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ENACT teachers learn new ways of aligning instructional strategies to students’ needs

Midwest | September 22, 2023

In sixth grade, I was painfully shy. I never raised my hand because I was a perfectionist and I was afraid of people noticing me. Being called on was the worst thing that could have happened to me. Being called on and then getting an answer wrong would have been unimaginable.

My sixth-grade teacher, a Ms. Frizzle1 look-alike with a matching personality, tried her best to coax me out of my shell, but my crippling shyness continued throughout middle school. (Those who know me well know that this changed somewhere after that!) But it didn't matter, because Mrs. T understood that there were more ways for me to demonstrate my learning than to raise my hand or go to the board. She offered small-group work, which helped me grapple with the content less publicly, and she focused on how we would use the content we were learning well beyond our middle school classroom. I think fondly back to her classes and on the practical skills I learned.

ENACTing student-focused instructional strategies

Six female teachers participating in the ENACT Summer Institute stand in front of large sheets of paper taped to the wall and on which they are writing with colored markers. Some of the teachers are engaged in conversation

ENACT teachers build profiles based on their own experiences in sixth grade, as part of the Summer Institute.

My reflection on my own middle school experience was motivated by a recent training for sixth-grade Milwaukee Public Schools teachers, where they discussed the same topics. In August, REL Midwest's ENgagement and Achievement through Computational Thinking (ENACT) partnership brought these teachers together for a Summer Institute to launch the second cohort of ENACT teachers. Over two days, ENACT coaches focused on increasing the teachers' knowledge of computational thinking and student-focused teaching practices and how to integrate these practices into their existing math curricula.

To kick off the training, the ENACT teachers were asked to reflect on their own sixth-grade selves as students and to identify what kind of learner they were in middle school. After considering their own sixth-grade learning styles and the things that were affecting them both in and out of school, they reflected on what advice they would give to their past teachers on how they could have better engaged them in learning. The advice the ENACT teachers gave proved that even as sixth graders, they understood that using student-focused instructional practices2 is essential to support learning.

Student-focused instructional practices

  • Connecting to and affirming student experiences and identities
  • Supporting student choice through multiple representations and approaches
  • Valuing student thinking and voice
  • Promoting collaboration and classroom community

Source: Paunesku, D., & Farrington, C. A. (2020). Measure learning environments, not just students, to support learning and development. Teachers College Record, 122(14), 1–26.

Highlighted below are four essential student-focused practices used in the ENACT approach, along with some of the teachers' responses. The responses were edited for clarity.

  1. Connecting to and affirming student experiences and identities. Teachers can tap into students' experiences and identities by providing opportunities for students to connect problems they are solving to a different context or to a more familiar content. ENACT teachers do this by prompting students to share their own experiences and their connection to the lesson. This approach helps give relevance to the math being taught and helps students see themselves in what they are learning.

    Reflecting on their experiences as students, the ENACT teachers shared what they wished their former teachers had done:

    • "Provide me with meaningful opportunities to deepen my thinking and learning."
    • "Talk about my priorities."
    • "Help me find my passion."
    • "Let me know it's ok to be uncomfortable."
    • "Take the time to know my name and use it; it tells me who I am is welcome."
  2. Supporting student choice through multiple representations and approaches. By highlighting how problems within a lesson can be represented or solved in multiple ways, teachers can validate students' ideas and increase student engagement with math. ENACT teachers do this by sharing student examples of alternative ways of representing an approach to solving a problem. Reflecting on their experiences with problem-solving approaches as students, ENACT teachers gave the following advice to their childhood teachers:
    • "Recognize there are different types of learners, more than just writers and readers."
    • "Offer project-based activities."
    • "Connect academics with activities."
    • "Push me through struggle; don't let me be afraid to fail."
    • "If I get something wrong, take the time to help me understand; I am smart, I promise."
  3. Valuing student thinking and voice. ENACT teachers understand the importance of building opportunities for students to share their work and voice their thinking. By acknowledging student thinking and ideas without concerning themselves with whether the answer is correct, teachers can encourage students to discuss and respond to one another's thinking and reasoning. This practice strengthens students' confidence, sense of belonging, and ability to advocate for their needs. The ENACT teachers shared ideas they wished their former teachers had taken:
    • "Challenge me without bothering me."
    • "Validate my wants and needs and encourage them."
    • "Maintain an orderly classroom environment; I need it to succeed."
    • "Recognize my contributions but quietly."
    • "Let me know that regardless of performance, I am loved."
    • "Ask me how I'm doing."
  4. Promoting collaboration and classroom community. Students need opportunities to work together, build from one another's knowledge and experiences, and share their work with the class. By providing opportunities for collaboration during class, ENACT teachers give students the chance to explain their work and their group's thinking and to learn from their peers. Thinking about their own experiences collaborating with classmates, ENACT teachers gave their former teachers the following advice:
    • "Offer pair work."
    • "Engage me in student-led activities."
    • "Give me quiet ways to contribute."
    • "Give me opportunities to lead."
    • "Help me make connections to my strengths."

What would you tell your sixth-grade teacher?

As you reflect on your own experience as a middle school learner, what advice would you give your past teachers? For teachers, how can you incorporate these reflections into your own classroom instruction? The ENACT partnership has resources that outline strategies for integrating computational thinking and student-focused teaching practices in existing math curricula to support middle school students' engagement and achievement.


1 Ms. Frizzle is the star of The Magic School Bus book and television series. Her character is an eccentric fourth-grade teacher who uses a magic school bus to take her students on unusual field trips to teach scientific concepts. If you are not familiar with the series, I highly recommend it!

2 Paunesku, D., & Farrington, C. A. (2020). Measure learning environments, not just students, to support learning and development. Teachers College Record, 122(14), 1–26.


Laura Checovich

Laura Checovich

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