Building Excitement during the Awkward Years

Building Excitement during the Awkward Years

Written by: Sarah Ackerman

January 24, 2024

When I tell people how much I love my career, I’m shocked at how many don’t fully understand…especially when I tell them I am a junior high teacher! The response I receive is an immediate wince or a “bless your soul!” They tell me just how horrific their junior high years were and how much they would despise being a junior high teacher. The attitudes, the awkwardness, and the hormones are just some of the reasons given to me as to why they would never teach this age. But, what they don’t know is that this age, in my opinion, is one of the most influential ages. Junior high students want their individuality, but also secretly still want to impress the teacher. They want to succeed but are overwhelmed by all the changes that come with going from elementary to junior high. They are also beginning to feel the pressure of deciding their career path. Junior high years are also the years that school becomes less enjoyable for students (this breaks my heart)! I see it in my own children. They dread waking up early, having homework, studying for tests, and the pressure to “make the grade.”

So, in a world with all of this going on, how do we spark excitement to learn in our teens? My answer…give them something that is theirs, something they have a stake in and want to succeed at. Not because they want the grade, but because they get to work on what they are passionate about and see the immediate impact they can make in the lives of themselves and others…all while secretly learning!

“…give them something that is theirs, something they have a stake in and want to succeed at”

In 2016, I visited Don Wettrick’s classroom. He taught a class called Innovations. Innovations is a class where students discover their passions, search for problems within that passion, and then create products to help solve that issue. For example, if a student is passionate about helping the homeless in their area, they would begin researching why homelessness is an issue in their area, then create solutions to what they found as a result of their research, and work with community leaders to help their solution come to life. What looked like chaos with over twenty students all working on different projects, was the breath of fresh air I needed. I was immediately hooked! 

Students at Sutton Middle School listen to songs representing different eras in history during an International Baccalaureate immersion day.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

But, I’m a business teacher with standards I have to meet…how do I incorporate this into my classroom? This is not only what I said to myself, but also what I hear from every other discipline teacher I discuss this curriculum concept with. We, as adults, are so quick to discount something if it doesn’t fall exactly into the plan already set. Isn’t this the opposite of what we should be teaching our kids? Shouldn’t we constantly be looking at ways to continually engage students? I knew I wanted the engagement, the exploration, but more importantly, I knew I wanted to build a curriculum that fostered students becoming independent learners and not just the “sit and get” information gatherers that I was seeing in my classroom. So, I found a way to make it work. Thus the idea of Monday Projects in my classroom was born! At the beginning of every month, my students submit a proposal (example of my proposal is attached) telling me what problem/project they want to focus on for that month. Every Monday, they work to accomplish that proposal. At the end of the month, my students present the progress they achieved. The presentation aspect of the project (rubric attached) is the most important because other students see their accomplishments and it continually pushes them to do more! The best part is, I don’t lose any instructional time! Students determine what they want to do for the month and then assign academic standards to what they will learn and accomplish throughout that month. If they are working on researching, they attach a research standard to their proposal. Marketing, finance, writing, technology, etc…all are standards that I have to meet every year and they complete them without even realizing! Not only are they accomplishing standards, but they are going outside the classroom walls and talking to adults! By the end of the year, my students are not afraid to reach out to community leaders, write a professional email, and conduct themselves professionally when in a meeting. These are life lessons not just academic standards…and they can be done in ANY classroom.

“I knew I wanted to build a curriculum that fostered students becoming independent learners and not just the “sit and get” information gatherers that I was seeing in my classroom.”

What makes my job even more rewarding is the way my students come up with ideas that are “The sky’s the limit.” They don’t conform to the “this won’t work” or “I can never do that” mentality. To them, the possibilities are endless! They try new things, and they fail many times. But they learn how to learn from their failures, how to analyze what went wrong, and how to make changes to be successful the next time. In a world where people are prone to complain, my students learn to ask questions and look for results to solve their problems. That’s what makes a student a lifelong learner.



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  • Sarah Ackerman

    After graduating from Western Kentucky University in 2001, Sarah worked in marketing and sales with large tech companies for over a decade. While she thoroughly enjoyed her business career, her heart continually pulled her towards becoming a teacher. After receiving her Master of Arts in Teaching degree from the University of Indianapolis, Sarah began her teaching career. She has taught Business and Innovations at Speedway Junior High and High School and can honestly say that she has loved every minute!

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