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Head of School Blog: In the Middle of Things

Recently, I spent seven straight hours with a group of eleven middle school students. Now before those of you who have middle school students or perhaps more impactfully remember your own middle school experience start feeling sorry for me, know that I had a terrific day with some terrific students.  

Consider a few highlights.  These middle schoolers found it somewhat thrilling to have gotten temporarily lost in Beebe Woods and then congratulated one another on their eventual safe return.  These middle schoolers spent an hour and a half constructing civilizations out of sticks and stones, bark and pine cones.  (They actually declined a scheduled break so that they could put the finishing touches on their housing units, trade routes, aqueducts, schools, and farms.)  These middle schoolers considered what it takes to survive in the wild before using flint and steel to light small (and safe!) fires.  These middle schoolers even played Red Light/Green Light without an ounce of self-consciousness!

And all along, I found myself reflecting on why this particular developmental phase can be both challenging and rewarding.  And why it is so important to get it right.  

Let’s hear from the experts first.  “The middle grades are often the last best chance to get youngsters on the right path toward academic and career success,” writes Sandy Kress in Middle School Matters.  And Molly Mee, head of the Middle School Education Department at Towson University agrees, writing “It’s such a critical time for learning...what a student does in these years can change so much of their future.” Finally, Jay Giedd, professor at UC San Diego describes this developmental phase as, “a time of amazing opportunity for learning new skills and for our behavioral interventions to have maximal impact… the middle school student’s brain is growing bigger, faster, and more complex daily, but it can’t quite control itself.”  

Now I am not an expert like these folks but I have spent nearly thirty years working in schools including nearly fifteen with this particular age group and here are five things I have learned:

Middle schoolers want to be seen and heard.  The cozy confines of the neighborhood elementary school too often give way to the centralized middle school (often just a high school in disguise.)  Kids learn best with teachers who know them well and are interested in what they have to say.

Middle schoolers want to test the waters.  There is emerging independence in middle schoolers; they are trying on different personas and are in the early stages of questioning assumptions and testing authority.  Kids will learn best in school settings where risk-taking is encouraged and it is safe to do so.

Middle schoolers still want to play.  It was not long ago these kids this age were playing make-believe or inventing new games.  Teachers can avail themselves of this opportunity by designing lessons that are inherently playful.

Middle schools want to act.  We were introduced this summer to the concept of “structured agency,” which encourages lessons with lots of choices as well as opportunities to customize the content to individual interests with outcomes that matter.      

Middle schoolers want to think.  They are not inclined to sit still and listen and are still less inclined to respond to the worksheet/seatwork approach to education.  They want to play with ideas and they definitely don’t want to be spoken to like elementary school children.  Selecting challenging tasks that require explanations, reasoning, and problem-solving is the straightest line to an on-task engaged middle school class.  

For the sake of brevity, I had to pare down my list but I can say with certainty that seventh and eighth grade is a critical time in the development of our children.   The natural curiosity of childhood, the flame that elementary teachers have lit, does not always weather the slings and arrows of adolescence, particularly in larger settings.  A child who pops out of bed at ten years old, who tells you all about school over dinner, can just a few years later, be hard to roust, offering variations of whatever, ok’s and fines to questions about school. 

To some degree, our brief time lost in Beebe Woods, with its twists and turns and in particular its choices as to “which way to go”  is an apt metaphor for the developmental phase these students find themselves in.  I for one was never in doubt
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