Ask any of the 200 educators at the UFT’s fifth annual Middle School Conference what makes middle schoolers unique, and the answers come fast and furious: Adolescence. Growing pains. Hormones.
It was all the more reason for teachers and paraprofessionals at the daylong conference, which was held at UFT headquarters on March 3, to embrace their roles as “mentors, counselors, parents and advisers,” as UFT Vice President for Middle Schools Richard Mantell phrased it.
“Middle school is when our students begin the process of making choices that will help them find their passion,” said Mantell, who organized the event. “The essence of being a middle school educator is teaching our students how to think for themselves.”
As the conference started, educators heard from keynote speaker Diane Savino, a state senator from Staten Island who began her career as a child welfare services caseworker and later served as a vice president for her union.
Noting that her speech came on the heels of the oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Janus v. AFSCME case, Savino told the crowd, “We are at the most dangerous moment the labor movement is facing. We all have a responsibility to protect what we have built.”
Maria Katsanos, a history teacher at IS 238 in Hollis, Queens, was enthusiastic about returning to the conference for the fifth time. “The atmosphere is great,” she said.
Katsanos cited this year’s workshop on building thematic fluency in social studies as “very effective.” “It was helpful to learn how using arts and music applies across the board with all kinds of students — English language learners, students with special needs, everybody,” she said.
In a workshop about engaging students in literature, presenter Shawn Fisch, the UFT Teacher Center coordinator at Grover Cleveland HS in Queens, noted that middle schoolers are particularly attuned to the habits of their own friends and teachers.
“They know who likes who because she was standing behind him in the cafeteria line,” he said, explaining that teachers can help students learn to engage that skill when thinking about literary characters.
“Middle schoolers are ninjas when it comes to understanding motivation,” Fisch said.
Many teachers at the conference were seeking strategies to support their students through tumultuous periods in their adolescence. In a workshop on restorative circles, participants had the chance to model the practice themselves.
“We know that our students lead complicated lives,” said UFT Teacher Center presenter Garth Wolkoff. “We can lead them through that, but it’s so much better when they lead themselves.”
After reading a passage exploring the traditional greeting among Masai warriors — “Are the children well?” — conversation among the educators in that workshop quickly turned introspective.
“Our kids need love and support, but you cannot give what you don’t have. If I don’t feel supported, I can’t support children,” said Sheila Manuel, the chapter leader at the North Bronx School of Empowerment.
Looking around the circle, she continued, “The reason we’re here is to empower ourselves to restore someone’s life. And now I can say I’m ready to do that.”