Reflections on teaching middle school students

4 minute read

Note from author: This post was transferred from my Medium page on April 19th, 2020. All future blog posts will be posted on my GitHub page.

For the past three months, I’ve been teaching at Frederick Douglas Academy II (FDAII) here in Harlem, and it has been… an experience. Fortunately, nothing I was not expecting.

After I graduated from Brown, I took a gap year for personal and professional reasons. I worked for Teaching Trust, a nonprofit organization that worked with school leaders in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, on their Aspiring Leaders Program. This opportunity was insightful because I spent the entirety of my coursework in science courses. I also am currently in a graduate program hoping to bridge my neuroscience interests with my passion for education reform, yet I know nothing about the actualities of being a school teacher or working with the public K-12 sector. So in addition to my matriculation to Columbia, I applied for their Zankel Fellowship and was accepted to work with FDAII co-teaching with Mr. Jeremy Watson (the physical education teacher). My goal: learn as much as I can about what the reality is for these low-income students to influence my research prospects.

The truth is this: it is hard. Very hard.

Ever since I started working with FDAII, I have had issues with classroom management; the 8th graders I work with just won’t listen to me. I don’t take this personally (as we get along very well and I feel respected by them) nor do I think it reflects on my teaching abilities. Rather, I think the issue is far more systemic and multi-faceted than my lectures or abilities to command a room — and I think it is an issue that many scientists are not truly cognizant of.

I use the word ‘truly’ because I’ve read several papers providing recommendations (some of which I agree with) on what policymakers and educators can do to better support students’ learning. However… I am not quite confident it will work as intended.

This is not, by any means, the most novel insight. I’m quite confident many of them are aware and someone somewhere sometime said something similar. Nevertheless, it does make me cautious about my impending thesis proposal and subsequent doctoral work.

Recently I submitted a proposal to implement a cognitive intervention program for high school students to gauge the causal relationship between working memory (WM) capacity [1] and academic achievement. When I spoke with Dr. Julia Leonard at Penn and read Dr. Allyson Mackey’s papers on this and the potential implications of these kinds of programming for low-income students, I was extremely excited; this is work I am passionate about and hope to spend a lifetime doing. But since I’ve become more integrated into the classroom environment, I begin to wonder if I could even get the class I currently teach to participate in my study fully and seriously. This is on my mind not because I have doubts about what educational neuroscience can do for students in poverty, whether or not my work will do what I hope it will, and if there is something else I should be doing that is far more impactful than my proposal.

I am not quite sure what the right answer is, but here are just a few of what I have been thinking about lately:

  1. Continue to be as connected with classrooms as I can. I may not always be able to formally teach, but I do think I need to balance between how much time I spent in the microcosm of my laboratory/University and the greater community. In doing so, I hope that this will help inspire some ideas and ways to gather more data for implementing new programs.
  2. Get some feedback from middle school/high school students of my experimental design. I’ll have plenty of critiques and suggestions for my peers, but as much as I welcome their input, I should equally ensure that the students who would directly be impacted by my work have their voice represented as well.
  3. Encourage more scientists to spend more time in these classrooms. I hate to admit this, but it’s not easy going to class. Sometimes… I even think about quitting — but I also understand that most people would have those sentiments as well. However, I think scientists need to forge sustained connections to these kinds of environments — especially anyone who researchers these students.

Will this list solve all the problems in education? Of course not — but I do think it could help. How exactly this will help will vary, and I am eager to share my thoughts after a few more months of working with these kiddos.


[1] Working memory (WM) is thought of as a buffer where information is maintained for processing and manipulation. For example, if I ask you to remember this order of numbers — 362327 — it is thought that these numbers are maintained in WM; and if I ask ‘how many of those numbers are odd?” it is thought that to you are relying primarily on your WM to answer this question.

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