’t like the teacher.
Fostering a favorable classroom environment and a positive relationship with my students is the most important task I assign myself every year. The recipe for a classroom culture that promotes learning requires only a dash of time and energy. It does require a hefty dose of mindfulness.
How to establish a classroom environment that promotes learning:
1) Show Genuine Interest
Greet students with a smile and enthusiasm every day. Make eye contact with them and ask them questions about their life.
Each student will come into the room hearing, “You are important, and I’m glad to see you.”

This positive message will influence students’ behavior, their desire to learn, and the tone of the entire period. Sometimes we’re busy cleaning up from the previous period or setting up for the next one. When that happens, I have the kids wait outside until I’m ready for them to enter. It is much more important for me to make a connection with them than it is to start right on the dot.
2) Use Students’ Names — Often
In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie states that there is “magic contained in a name…” and “a request we are making takes on a special importance when we approach the situation with the name of the individual.”
In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie states that there is “magic contained in a name…” and “a request we are making takes on a special importance when we approach the situation with the name of the individual.”

Use students’ names throughout the period, at every opportunity. Subconsciously, they will be much more likely to listen and comply. Don’t abbreviate a name unless you know for sure that the student approves of the nickname.

3) Use Task-Oriented Language
The next time you speak with your students, count the number of times you use statements like “I think” or “you should.” If the count is high, it might be time to reconsider the language you use.

Which would you be more likely to agree with?
You have to do your reading homework.
In order to participate in tomorrow’s debate, it’s important to understand the issue by reading this article.
How about this?

I think you should all spend time studying for the test.
What would be an effective plan to prepare for the test?

Task-oriented language invites agreement and cooperation by focusing on the step-by-step tasks that lead to the goal and NOT the people involved. It’s not about you, and it’s not about your students. It’s about reaching the goal of learning.

4) Give Students Choices and Input
Studies show that when we give students choices, their motivation soars. This blog post will explain how to give choices that enhance achievement and progress.
Studies show that when we give students choices, their motivation soars.

We really don’t need a study to substantiate that, do we? All we have to do is ask our kids. Mine have told me that when they have some say in decorating the room or choosing books and projects, they feel more engaged and focused. They also feel validated.

However, there is a catch. We should only give kids a limited number of choices, especially when they’re in middle school. An experiment done by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper confirmed that more isn’t always better. The researchers assigned college students various extra credit essay assignment choices. Surprisingly, students given fewer choices were more likely to complete the assignment. They even did a better job writing it.

I can’t say I’m really surprised about this. After all, who can go into a paint store and immediately choose a color from the thousands of shades offered? Most of us will take a few paint chips home and begin the daunting process of narrowing down the chips. Some of us even assign someone else the responsibility of choosing because there are just “too many choices.”

Give middle school students two or three choices. When taking notes on new content, I give my students the choice of using folding interactive notes or Cornell notes. They are both guided and include the same information, but the choice gives students the freedom to use what works best for them, creating immediate “buy-in.” (You can see what this looks like here.)

5) Use Humor
I have a teacher friend who always says we put on six “shows” a day. While it’s not our job to write jokes on cocktail napkins, a little laughter can go a long way toward improving the class. One of the best teachers I know is a master of self-deprecating humor. He can redirect his students’ attention with one dry statement like, “It’s a shame that I’m so boring because I was just about to bestow upon you the single-most important secret to… (says something unintelligible).”

Humor can be a powerful communication tool. Just be sure not to confuse it with teasing or sarcasm, which can be seen as patronizing.
6) Normalize Failure
Taking the sting away from failure is essential to a student’s comfort and ability to learn. Our classroom is their safe place to fall. I feel strongly about creating this aspect of our classroom environment, and I wrote about how I do that here.
7) Ask Students for Assistance
People inherently want to be helpful. We also have a need to feel close to others. When we ask someone to do us a favor, the person being asked feels trusted and useful. The favor draws the two people together. This technique is called the Ben Franklin effect, because in his autobiography Franklin wrote about using it to win over a rival.

Asking for a favor works especially well with difficult students, whether it be an entire class or an individual. Ask them to give you a hand with technology or to explain something. Use the word “help.”

Every so often, I use this technique and I ask a class to help me by giving me a little advice. I might say, “Period 5 class, I knew you’d be the best group to give me advice about the due date for the essay assignment.”

There’s not a doubt in my mind that asking an entire class for a little help works wonders to improve the environment of the class. How am I so sure? On the last day of school, when I tell the kids that I’m going to miss them, the kids from 1st period tell me that they’ve known all along that they were my favorite class. Then 2nd period comes in and tells me that I’m going to miss them the most because they are my favorite class.

You see where this is going, right?
And they are ALL absolutely correct.

Darlene AnneDarlene Anne is a middle school ELA teacher. She knows that teachers work hard to bring meaningful and engaging content to their students, and she is determined to help them do it. Now that her own children are in college, she can’t meddle as much, so she dedicates her time to creating teaching resources that teachers can be proud to use. You can find these resources in her TpT store, Darlene Anne.

7 Keys to a Positive Classroom Culture in Middle School

Use Leveled Books in Student Led Discussions

Passionate educator and popular author Laura Robb shares her ideas for moving teaching into the age of choice and collaboration!

By Laura Robb

It’s time to let go of 19th-century instructional methods that are alive and well in too many middle school classrooms around our country. Take a deep breath and think of the students sitting in classrooms you know about and consider how well the following practices serve them.

Practice: The entire class reads the same book.

Pitfalls: One book serves the group who can read it. Students who can’t read the book aren’t reading, and those who find it easy aren’t progressing because the book is at their independent reading level.

Practice: The teacher leads a recitation and asks questions that usually have one correct answer, then selects students to respond. Immediately, the teacher moves on to the next question.

Pitfalls: Asking students to answer literal questions doesn’t foster critical and analytical thinking. Moreover, students don’t have opportunities to pose and discuss their own questions.

Practice: Students complete worksheets with multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.

Pitfalls: Fill-in-the-blanks and multiple choice questions are artificial checks to gauge literal comprehension; they are not authentic responses to reading. Research shows that when students write authentic responses about books they read, their comprehension rises by 24 percent.

Practice: Students sit in rows.

Pitfalls: A hallmark of 21st-century learning is collaboration. Sitting in rows isolates students and discourages generating ideas and discussing worthwhile texts in small groups.

Updating Teaching Practices

You can avoid the pitfalls associated with these traditional methods by implementing robust practices that differentiate instruction so that all students can improve their reading, writing, critical thinking, and collaboration skills.

It’s beneficial to work with a colleague so you can support one another and observe the changes in action when you visit each other’s classrooms. By differentiating reading instruction and inviting students to discuss diverse texts using student-led conversations, you can heighten their ability to analyze texts and hone their critical thinking skill. Let’s break it down.

Differentiating Reading

We need to shift our practice from students reading the same book to students reading books at their instructional reading level. This practice is quite manageable when you offer books at different reading levels that are connected by genre, theme, or topic, enabling students to talk and think together even though they are reading different books. Rather than “covering” a specific book, reading instruction becomes focused on the ideas you want students to understand.

For example, Ms. Galloway’s eighth grade class was reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Out of 27 students, 10 could read and comprehend the book. However, when I asked her what she wanted students to learn from that book, she said, “I want them to understand what it was like for African Americans before civil rights.”

Armed with her idea, Ms. Galloway and I found several books that met the instructional reading levels of her students and addressed her target concepts. Differentiation enabled every student to reflect on life in the South prior to civil rights legislation using a text he or she could read — and every student could contribute to a meaningful, collaborative discussion on the topic. Here’s our list with lexile levels:

And here are some tips for developing units with diverse texts that reach every reader in your class.

Tip 1: Identify the idea(s) you want students to explore as they read.

Tip 2: Ask your school and community librarians to find books related to these ideas on the reading levels of students in your class.

Tip 3: Organize stacks of books on the same reading level. Invite students to browse through the books at their instructional reading level and choose one to read.

Tip 4: Chunk books by having students read three to four chapters, then stop to hold a partner or small group student-led discussion on that section.

Student-Led Literary Conversations

A powerful form of thinking and communicating, student-led conversations can last from five to 15 minutes and bring social interactions to students’ learning. When students are in charge of discussing books they selected and can read, motivation and engagement soar. These conversations develop critical thinking and strong communication skills as students practice framing responses to peers that represent their ideas with clarity.

Have students take turns volunteering to be the group’s leader. The primary job of the leader is to maintain the forward motion of the discussion by using prompts such as:

  • Can you provide text evidence?
  • Does anyone have a different idea?
  • Can you elaborate further on that point?
  • How does that relate to what (another student) said?
  • Can you link that idea to a teacher’s read-aloud?

Open-Ended Ways to Discuss Diverse Books

Students can use literary elements, themes, ideas, and genre structure to discuss different books.

Explore Literary Elements. Have students identify the protagonist and several problems he or she faces; antagonists and how each works against the protagonist; conflicts, themes, and how other characters affect the protagonist.

Focus on Genre. Ask students to discuss genre structure. For example, for realistic fiction they can discuss what makes the characters and plot realistic. For science fiction they can reflect on the warnings about present-day society and/or technology that the author presents.

Think Through Themes. Have students provide examples of unit themes such as obstacles the person or character faces and whether he or she overcomes these. Or ask students to define stereotyping and offer theme statements that are examples of this from their books.

Assessing Discussions

You can observe one to two discussions during a 45-minute class period. Students can also write several key points from a discussion in their readers’ notebooks and/or evaluate the discussions by writing about specific examples raised during the discussion. Encourage self-reflection using these questions: Did I participate? Did I cite evidence? Did I listen carefully? What did I learn about my book? About a different book? About literary elements? About genre? About theme?

It’s helpful to have students compose open-ended, interpretive questions that apply to any text. Interpretive questions have two or more answers. Verb such as why, how, explain, compare, contrast, evaluate can signal an open-ended query. Have students test each question by finding two responses the text supports. Once they’ve identified two different responses, they can compose another question.

By posting questions on a whiteboard, students can choose those that work for their texts or link to a specific area such as theme or genre structure.

You can also ask students to develop queries that lead to self-evaluation and add to them or adjust them throughout the year.

Closing Thoughts

When you incorporate student-led literary conversations, you inspire students to read, talk, and write about texts they choose. Remember, a student-centered approach builds a community of learners who collaborate and support one another. The result? Students improve as readers, writers, communicators, and critical thinkers.


Author, teacher, coach, and speaker Laura Robb has more than 40 years teaching experience in grades 4-8 and now works with school districts to train teachers. You can learn more about student-led conversations in her latest book, Read, Talk, Write: 35 Lessons That Teach Students to Analyze Fiction and Nonfiction. Her 25+ books also include Unlocking Complex Texts and Vocabulary Is Comprehension