Ah, teaching sixth grade. Students fall into that sweet spot of demanding to be taken seriously but aren’t too cool to act out stories or play a group game. The wide range of sixth grade interests, abilities, and skills can be tricky to navigate, so we’ve gathered tips and ideas from our teacher community and around the web. You’ll love these ideas whether you’re a newbie to sixth grade or a longtime veteran.
Here are our favorite ideas for: The First Days of School, Classroom Management, Language Arts, Math, Social Studies, Science, and the Arts. Check it out!
The First Days of School
1. Introduce yourself creatively
There’s nothing quite like the very first moment of the first day of school when you’re teaching sixth grade. You stand at the front of the classroom looking at all those expectant faces for the very first time. Then you have your chance to introduce yourself to your students, to let them know who you are and what they can expect over the year to come. We love these creative ways to introduce yourself.
2. Start the year with an icebreaker
Get to know your students right away—they’re likely new to the school as well as your class. Check out our icebreakers for middle school students.
3. Ask thoughtful questions
Sixth graders (and most middle schoolers, for that matter) aren’t known for offering up their opinions or thoughts as readily as younger students. Come prepared with questions that are easy for kids to answer. Check out our favorite introduction questions for middle schoolers.
4. Ask silly questions too
You’d be surprised at the depth and complexity of your students’ answers to silly questions, like “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?” Their responses will tell you so much about their personalities in the best ways. You may thank me later. Get a list of fun questions from our icebreaker question list.
5. Know how to handle student differences
Sixth graders often struggle to understand and deal with other kids’ behaviors. Here’s how one teacher handles it: “I often ask my sixth grade students, ‘Did he choose to be like that?’ If they are reasonable, they will say no, and then I say, ‘Well you have a choice about how you will respond to that, and that will show everyone what sort of person you are.’ End of matter.” —Amy K.
6. Establish a culture of kindness
Print these free downloadable posters to remind your students that kindness matters most of all.
7. Build your students’ social-emotional skills
Teaching sixth grade means building SEL skills. Use these read-alouds to talk about everything from kindness to courage to trying your best.
8. Give students jobs
Even big kids like jobs. And assigning jobs like keeping the classroom library organized or managing the day’s worksheets keeps your classroom operating smoothly. Check out this big list of classic and unique classroom jobs.
Tips for Classroom Management
Sixth graders are nothing if not squirrelly. But they will fall in line and will enjoy helping you manage the classroom. Here’s how to manage your gaggle of sixth graders.
9. Build routine
“It’s the nature of the middle school beast. You just have to get used to having to say the same thing day in and day out. We are two-thirds of the way through the school year and I still say, every day, ‘Turn around, look at the person behind you, take their paper, hand it up.’ Build routine and then stick to routine.” —Tracy S.
Also, check out these must-teach classroom procedures.
10. Be prepared for cyberbullying
Sixth graders seem young, but they’re no strangers to the internet—42% of kids have been bullied online. Make sure you know how to address cyberbullying. One of the best ways to do so is getting kids to report it and address it by being “upstanders.”
We also have a bunch of anti-bullying resources here.
11. Have a “No Name” rack
When you’re teaching sixth grade, you’re bound to get a few (read: a zillion) papers with no name on them. Here’s a place to put them!
Learn more: 3rd Grade Thoughts
12. Include student photos in your sub folder
OK, this idea comes from a kindergarten blog, but we’ve known enough mischievous sixth graders who like to trade places when there’s a substitute. As part of your sub folder, include student photos along with their names so there’s no confusion about who’s who.
Also, check out these tips for preparing a tough class for a substitute teacher.
13. Remember that consequences don’t always need to be immediate
When I first started teaching middle school, I’d often get stuck feeling like I had to have the perfect response on the spot. What do you do when you turn around to see a student moving ceiling tiles with a wand he made from attaching 13 markers? (Note: I still don’t know. I think I would just laugh.)
Instead of putting pressure on yourself to respond perfectly in that moment, say something like, “I need to think about how to respond to this. I’ll let you know what I’ve decided at the beginning of class tomorrow.”
Also, check out these logical consequences for the classroom.
14. Laminate your checklists
“I gave my middle school art students a blank laminated flow chart titled ‘What do I do next?’ They used markers to fill in the instructions while I told them verbally and also filled out one on the board. When they asked what was next, I told them to check the chart. It worked great! They can erase the chart when moving to the next activity.” —Abbie B.
Check out our picks for the best laminators for teachers.
15. Help students make up for lost time
Put all the materials that an absent student will need upon return—homework assignments, worksheets, discussion notes—in one place. Then, when the student returns, they can quickly select the material they missed without disrupting class.
16. Use expert groups
Group students into four equal “Expert Groups” that are strategically organized into heterogeneous groups by ability. Then, give each group a topic to cover or a task to accomplish. After the experts have learned about their topic or completed their task, they move into new groups to share what they learned with one another. This idea comes from Go to Teach.
17. Get to know executive functioning
Waiting their turn, not acting on impulse, and handling setbacks are all important for navigating middle school. Here are the executive functioning skills students should have in each grade.
18. Have students monitor their goals
Speaking of executive functioning, when you’re teaching your sixth grade students a new topic or or having them review, have them practice goal setting and their own progress monitoring. Idea Galaxy Teacher shares one way to have students monitor their progress, not perfection, in math.
19. Plan to let kids move
If you don’t plan it into the lesson, sixth graders will fidget, squirm, or find an excuse to get out of their seats. Assigning them partners that require them to get up and move, passing out sticky notes that they can record answers on and post them on the wall, or having them stand during math fluency drills are all ways to keep them moving.
Also, here’s a tool kit of free printables to help get your students up and moving during the day.
20. Don’t shy away from a theme
“Kids will say silly things about a theme being childish, but if you watch them, they love it. Go with your gut if you choose a theme—your kids will love it.” —Laura K.
“My theme for teaching 6th grade was ‘Be More Awesome’ from Kid President. We watched his videos, set goals, and brainstormed ways to be more awesome as individuals, as a group, and in the community. We did service and writing projects, and the kids and parents loved it.” —Sharon R.
If you need inspiration, here are our favorite middle school classroom decorating ideas.
21. Celebrate more than meeting standards
“I make it a habit to celebrate everything. It is easy to become discouraged if your goals have to be ‘meet standards,’ ‘be proficient,’ ‘read at grade level,’ etc. In many classrooms, there are a few (or more!) kids who may not meet those goals during your year together. I tell my students that we celebrate moving forward. I try to recognize kindness and good character whenever possible, and I try to recognize those moments that matter in a different way. Whether it is having a pencil two days in a row, finishing a book, remembering 8 x 7 = 56, or using the word of the week in written or spoken language. In many ways, the encouragement buoys my spirits as much as the students’!” —Joy
22. Get ahead of the piles
Sixth-grade teacher blogger Joy in 6th uses a work basket to keep papers from piling up. Her rule: No double basketing! She makes sure she checks in each paper and takes care of it (grades it, returns it, etc.) so papers don’t get stashed or pile up. Set a consequence or reward for keeping that basket clean, because more papers are always on the way!
23. Bring your sense of humor
Teaching sixth grade will try your patience. Students will exercise their excuses, their lack of rationality, their insistence on fairness, and developing a sense of justice. The best way to deal with it is a healthy dose of humor. To start, find the funny in the things your students say (including the names they give you), and bring in comics and memes to reinforce your lessons and directions. Also, check out these cheesy teacher jokes, as well as math jokes, science jokes, and history jokes.
Tips for Language Arts
ELA is a sweet spot for sixth graders, who are young enough to enjoy read-alouds and old enough to have deep discussions.
24. Give students choice in literature circles
Sixth graders love literature circles, which encourage strong discussion and ownership over reading. Build choice into your literature circles by providing them with a few novel choices and a blank calendar to plan out their reading. Check out these life-changing books for middle school and classic middle-grade books.
25. Introduce short stories—we have over 50
When teaching sixth grade, it can be a challenge to get your students interested in reading. The thought of tackling a thick novel can be overwhelming, especially during distance learning. These short stories for middle school are always a great choice.
26. Blackout poetry is the best
Blackout or erasure poetry is not only fun for kids, it’s super easy to scaffold for students who need more of a challenge or a little more help. Check out this blackout poetry how-to guide with examples and ideas. (P.S. It’s also a great second life for your torn and battered books!)
27. Include other poetry too
It can be hard to know which poems will spur your sixth graders into deep, meaningful discussion and which will leave them yawning. So we asked experienced teachers to share their favorite poems that always get a reaction, even from tweens. Check out the list of poems for middle school here.
28. Build vocabulary
Sixth graders are exposed to more and more academic vocabulary, or words that are related to specific topics. Think: adjacent, metamorphize, isotope, Mesopotamia. Teach these words, then have students work with them using visuals and games, with ideas from MiddleWeb.
Learn more: EAP Foundation
29. Introduce students to Socratic seminar
Sixth graders are ready to start more formal discussions of open-ended questions. Socratic seminars require work on the front end to create the questions and prepare students, but they’re worth it when students really get into rich discussion. Here’s an easy way to do Socratic seminar.
30. Give students choice in how to present their work
Sometimes you’ll want a traditional writing assignment to build students’ analytical skills. Other times, you may want to give students options. “I let my students work in groups and read part of a chapter and then teach it to the class. They do various things such as present graphic organizers, skits, raps, acrostics, etc.” —Brittney R.
31. Do close readings of movies
Help students apply the same critical thinking and analysis they do during close reading to movies by using short movies and TV clips. Have students watch the movie clips with purpose and spend time analyzing the clips in depth. Here’s more on the idea from MiddleWeb.
32. Stock your library with graphic novels
Graphic novels are a great way for any sixth grader to get interested in a new story. They’re particularly helpful for students who struggle with reading and can use the pictures to do the high-level thinking required in middle school. “Graphic novels help struggling readers and also help with writing.” —Meaghan G.
Some great graphic novels to use with sixth graders are Bone: Out From Boneville by Jeff Smith, Drama by Raina Telgemeier, and Lewis & Clark by Nick Bertozzi. Also, check out our full list of middle school graphic novels.
33. Read aloud
Sixth graders still love to hear a read-aloud. Take advantage of this to read aloud a book that inspires your sixth graders to expand their world, and build empathy for characters similar to and different from themselves. Here’s a list of great read-alouds for 6th grade.
Tips for Math
Sixth graders need as much math connected to their actual lives as possible. Use these strategies to reactivate their math knowledge and keep them engaged.
34. Take up real-world math problems
Middle schoolers need to see math connected to the real world. Frame math lessons in actual scenarios with these lessons from PBS that will have students using ratios and proportions in a vending machine, or measuring variability with data from wildfires.
35. Post the essentials
Check out these sixth grade math essentials posters from Teachers Pay Teachers (free). To start, project the posters at the start of a lesson. Then have hand-outs ready for students who need reminders.
36. Get graphing dry-erase boards
Check out these graphing dry-erase boards to engage students in graphing work.
37. Build in writing time
Whether your school requires it or not, having your math students write not only builds interdisciplinary connections but helps sharpen literacy skills (which benefits everyone!). One teacher I know has students write children’s books using geometry concepts with accuracy, and then they actually read them to K-2 students.
38. Keep math centers moving
When teaching sixth grade, math centers are a great way to differentiate your classroom and engage sixth graders in math practice. For example, here’s how Middle School Math Man organizes math centers.
39. Assign an unforgettable math project
Every sixth grader is wondering what they’d do with a million dollars, so let them try it out with The Million Dollar Project.
40. Make math problems relevant
Ask your colleagues, staff, and administration how they’re using math in what they’re currently doing or planning. Then have your students help out! “Mr. Reynolds is making a sweet potato casserole for the English department Thanksgiving potluck and wants to make sure he can feed everyone. If he’s using a 9 x 13-inch pan, what size pieces should he cut to feed all 12 teachers in the English department?” Have them make a video with their answer to send to Mr. Reynolds. Word problems feel so different when they’re real.
41. Have math resources on hand
Sixth grade math covers a lot of ground, so you’ll want a lot of help at your fingertips. “We use Illustrated Math, the Georgia State resources, and EngageNY. Also brush up on ratios.” —Ingrid S.
Check out this list of our favorite math supplies for middle school.
Tips for Social Studies
From ancient Mesopotamia to government, sixth grade social studies covers a lot of ground.
42. Bring GRAPES to your ancient civilizations lesson
Mr. and Mrs. Social Studies help students understand the main elements of ancient civilizations with the acronym GRAPES:
Incorporate the GRAPES structure into your lessons to make sure students have all the essential info.
43. Teach the branches of government
More than ever, our country is examining the laws that were put in place to protect and guide us. It can be overwhelming, however, to explain exactly how that works. To help you give your lesson plans a boost, we’ve put together this list of resources that help teach kids about the branches of government.
44. Start the movie projector
Films are a great way to make history come alive or offer another representation of a favorite novel when you’re teaching sixth grade. Some middle school movie recommendations from our community: Remember the Titans, The Color of Freedom, Pay It Forward, Rudy, Mad Hot Ballroom, October Sky, Stand and Deliver, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, and Mr. Holland’s Opus. All these films clearly present characters and themes that your students will remember long after middle school. Also, check out this big list of educational Netflix shows.
45. Get ready to go back in time
Here’s how one of our community members handled teaching ancient civilizations, a topic that can seem out of touch for sixth graders: “Students created cubes (made of poster board and cut and glued with hot glue) to create an informational cube about Egyptians. Then, students made commercials to get ‘tourists’ to visit their locations and they made brochures. For ancient Egypt, they make a sarcophagus. And for the Renaissance, they make a medieval feast.” —Brittney R.
46. Use online learning
There are some amazing websites out there for teaching sixth grade social studies lessons. Check out this big list of social studies website favorites.
47. Introduce debate
“We do a debate between the Patriots and the Loyalists (with costumes). The kids LOVED this activity.” —Sherrie R.
Check out this big list of debate topics for middle school.
Tips for Science
Sixth graders are budding scientists—curious about everything and just starting to work on more advanced experiments. Just keep a close eye on them when the Bunsen burners are out.
48. Bring SpongeBob into science class
Middle school is likely the first time that students are in a lab. Teach lab safety with some humor and a friendly sponge. Use this SpongeBob science safety lesson from Middle School Science and we’re sure students will refer back to it all year.
49. Conduct appropriate science experiments
Like kids of every age, sixth grade students love hands-on science! Teachers do, too, because when you’re teaching sixth grade, the learning is a lot more meaningful when students see concepts in action. This roundup of sixth grade science projects and activities has a little something for everyone—from biology and ecology to physics and chemistry.
50. Schedule labs first
“Try mixing up your teaching style by introducing topics with a lab first. Let the students get a hands-on feel for the material before any type of lecture is used.” —Christie E.
51. Pull up a science website
Science is exciting. Unfortunately, students may say they don’t like science because textbook lessons can be a little dry. Whether you’re in the classroom or teaching online, finding the right resources can bring these complex concepts to life! To help you get started, here’s a list of the best science websites for middle school.
52. Read the newspaper in science class
“Throw in current events as much as possible! My students love when a topic we cover relates to something happening now … for example, when we touched on viruses, we took a day to discuss the truths and myths of Ebola!” –Christie E.
Tips for the Arts
Sixth graders are all about self-expression. They’re at the start of that middle school journey. Use art to help them understand and express themselves.
53. Give them the stage
“I use a great company called Bad Wolf Press for plays. They sell short musicals (curriculum based). They are funny, and you can be as simple as you like with costumes and scenery.” —Rhona C.
Plus check out these steps to create your own readers theater scripts.
54. Incorporate classical music into art class
Have students chill out or merge art and music by having them draw along to a score. Spread out butcher paper or give each student their own piece of paper and let the music flow. Here’s our favorite classical music for the classroom.
55. Social media is your best friend for artsy ideas
Instagram in particular is a great resource for collecting ideas when you’re teaching sixth grade art classes. My favorite? Lambie_k on Instagram. I mean, just look at this backpack-wearing narwhal. The ocean swirls! The northern lights!
56. Get crafty
Even sixth graders like to make crafts like duct tape hearts for Valentine’s Day, flower pens for Mother’s Day, or 3D shaped flip-books in math. Also, it’s even better if crafts overlap with other concepts!
57. But don’t assume they can handle glitter
“My sixth graders cannot handle glue or glitter. Found that out the hard way this year.” —Sharon R.