By Bart Bronk
One of the great fallacies of 20th century education is that the middle school experience should look like “mini high school.”
While young adolescents are certainly ready for new academic challenges and structures at this age, too many schools fall into the trap of directly mimicking elements of the high school experience – a high degree of teacher control and required obedience, huge homework loads, long, make-or-break tests and exams – that are actually inimical to the healthy development of 11-14 year olds. This approach results – somewhat unsurprisingly – in the early onset of other, less desirable high school behaviors (social risk taking, for example) and issues like depression and anxiety.
More troublingly, this misguided approach also crowds out some of the natural instincts and dispositions that make this period of development so special.
The Middle School Journey
What I’ve appreciated, as the parent of a freshman who spent three happy years in the University Liggett middle school, and what I look forward to, as the parent of a fifth grader who will begin his own middle school journey next year, is that our program and its dedicated faculty and administrators treat grades 6-8 as a unique and treasured time in students’ lives, a time in which they are more open to and invested in learning and personal development than perhaps any other period.
Middle school shouldn’t be a transition that kids survive; it should be a destination in which they thrive. Our program gives students the space to safely explore their burgeoning identities, the context to explore their relationships with others, the tools to see learning as a journey rather than a task, and ample opportunities to continue to be, fundamentally, kids – to laugh, to play, to move, to enjoy.
My day with 8th grader Rachel served as powerful evidence of the value of this approach. Throughout the day, I was struck by how teachers capitalized on, and made room for, one of the most powerful instincts of young adolescents – the desire to collaborate and interact with peers – to create dynamic and engaging classrooms.
We began our day in algebra with Ms. Alles. After a 24-challenge game to warm up, students examined multiple ways of looking at, and describing, the slope of a line. I reflected on how different the approach, in which students worked backwards from graphs and diagrams and grappled with how to express what was happening mathematically, was from my own introduction to the topic which was something like “here’s the equation.
Now repeat it over and over.” In the space and time afforded for grappling, students commented on each others’ ideas. Even when my own traditional instincts were screaming “give them the answer!” Mrs. Alles calmly allowed students to navigate together to their own meaning.
This spirit of embracing and creating room for collaboration extended into second period Chinese with Mrs. Liang. Students grappled with weather words and phrases in all three phases of foreign language instruction – speaking, reading, and writing.
Movement was not only allowed, but encouraged through a fun game of Simon Says. Students checked in with each other frequently, working together to build understanding of the topic.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”
In social studies with Mrs. Morgan, we screened part of the legendary film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as students studied legislative processes (including the noted filibuster). They were trying to answer the essential question, “Can one person affect change or does it require people working together?”
Collaboration was built into the exercise, as students took notes on the film not as individuals, but with assigned roles for the greater understanding of the group: roles like summarizer, or specific focuses on imagery, technology, and culture.
Continuing in the humanities, Mr. Shade’s English class focused on reading the Conan Doyle mystery “The Speckled Band.” In teams, they worked to find textual examples of literary elements like mood, theme, suspense, foreshadowing and the classic red herring and in character evaluation.
The room was bustling with learning and students cheered on a quieter classmate for a well-crafted response.
Ice skating and collaboration
In Mrs. Bachmann’s PE class, it was a skating day and the girls were playing hockey. (What a special thing it is to be able to skate in our own rink for gym!) Even though the competitive spirit was high, more palpable was the spirit of collaboration.
Players helped each other up, high-fived great plays, and stopped when someone fell down. The most advanced skaters, in particular, worked hard to get their less experienced peers involved.
We ended our day in Ms. Kendall’s art class, where students worked on end-of-year projects including some bas relief carving and print-making.
Again, I was struck how the collaborative, social instinct was critical in their work. In addition to checking in with the teacher on skill questions, students readily discussed and shared their ideas and progress with each other.
The class, and the day, ended in perhaps the most middle school way possible; the entire group belting out a Backstreet Boys song.
Throughout the day, I saw ample evidence of the gifts of an expert middle school educator: recognizing that conversation and murmurs – “noise” to a more control-oriented teacher – are simply that powerful natural desire to collaborate.
Even when one student stood up and jab-stepped with an imaginary basketball (we were in the heart of basketball season), learning and contributions continued. I walked away from my day thinking how detrimental the standard “shhh” or “sit down and be quiet,” which we may recall from our own middle school days, would have been to a beautiful, social, and powerful learning process.