The bell rings, and another round starts. It’s not a boxing match—it’s the cadence and soundtrack of life as middle school math teachers!
We’re always “in the middle of something” because we are trying to plan and facilitate engaging math lessons while navigating the world of middle school at the same time. Because your middle schoolers are in that special place between elementary and high school, their math classes need to be unique, just like they are. Luckily, they have you at the helm.
Looking to make your math class more than a “middleoftheroad” experience for you and your students? Try some of these suggestions.
Make the First Five Minutes Count
Students often decide what kind of class it’s going to be based on the first five minutes. Kickstart some thinking as soon as they enter by posting a problem using an engaging routine structure.

Convince Us. Post any problem from your materials or textbook, but replace words such as solve, write, compare, and find with the words Convince us. For instance, instead of Write the following numbers in least to greatest order, say, Convince us that the following numbers are in least to greatest order: 4, 3.5, 1, 7/2, 4.1.

Same/Different. Post two related options, labeled A and B. Have students use sentence starters They are the same because . . . and They are different because . . . to compare them (e.g., 3/4 and .75 or 2(4 + x) and 8 + 2x). This structure can be adapted to compare solution methods, such as providing 3(2 + x) = 18, then having students compare two different possible first steps as options A and B: 6 + 6x = 18 and 3(2 + x)/3 = 18/3. Depending on the prompt, you can even follow up with having students convince us why they may prefer one option to the other.
Set Up Opportunities for Student Decision Making
Use math class as a chance to capitalize on your students’ growing desire and ability to make their own decisions by incorporating choice.

Numberless Word Problem. Remove the numbers from any word problem, and replace them with blanks. Provide three possible sets of numbers that students can choose from to solve it. (Tip: Remember that numbers originally supplied in the word problem you are using can always be one of the sets!) The sets can also be an opportunity for differentiation—just make sure that the most entrylevel set is not always presented as the first possibility.

Choose an Equation, Write a Problem, Find a Match. Another way to incorporate choice—and some writing in the content area—is to provide students with any four symbolic equations. Your textbook’s practice problems are an excellent resource for these. Have students choose one and write a word problem to match it. Then, have them visit other students, share only their word problems, and try to guess each other’s chosen equation. Challenge students to find someone who made the same choice they did and at least one student who chose each of the other options.
Let Them Talk (but They Must Listen Too!)
You may have noticed that several of my suggestions incorporate a chance to practice speaking and listening skills. Consider some of these suggestions:

Choral Counting. It’s not just for elementary school! Count by a fraction or decimal, and don’t forget that you can start to the left of zero on the number line. Remember to chart the values stated and discuss any patterns students notice.

Try a ClueBased Game. Start with a set of vocabulary terms that fall under a certain category, such as threedimensional figure, cubic unit, base, length, width, height, which fall under volume. Have pairs of students sit across from one another, with one student’s back to the display area and the other student facing it. Post the terms, but not the category. Working one term at a time, the student who can see the display gives clues to the other student who guesses the term. After the game, have student pairs work together to name the category. Then, discuss which clues were the most (and least!) helpful when playing.
There’s a reason that even chess players refer to the complexity of the “middle game.” Planning instruction for middle schoolers to speak, listen, write, read, choose, move—and most importantly, think—during math is no middling task. I hope these suggestions give you some handy and effective ideas as you continue to “play the middle game” in your math class!
Want to hear more from Stacy? Tune in to the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast.