Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What to do with those pesky pre-teens?

Apparently the new hot topic is the unique plight of middle schools. About freaking time!

I could not agree more that teacher education is not only inadequate, but nonexistent, for the middle school years. I was put in an elementary program for the Fellows, and never even thought about middle school. Naturally, all courses were related to elementary school, in terms of development, literacy (learning rather than perfecting), and multiple content areas. Helpful, I'm sure, for the people who were actually teaching in an elementary school. Since I was placed in a middle school, most of my grad school courses were a complete waste of time with content, if not for professor incompetency.

I imagine that secondary teacher ed, grades 7-12, focuses on high school. Keeping kids from dropping out, preparing for college, very specific things for older kids. I can't imagine they'd focus much on the seventh and eighth grade teaching experience.

The point is, as the reporters are stating as if revealing a big secret, middle school is an entirely different bag. Beginning adolescence, being around others in beginning adolescence, and in a new, bigger, more individualized environment? Recipe for potential disaster. Throwing strategies at it won't help. Kids are going to be kids.

I firmly believe that changing grade set up will make things worse. Putting middle schools and high schools together? Are you kidding? We've already got eleven year old kids acting like full-grown delinquents, and you want to put them in a building with actual full-grown delinquents? You want to put them around the teenagers they're already trying so desperately to emulate, at the risk of their academic success?

And put them with little kids? The middle school is a very loud place, in a different way than elementary noise. There's more personal nastiness that goes on in middle school, with all the social cliques and raging hormones.

I've met teachers who are in K-8 buildings, with all self-contained middle school grades! Thirteen year olds in one room all day long with the same teacher! To me, that is one of the top five circles of hell for all involved. The kids need change, they need the few minutes between classes to relax a bit and act like kids, they need the exposure to different teachers and different teaching styles and personalities.

No, middle schools need to stay middle schools. Closing their schools won't change the kids. We must start addressing the issues the children are facing--how to cope with the hormones, the social changes and hostility, how to grow into a more mature student, how to be a good friend, dealing with more mature and pervasive bullying--basically, dealing with adolescence. I'm not sure that anything will make it a wonderful experience.

The other huge issue is teachers. Teachers make the school, teachers make success, good teachers help shape good students and successful children.

I've seen huge turnovers each year in my own school. My grade department has been fairly stable, but the other grades in my department have completely changed between my first year and this, my third. The eighth grade this year is such a mess that administrators have had to start teaching, because of vacancies or teachers leaving. There's one excellent teacher, but she can only do so much. Seventh grade has one great teacher and one decent teacher. My own grade has one teacher that is on her own planet, and one teacher that's brand new.

So with this situation, no wonder it's a nightmare to be anywhere near the upper grades. They've not had any stability, and their teachers are either absent, rotating subs, or new teachers who can't control them. Why do anything other than act out like crazy people?

But with middle school kids acting out like crazy people, who would willingly go teach them? Even though the good teachers manage and control them just fine, someone just starting would be like, are you insane?

Since actually starting to teach, I ended up being very grateful to be in a middle school. It's a special situation with plenty of downs, but there are good things. First, kids aren't babies. You don't have to take them to the bathroom or show them how to open a dictionary. They come to you with (some) existing skills. You get to talk to them on a pretty equal basis. There's certainly some watering down of vocabulary, but you can introduce real topics about the world and get them thinking with more maturity. And especially in sixth grade, they still have plenty of innocence and excitement to learn, and many of them are so eager to succeed and please the teacher. It's really easy for me to forget, but I have a lot of really sweet kids who try so hard.

I often forget that they're only eleven and that they don't know everything. They certainly think they know everything, but that's also part of their charm. If you can handle it. And they're still physically pretty small, which makes you want to protect them. Unless they're being a pain in the ass, then you want them to behave. :)

The other good thing that my mom told me--a middle school teacher for thirty years--is that to a middle school student, a day is like a year. If something bad happened yesterday, they've already forgotten it. They've moved on, and they're happy again and ready to go. So we, the adults, sometimes have to work on that, making each day about only that day, and not about the past. Every day each of us has the opportunity to succeed!

The upper grades of middle school and the high school age seems to be full of attitude and really thinking they know everything. If you've got a kid in 10th grade who's 'checked out' of school, there's not much you can do. But in middle school, you still have time and opportunity to pull them back in to a successful track. At least the chance, not that it will necessarily work.

Again, this brings me back to saying that combining grades will do more harm than good. Keep this unique age in a separate space to accommodate their unique needs, and start addressing their needs. Start peer tutoring or peer advisors programs. Start some programs dealing with young adulthood, separated by gender. Give them as many opportunities to move as possible, which means fixing the gym programs and giving equal space and equipment for both gym and outdoor recess time.

At the very, bare minimum, we *need* high-quality and especially patient teachers, we need smaller classes to accommodate the expanding personalities, and we need clean, well-equipped, safe, and secure facilities for the health of students and teachers alike. Sadly, these are things that seem to be nonexistent in all NYC schools, which makes it tough to persevere. Some days we just have to take it one day at a time because it can seem too much to deal with all at once.


Anonymous said...

I didn't read the three articles you linked but I did read one on Yahoo! news. That article said that creating K-8 schools, for one, spreads middle school students around the district instead of lumping them all together in one building. Two, it made the point that when middle school kids stay in the elementary school, they continue to be surrounded by the teachers and kids that they've known since Kindergarten and this bond reduces bullying and other middle school issues.
Makes sense to me!

17 more years said...

I've been in a K-8 school for 9 years, and it has its pros and cons. The cons are lack of facilities (science labs, lockers, etc), and the lack of transition between the elementary school and high school. I've had many kids come back after graduation and tell me how hard it was going from our small, safe school (less than 1000 kids from pre-k to 8) to a huge high school. On the pro side, we know every kid by name, we truly provide a very warm, nurturing, educationally friendly environment, the kids know who they can turn to if they are having difficulty (either academically or socially) and if a kid is failing, we have the time to work with that kid one on one to ensure he succeeds. Is it an ideal situation? Probably not, but I much prefer the K-8 to a large, impersonal middle school.