To me, the number “four” has always carried special significance. I am the oldest of four siblings and was born in the fourth month of the year. In middle school, two different versions of “4 Minutes,” one a pop song by Madonna feat. Justin Timberlake, the other an R&B song by Avant, earned their positions on my iPod Nano’s “Bus Ride to School” playlist; and while this may seem insignificant to you, it was everything to my middle school self. Throughout my four years of undergrad, I dreamt of being a fourth-grade teacher. My first classroom was fondly known as “Cottage 4,” a euphemistic yet endearing name for the portable trailer classroom where I fell in love with education as a fourth-grade teacher. Now, my fourth year teaching is nearing its end.
I started my career as an elementary school teacher, promising myself and others I would never teach middle school. I didn’t love my own middle school experience and was grateful when my three years of due diligence were behind me as I moved on to high school. To my pleasant surprise, teaching middle school is the happiest I have ever been in my career. Middle school is drastically different from elementary school, from electives to athletics to social media to detention to puberty…the list goes on. The greatest significance of the number “four” in the middle school setting: it’s the number of minutes in a passing period.
Never underestimate the power of four minutes. Don’t believe me? Step into a narrow hallway of adolescents scrambling to use the restroom, visit lockers, socialize, and arrive to class on time. It’s the messiest treat I experience six times a day. Four minutes is plenty of time to discover your locker is jammed, your cell phone battery died, your crush likes someone else, your friend can hang out after school, your practice is canceled, or your project is due tomorrow. The hustle and bustle of the four hallway minutes can carry into my classroom if I’m not careful.
Four minutes is plenty of time to discover your locker is jammed, your cell phone battery died, your crush likes someone else, your friend can hang out after school, your practice is canceled, or your project is due tomorrow. Click To Tweet
I resolved to combat the four hallway minutes by starting my class periods with intentionality. I knew I needed to create space where excited, dysregulated, passing period brains could enter a space for learning. This meant putting traditional, academic-focused “Bell Work” aside, allotting time for students to center themselves in the space first.
In Room 222, we fondly refer to the first four minutes of each class period as “Regulation” time. This is a self-guided time for students to prepare themselves for the day’s lessons and work. I introduced students to strategies I used at the elementary level to facilitate self-regulation, mostly because it was all I knew. To my surprise, middle schoolers took to these strategies readily, willingly, and enthusiastically. They quickly taught me that good, brain-compatible practices transcend age. Below are a few of our favorite was to spend these short four minutes, which set the tone for the remainder of our class periods.
Students regulate with the tactility of Play-Doh. They can create, mold, build, and even just squeeze Play-Doh to bring themselves to a place of readiness for learning. Many students can even carry this strategy over from the initial four minutes of the class period into the direct instruction portions of the class, supporting their listening and engagement.
Students have taught me more about self-regulation with playing cards than I could have ever offered them. Shuffling, sorting, card tricks, and quick games are all ways students have utilized playing cards to center themselves in preparation for the class period.
Crayons and markers may have worked their way off your students’ supply lists when they enter middle school, but they are ever-relevant in my classroom. Coloring pages of inspirational quotes and images, scratch paper for doodling, and sketchbooks all allow students to escape distraction and refocus before the mini-lesson begins. This is another strategy that, depending on the student, can carry over into instructional time and support student comprehension and understanding of the material.
Different classes prefer different sounds, but music is a great way to support students self-regulating. My mentor taught me to play music at 60 beats per minute. This is the resting heart rate; heartbeats will begin to match the music and bring students (and teachers) to a learning-ready space. My students have also brought me requests including rain sounds and the soundtrack to Disney/Pixar’s Up.
Our favorite ways to check in is with our breath, silently counting out loud, and breathing to a chime. This takes much practice, as it can be uncomfortable for students to dedicate this time to silence. We start in small increments and are able to work our way up to several minutes of meditative breath. This supports our transition from the hallway into the classroom mentality.
Talking It Out
Sometimes students need time to process the experience of adolescence and middle school. This can be with a peer or with a teacher or adult, but the four minutes at the beginning of class has allowed me time to make connections with students and to mediate productive conversations making room for community and learning. I have learned this can be just as productive and critical a use of the four minutes as silent activities, knowing middle schoolers and people in general share this need to connect and make meaning of their experiences.
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