Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Gooey Center--The Slacker's Guide to Middle School


On a recent episode of the radio show This American Life, producer and former middle school biology teacher Alex Blumberg confessed that he wasn't sure his students had learned anything. He postulates that there is so much going on with students' lives at this age that they can't really be taught content. As a former middle school teacher, I can relate. As a former middle school-aged student, I can really relate.

I don't blame teachers for this. Well, I don't blame all teachers for this. The truth is, teachers are like anyone else: we have good qualities and bad qualities, and qualities that are good in some circumstances and not so good in others. What follows are the main archetypes of school teachers. However, since everything in a middle school is amplified, enhanced, and drawn in excruciatingly sharp relief, it is there that they will be most identifiable.

There are pretty much four flavors:
  • The Warden - tough as nails. Never smiles before Thanksgiving, and then just once every month or so. Gets results because students are too afraid to not produce. At its best, drives students to high achievement, respect, and even affection. At its worst, can devolve into near-sadism.
  • The Momma - sweet and nurturing. Knows which student has just broken up with her boyfriend, which hasn't taken a shower because the gas company has cut off service, and which has her period. Helps students through tough times, and customizes every interaction to students' precise condition of the moment. At its best, this keeps students who are near the edge from going over. At its worst, students become increasingly uncomfortable with the level of interest paid them.
  • The Song-and-Dance Man - the show must go on. Somewhere between a carnival barker, a stand-up comedian, and a poster child for caffeine, this teacher entertains, inspires, and occasionally irritates. At its best, this energizes the masses. At its worst, it whips students into a frenzy without actually imparting any knowledge.
  • The Rock - slow and steady. If Steve Wright taught middle school, this is who he'd be. These teachers stand in the tumult of their environment and take it down a notch. At its best, this teacher posses an inner calm that yogis (not Yogis or Yogis) would envy. At its worst, you need to check for a pulse.
Most teachers are, of course, some combination of these types, but one variety will mostly likely dominate. Also, because in education we form administrators from among the teachers--sometimes the best teachers, though not always--administrators will fall into these categories as well. When these qualities are found in administrators, they are very likely to be rewarded and amplified in the teachers who work for them.

Somewhere between Alex Blumberg's (mentioned above) suggestion that we shouldn't be trying to teach middle school students in the first place and what we're doing now must be another way. Instead of a pit of vipers (despair, chaos, anguish--you pick), maybe middle school could be something different entirely. By the way, keep in mind that this analysis is coming from one former middle school teacher by way of another--you'd be wise to carefully consider the source (and the source of the source).

As far as I understand it, "Middle School" is itself an attempt at another way. When I first started teaching we had "Junior High School," but I guess that gave the impression that we were dealing with high school students, only smaller. In fact, when I was in school, we just had elementary school through grade eight, though that was Catholic school, so things tend to be a tinge behind the times--I also was also still learning Palmer Method Cursive in seventh grade, and how to diagram sentences in twelfth. Middle schools came out of a need to establish a specifically geared toward students from +-sixth- through +-eighth-grade, since they didn't seem to fit into either the high school or elementary schools where we used to keep them.

One way middle schools attempt to bridge the gap is through something called teaming. The theory is that you need to schedule students in such a way that everyone who has Mr. Smith for social studies also has Ms. Jones for science. That way, the teachers can coordinate on units, stagger major projects and homework, and keep a better eye on students who are falling through the cracks. This provides a more orderly change from elementary model of one teacher for everything to the high school model of one teacher for each thing. I guess it does, just not anywhere I've seen. It mostly seems to mean that a group of teachers all have prep at the same time, and have a movie day or game day every marking period or so to build "team spirit."

Germany does things another way. There, you attend one of five different kinds of secondary schools, each with specific objectives. About 28% attend the Gymnasium for the final 9 years of school, which is the clearest path to university. The others attend some kind of business education, or trade school for perhaps 6 years. It's possible to go on to higher ed from the other schools, but it's not inevitable. In this system, not every student reads Chaucer for an entire semester in an effort to teach him/her how to type. On the downside, if you don't read Chaucer in school, you probably never will.

Similarly, in Harry Potter, you are sorted on your first day of middle school. At Hogwarts, an old hat decides whether you are to be brave, clever, pure (bigoted?), or miscellaneous. Your own desire and choice enters the equation, but a significant aspect of your school life is determined for you on your very first day.

Howgarts and lots of less-imaginary schools recognize that the social context of school matters enough to place you in proximity to students who are like you in some way. This is also a side advantage/disadvantage of other attempts to create homogeneous grouping, such as the German system. When students are "sorted," they only need to interact with those of similar, well, something. We used to call it "tracking," but that's out of style now. If the pattern of education policy-recycling holds, look for it to return by about 2015.

Despite the energy dedicated to the results of the Hogwarts sorting, however, every student is presented with the same academic content, at least in the early years. It goes to the larger question of what must every member of a society must know, even if she will be changing oil or he will be cleaning toilets. The question is what happens if a union worker becomes a union official, and then a politician? If someone made you read F. Scott Fitzgerald when you were thirteen, are you more likely to have a thought about problems that come in spite of, or because of, social class? On the other hand, maybe those inclined to think these thoughts will do so whether or not they are forced to read things that attempt to spark this thinking.

Homogeneous grouping is, in its ways, attractive. It is tempting to look at a pack (hoard, cluster, pile--you pick) of middle school'rs and attempt to separate them into the good ones and the bad ones. On the other hand, there is something to be said for late-bloomers, and as one myself, I am wary of any system that attempts to lock students into a destiny at a moment in time when no one should need to commit to who they are.

So far, I've been generous with identifying problems, and a bit more stingy with solutions. Therefore, here's a six-part plan to fix the whole thing (You're welcome.):
  1. Basic-level vocational training for all - Every student should learn how to make bread, wire a lamp, sew a button, and change spark plugs. Some students will find that they are pretty good at this stuff, others won't. Those who do may want to peruse these things further (which would be better than the current selection process, which mostly gets kids who don't like school); those who don't will gain some appreciation for those who do. Also, it would be great if students would be doing actual work, rather than just learning how to do work.
  2. Arts education for all - Self-serving, I know, but the arts is one arena where middle school-aged students really can do some impressive things (see also here, and here). They should all be shown that they can draw, should be given the opportunity to sing--though this is awkward through the voice change, it's not harmful, should be allowed to continue with the instruments they started when they were much younger, and should be encouraged to read and write things that move them. If nothing else, it will give them somewhere to put all of that angst.
  3. No more one-size-fits-all high schools - Part of what makes middle schools so pointless is that just about everyone goes on to the same high school experience. Middle school would seem less pointless if what you did there, you know, mattered.
  4. Authentic placement criteria - If we are to place students based on how they did in middle school, it should not rely heavily on what the teacher thinks of the students. Even great middle school students can be exceedingly irritating, so requiring them to earn favor with a teacher shouldn't determine success or failure. Beware scoring methods where the teacher's opinion counts for ten points, and the grade in the teacher's class counts for another ten, and the student's attitude counts for another ten--as if that's not the same thing three times over.
  5. Pay attention to the social stuff - Adolescence is hugely wrapped up in social strata, power, and the attempt to fit in/be noticed. Trying to find healthy ways (like some sports teams), and minimize unhealthy ways (like some sports teams) for students to band together and work out who they are may help to channel some of this stuff into more productive directions.
  6. Teach academic skills - Sadly, this often devolves into giving grades for neatness and completeness of notebooks. However, if done well, teaching the skills it takes to learn and retain information as a separate discipline from the actual content could equip students with the skills actually needed at the next level.
Anyone who has spent significant amounts of time with kids of this age, and significant amounts of time in their schools, knows we don't have it right yet. When you don't have it right, the worst thing you can do is leave it the same. Even if we somehow make it worse, that will help to instruct us on how to turn it around.