4 Keys to Success with Middle School Students

Middle school students are full of contrasts. They can think abstractly but are willing to try new things. They yearn for independence but can still find childlike wonder in the world. They’re serious one minute, silly the next.

NAfME member Elizabeth Ann McAnally has found ways to work with rather than against young teens’ age-appropriate tendencies in four key areas:


“Diversity of content is a key component,” says McAnally, and it “should represent the global community. Let’s continue to include Prokofiev and Brahms, but also learn about Angelique Kidjo, Anoushka Shankar, Heitor Villa-Lobos, John Cage, Scott Joplin, and Li Huan Zhi.” She suggests using familiar musicians and musical styles as a starting place, “and it is critical that we speak with respect of all forms of music expression,” she says.


Variety helps keep students engaged. It also “encourages them to capitalize on their strengths and challenges them to move beyond their comfort zone.” She calls on higher order thinking skills by asking why and how, instead of only who, what, and when. She lets students figure things out for themselves. “Students are more likely to take ownership of content they discover.”


To avoid “assessment burnout,” McAnally focuses on “application of skills in pursuit of musical tasks.” With a checklist of observable skills on a clipboard, she tracks student progress during lessons with a 3-point scale. She offers options, letting students choose between an oral report or a PowerPoint presentation, a paragraph or a Venn diagram, a poem or a picture. Above all, she keeps a positive, affirming attitude so students know she’s on their side and wants them to succeed.


“Adolescents are notoriously unpredictable and often have difficulty maintaining their emotions and energy levels,” says McAnally. “They can vacillate between overly exuberant and sound asleep, self-assured and despondent, eager to please and openly hostile.” She recommends creating a supportive, encouraging climate to help them find the middle ground.

A key component of that climate is respect:

  • Discussions require a positive tone of voice.
  • Demeaning language is taboo.
  • Mistakes are ok—no laughter or ridicule allowed.
  • Differing opinions are welcomed.
  • All class members feel accepted and valued.

With an atmosphere of mutual respect, teachers can successfully encourage and reward active participation. “Our every word and action should communicate to students that they are expected to take part in class activities, and that their efforts will elicit a positive response from the teacher,” says McAnally.

McAnally has some recommendations for when things go amiss:

  • Rethink the lesson plan.
  • Keep a cheerful attitude and a calm demeanor. It can help de-escalate conflicts.
  • Maintain composure when students test their limits. It sets a good example of self-control.

Learn more in McAnally’s article, “Finding Inspiration in Middle School General Music” (which includes an overview of a thematic study with 5 modules), in the April 2011 issue of General Music Today, now online.


Middle School General Music: The Best Part of Your Day by Elizabeth Ann McAnally

Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom Volume 1: A Guide to Survival, Success, and Reform, edited by Carol Frierson-Campbell

Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom, Volume 2: A Guide to Leadership, Teacher Education, and Reform, edited by Carol Frierson-Campbell

Elizabeth Ann McAnally is a general music teacher and choral director at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Middle School General Music: The Best Part of Your Day and a contributing author of Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom.

—Linda C. Brown, Originally published May 4, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (nafme.org)