Book Review: Managing the Madness

While at the NMSA09 Conference in Indianapolis, I picked up several books, one of which was Jack Berckemeyer’s Managing the Madness.  This was a quick read over the Thanksgiving break and I thought I would share a few thoughts on this one.  The book is subtitled “A Practical Guide to Middle Grades Classrooms” and that is a pretty good idea of what you’ll get from this book.

I have attended a few of Jack’s presentations in the past and will say that the non-stop humor that comes through in real life takes a bit of a hit with this book. Those of you who have also experienced Mr. Berckemeyer’s presentations will notice the near total absence of Bernice (though she does make a breif cameo appearance here and there).  While humor isn’t everything, and perhaps this was an attempt at a more “serious” endeavour, I was certainly expecting more “snicker worthy” moments in this book.

Managing the Madness, at it’s core, is as much about living and working with early adolescents as it is about teaching them.  Jack’s work with the H.E.L.P. series of pamphlets is evident throughout the writing.  The book starts off with a chapter on Engaging Adolescents providing information on group work, activities/actions that help keep early adolescents focused and excited, and ideas for dismissal.  The most interesting part though is the Developmentally Responsive Classroom checklist.  The checklist is based on the elements of This We Believe, and asks you to identify activities which match up with the characteristics of young adolescents, such as:

  • Need for Physical Activity
  • Intense Curiosity
  • Real Life Learning Opportunities/Situations
  • Dealing with Shades of Gray
  • Need to Build Positive Peer Relationships
  • Seek one-on-one time with Teacher

Along with 21 other characteristics.  Including activities to meet all 27 Characteristics would guarantee that your classroom is being developmentally responsive, and would be quite a challenge in its own right.

Jack then moves on to discuss the use of humor, trends, and showing you care.  He emphasizes the use of true humor over sarcasm, as the latter tends to bring someone down or imply that is okay.  He also advocates being aware of trends that involve early adolescents, recognizing that you’ll never be cool, but at least be aware of what they are interested in.

Chapter 3 focuses on the classrom environment.  My favorite part was the discussion of ways to tame the ever aging classroom bulletin board.  I’m notorious for changing posters only at the end of a unit. In fact, this year I mistakenly used paper that was too dark for the board, so when the first unit posters came down, the paper had faded around each of them.  Jack recommends preparing a schedule for students update the bulletin board.  Another idea that I love is that of taking photos of finished bulletin boards to share with others for help generating ideas. The chapter also includes a discussion of seating arrangements and an evaluation survey of student’s impressions of your classroom.

The fourth chapter deals with using Technology and unforunately suffers from extreme ADHD.  I’m not sure if this is an effect of not being comfortable discussing technology (the elephant in the room) or from trying to cram so much into a short chapter.  Across the 18 pages of this chapter, we get:

  • Differences in student brains and teacher brains
  • Challenges of Teaching with Technology
  • Cooperative Use of Technology
  • Educating and Holding Students Responsible For School Tech Policy
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Degradation of Spelling and Grammar
  • Phone Policy
  • Using Technology with Purpose
  • Wikipedia
  • Laptop Use
  • Facebook
  • Technology Safety
  • Impact of Social Networking…including concerns

That is an amazingly ambitious amount of information to try and cram into a very short section of the book, and effect is to make each section feel like just a teaser of the information.  Don’t get me wrong, there is excellent fodder for conversation within the chapter, but very little depth of any of the information.

From here, Jack moves into a discussion that is more focused on general ideas about working with adolescents.  He focuses on social skills and manners, dealing with adolescent power, and proactive discipline over the course of the next three chapters. The chapter on Sharing Discipline offers a five step discipline plan:

  1. Document – parent contact, anecdotal interactions, records of conduct infractions, etc
  2. Meet with Student as a Team – invite student in to discuss behavior during a team meeting
  3. Create a List of Strategies – Separate behavior issues from academic issues and address one at a time. Included are checklists for possible interventions for both academic and behavioral issues.
  4. Inform parents and admin – keep them in the loop of all that is going on
  5. Follow-up – with both student and parents as needed

Overall, Managing the Madness is a truly middle school book.  Equal parts great advice and ADHD, you get a feel that the author is a true middle school personality.  One of the best features in the book has to be the reflection questions that are posed at the end of each chapter.  These would make excellent discussion points for a full staff book study throughout the course of the school year.


2 Responses

  1. Thanks for a thorough book review. I considered picking this one up and may yet.

    • Thanks Shawn! I think the book has great value for a new teacher book study spread across a school year. Since the chapters are so short, you could easily fit one into the craziness often experienced while planning early in a teaching career. The reflection questions in some sections have some real depth, so it might take a series of lessons or some more long term thinking to come up with some answers. I can really see it working in the hands of teachers within the first 5 to 6 years, with some sustained conversations, and through picking and choosing the chapters to focus on based on what is happening in the building.

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