The Magic of Music…and Middle School

[Ed note: The author would like to acknowledge that the rose-colored recollections you are about to read are heavily influenced by a lack of daily interaction with adolescents. She recognizes that all teens seem delightful when you don’t have to teach (or smell) them on a daily basis and that she might disavow this ode to puberty the second she was again subjected to it every day.]

You guys, I love middle school kids so much. The awkwardness and the angst, the constant physical and mental transformations that leave them so confused and so, so irritated by every single stimulus in their environment…what a magical time those middle grades are, developmentally speaking.

A couple of years ago I was waxing poetic about this age group to a middle school audience, and as I looked around I could feel that the energy in the room needed a little boost. We were covering content and language objectives, it was in the middle of the back-to-school crunch, it was after 2:00 p.m., and did I mention they were middle school teachers? For better or worse, middle school teachers are honest, and through small outbreaks of side-talk and the uptick in cellphone gazing, my group was telling me they were honestly over it. As I thought about all the ways their behavior resembled that of their students, it occurred to me that recreating the awkwardness of a middle school dance might be the jolt of energy we all needed to refocus. And while this strategy for sharing short snippets or responses was inspired by the unfortunate, tortured souls immersed in the social, emotional, and physical gauntlet that is early adolescence, it works with groups at any age level.

middle school dance

What is Middle School Dance?

Middle School Dance is an opportunity for students to review concepts, quiz each other on vocabulary, or simply share their thoughts in a one-sentence format that encourages concise expression. The strategy works in any content area and at any point in the lesson cycle. After writing, students exchange their responses with various partners, during which time they engage in listening, speaking, and reading; thus using all four domains of language and accelerating language acquisition.

How does it work?

  1. Prior to beginning the activity, create pathways around the room or relocate students to an obstacle-free environment. Review the norms, directions, and expected outcomes from this activity.
  2. Give students a prompt or question, and have them write their responses on post-it notes or index cards, checking for legibility and content so that students will understand the importance of contributing a quality response that can be deciphered without assistance.
  3. Have each student stand, holding his/her written response, and wait for the music to begin.
  4. While the music plays, have students move freely and independently around the room, but remind them that they must stare at the ground while walking.
  5. When the music stops, have students look up and make eye contact with someone. The person with whom they first make eye contact becomes their partner.*
  6. Ask partners to meet halfway between their locations and take turns reading their responses aloud.
  7. Then, have partners exchange post-it notes and wait for the music to resume. Each time a partnership forms, the students trade responses. (You’ll need to remind students of this several times.)
  8. The activity continues until you play the “Slow Jam,” a.k.a. the last dance of the night. After the music stops and students find partners and exchange responses, have them return to their seats.
  9. As an extension, you can have students conclude the activity by forming small groups, choosing the best sentence in each group, and reading those examples aloud. This allows for formative assessment and for anonymous praise, which can be very well received by some students.  

*This is a mixer strategy built around short exchanges with numerous, random partners. Given the romantic overtones that accompany the mere suggestion of a middle school dance, it is essential that a climate of respect be established prior to undertaking this activity. Setting these expectations will help mitigate any negative social outcomes that might otherwise occur. Students should also be reminded that all pairings are random and (whether the pairings are same sex or opposite sex pairings) should remain free of physical contact.   

Why Do I Love Middle School Dance?

1. It celebrates awkwardness.

Kids are awkward all the time, at all the ages, and in all the ways. During this activity, we embrace their natural awkwardness, giving everyone implicit permission to be a little bit goofy. This has great stress-relieving benefits for those who are able to relax and move a little to the music. (And why not, since no one is watching?)

2. Brains like music.

Our ability to create and to respond to music predates almost all spoken language. Research shows that early humans used music and dance to express a greater range of ideas and emotions than could be conveyed via words, and while verbal communication has evolved markedly since those times, it still cannot hold a candle to the evocative and expressive capabilities of music. Tapping into that ancient connection gives ELs with limited verbal communication an alternative way to participate in a shared emotional experience and response that exists independent of language.

Musical appreciation matters.

I’m not here to talk about exactly how old I am (and I’m assuming you’re not either, because that would be pretty weird), but suffice it to say I’m right around the age when one realizes the music that kids listen to now is pure noise. We can’t tell them that, though, or we will immediately sound like we are ordering them off our lawns. What we can do is expose them to the classics while allowing opportunities for them to try and change our minds by submitting (clean) suggestions for the next dance via link or post-it note. As a bonus, we can learn about their personalities from the suggestions especially when it comes to their recommendations for “Slow Jams.”

If you try Middle School Dance, comment below or tweet us (@Seidlitz_Ed), and let us know how it worked for you!
Tina Beene is a trainer with Seidlitz and the author of Teaching Social Studies to ELLs, a practical approach to supporting ELs in the social studies classroom. For more strategies like this one designed to help your students engage with content in your classroom, check out her book in the Seidlitz store, or register to attend her upcoming training in the DFW area.

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