A Case for the Middle
“Middle School” is a phrase that strikes fear into any parent and 11 year old student. It is a phrase that is so scary that suspense and crime author James Patterson has written a series of books on Middle School, the first book is title Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life. So why would any teacher actually pick to teach middle school?
I never planned to teach middle school.
When I graduated college I was on a path to teach High School Social Studies, Government specifically. At 21, I was back in the district I graduated from and working as Teacher Assistant. It was not working out very well, I felt I was too close in age to my students. The following year I took a job teaching 7th grade Social Studies. I made a deal with myself, I will teach Middle School until I am 30, then go back to High School. Now, I am 36 years old and am part of the #EduGladiators movement focused on Middle School. Frankly, I do not think I would be happy teaching any other grade level.
Middle School is one of the significant periods of growth.
Middle School or Middle Level Students (5-9 grade levels) are extremely unique. I like to call this time in life “the second toddlerhood.” It is during this time that students are changing both mentally and physically. This change is the biggest growth in a person’s life beside infancy. The radio program This American Life with Ira Glass did a segment on Middle School. It is an enlightening and entertaining listen. In the program, Ira Glass speaks to Linda Perlstein the author of “Not Much Just Chillin". Perlstein states that during this middle school time, the brain is rapidly making cell and these cell “duke it out.” What stays or what is exercised the most is the brain cells that help create the adults we will become. What a students learn in the early stages of puberty (5 - 7 grades) tends to stick and stay. Example: In 7th grade, I took my first French class while also pushing myself to be the best clarinet player I could be. I still know the French I studied in 7th and 8th grade better than the French I learned later (now I teach it). I can still pick up my clarinet and play the songs I played in Middle School; however I can not remember the songs we played in marching band my senior year.
It is not only mentally that the students are changing but physically. Middle School students need to move around A LOT. Not because they can’t control themselves; they physically can not sit still. Their bones are growing faster than their muscles causing their bodies to ache due to this rapid growth. Rick Wormeli explains this need to move during his middle school presentations. Mr. Wormeli states that students wiggle in their seats because their tail bones hurt as it is during this time the spine starts to fuse. It actually hurts for adolescents to sit for a long period of time. There is really nothing more difficult to a middle level student than sitting in a hard chair, in a blank classroom for 45 to 90 minutes, several times a day.
Even with these exhaustive mental and physical changes, middle school students' development does not end there. There are the hormone changes, the navigation of friend groups, transformation in appearance, transition in actual buildings (elementary to the middle school), the changes with environment and the realization that the world is now completely open to them. These incredible shifts are overwhelming for an adult to handle and we are asking a person who has only been in this world for 12 years to master it all. (I am worn out just writing about it.)
Middle School needs the loudest #EduGladiators!
The Middle School experience has many stereotypes and I will be the first to say that yes, many of these stereotypes are true. The stereotypes are not necessarily bad and may actually be utilized to understand middle school students. Educators must leverage these stereotypes to our advantage. For example, middle schoolers are naturally curious and are easily distracted. So allow them to be distracted, harness that curiosity and incorporate it into the lesson. Middle Schoolers are always on the internet. Do not fight the internet, you will lose. Use the internet, embrace it. Students in the middle level in particular love to socialize, so then let them collaborate. In the This American Life program, Chicago Principal Marion Strok talks about this embrace. In summary, she states that we need to take into consideration everything that is happening in middle school and use it to help them grow. It how how we, as adults and educators, react to everything that will help them grow the most, stay flexible and hear them out.
A few weeks ago, I was handed a first quarter plan from a high school teacher with the statement “Here we made these lessons for you, it is everything you need to teach the unit.” I looked at the unit and graciously said thank you. When I walked back into my new classroom, the unit went into the trash. The lesson plan was made for upper level high school, it would not work in the Middle Level. As a member of #EduGladiators, my quest is for society to understand the Middle School concept and how it differs from the Junior High model.
Middle School is different. The students are different and classes, practices and pedagogy must be designed with these students’ needs first. If educators and adults embrace our adolescents, help them get through this part of their lives and become the best they can be, then maybe one of them will write a book titled “James Patterson is Wrong! Middle School: The Best Years of My Life.”