How Can We Make Middle School Less of a Piece of Shit?


People always talk about high school being this caustic bog of despair that ruins lives and haunts adolescence, but that’s clearly because they’ve developed selective amnesia to block out the FUCKING HELLSCAPE that is middle school. Nobody talks about middle school much. I mean, it’s right in the name—”middle” school—it isn’t the fragile beginning or the triumphant peak, it’s just…the middle part. It’s transitional. A temporary holding tank where we stash the kids away until their awkward phases start to fade and they learn how to effectively groom their weird new hairy crevices and they develop clandestine interests in R-rated movies. But why don’t we pay more attention to those awkward, painful in-between years? Why do we give the least credence to the moment when we’re simultaneously mourning our dying childhoods and racing breathlessly into the abyss of adulthood? When you think about it, that transition is what makes us or breaks us. That transition is fucked.

And, research suggests, that transition is where a lot of kids get lost.

Over at Slate, Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen took an in-depth look at how educators are beginning to reassess how we approach middle school students—and how crucial those years can be. This cultural moment is the perfect time to refocus public attention on middle school: With anti-bullying initiatives and outrage over teen suicide drowning out nearly everything else in the media right now, clearly America has a problem with that sticky age between 12 and 15.

Maybe adults don’t like to look too carefully at that time because we don’t like what we see—we remember how the impulsiveness of childhood combined with puberty’s surging hormones (but sans the temperance of young adulthood) turned us into sociopathic little shits for a couple of years. I also think there’s a certain romanticized rugged individualism that we associate with middle school: that pain is a rite of passage, that it’s a good experience, in the long run, for kids to toughen up. “Well, I went through it and I turned out fine! Pipe down, kid. You’ll live.”

But ignoring kids’ problems during those crucial years can have detrimental effects. Glenn and Larsen spoke with Robert Balfanz of the School of Education at Johns Hopkins:

Whatever the reason, Balfanz says that giving the middle grades short shrift is a serious mistake. “Middle School is when kids make a decision if school is for them or is something to be endured,” he says. In fact, his research of high-poverty schools shows that a sixth-grader who either chronically skips school, fails math or English, or receives a poor final behavior grade has a 75 percent chance of dropping out of high school unless the school steps in to help. On the flip side, ninth-graders who don’t get in trouble, have strong attendance, and at least a B average make up the ranks of our state university systems.

Personally, I had a relatively peaceful school experience all the way through (too popular to get bullied much, too average to get up to anything “bad”), but even for me, middle school was rocky. It was exciting and unprecedented, but it was also confusing and scary and kids were mean. Later, I remember going back to my middle school to do a presentation for some high school project—I was maybe 16 at the time—and discovering those kids were FREAKS. I’d only been in high school a couple of years—how had I forgotten how bad it was? Middle school was chaos. Nobody listened. They yelled, they threw things at each other, they wandered out of the classroom halfway through the presentation. And that was in a gifted math class packed with nerds, with their teacher sitting right there. I’ve never heard much different from my friends who teach in public schools. Middle school is particularly tough. The teachers hold it together as well as they can, of course there are good days and bad days, good kids and bad kids—but the overwhelming sentiment seems to be, “Yep, well, that’s middle school!” Except WHY? WHY IS THAT MIDDLE SCHOOL?

Why are we okay with our kids spending the crucial middle years of their education in pain and chaos? Why would we sell them short like that? Can’t we hold ourselves to a higher standard? But, on the other hand, what do you do? What would make a better middle school? Glenn and Larsen uncovered a couple of strategies that are currently making waves in educational theory:

The National Forum’s Schools to Watch Initiative identifies four key traits: academic excellence; an awareness of and sensitivity toward the unique developmental needs of early adolescents; a shared vision; and they capitalize on early adolescents’ obsession with fairness by being a trustworthy and democratic community where every student feels a connection to at least one adult in the building.
…While all this emphasis on students’ feelings and responsibility might feel like yet another education gimmick, a growing number of experts agree that prioritizing middle schoolers’ sometimes volatile and often mysterious emotional needs is at the heart of how we can best educate our 11- to 14-year-olds. A literature review published this year by The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research finds that while middle schoolers are developmentally ready to do challenging work, they can’t always do so unless schools also build up their sense of what they think is possible for themselves.

It’s a tough sell, I imagine—deep down, America really is in love with our bootstrap ethos, and we dig our heels in against anything that seems too woo-woo. We don’t want to make our kids soft, you know? I want my 6th grader to be a REAL MAN. But the thing is, kids are already soft. And there’s no shortage of time to toughen up later, when real life comes knocking and starts breaking their hearts and killing their relatives and smothering them in credit card debt. Have you ever met anyone who wished their childhood had ended earlier than it did? “Oh, I wish I’d had less fun and started worrying about electric bills and herpes sooner.” No. Nobody ever. Come on, think of the children.

The Worst Years of Our Lives [Slate]

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