Middle School – A Time to Push Students Forward or Hold Them Back?

Recently I visited my son’s pre-k classroom for the back-to-school night. As I watched my son’s teacher talk about her teaching philosophy, it occurred to me that it might be time to take a look at the way some schools think about their divisions, especially the middle school division.

I have been teaching at the middle school level for almost ten years and throughout that period, the underlying middle school dogma is centered around preparing students for the challenges ahead in high school and beyond. Sounds like a good plan, as high school is the very next step in the academic journey of our students. One of my concerns with this strategy, however, is how students are prepared for their next step. Some schools/districts get their students prepared for the increased workload and stress levels of high school by simply downloading high school workload and stress levels into the middle school classroom. “Not ready to handle this? We’ll get you ready by making you handle it before you are ready!”

The Virginia Department of Education website contains a chart listing writing skill standards and the grades in which they are to be achieved.  It is noteworthy that skills such as “Communicate clearly the purpose of the writing using a thesis statement” and “Use transitions between paragraphs and ideas” are identified as a ninth and tenth grade skills and yet in some schools such skills are expected to be introduced in sixth grade and mastered by eighth grade. And, mastery must be achieved minus foundational skills and while overwhelmed by hormonal, social, and physical stresses.

For middle school students, it can be a case of ready or not, here it comes!

If middle school really is pre-high school and pre-pre-college, some emphasis should be placed on how to help students better organize their workloads, manage their time, and develop new strategies for managing stress. Make it less about content and more about success strategies. Simply subjecting students to greater complexities and stresses, without providing the proper tools and before they are mature enough to handle them, doesn’t sound like teaching. It sounds like torture!

Perhaps, instead of looking forward to high school, it is time for middle school educators to look back at what elementary school is doing.

As my son’s pre-k teacher continually pointed out in her presentation to parents, elementary is all about developmental appropriateness.  Elementary teachers provide opportunities for their students to do what they are appropriately capable of doing. If a student can write a complete sentence by the end of pre-k, that is awesome. If not, no worries, the first grade teacher will take that on next year. Can the same be said for middle school? Is developmental appropriateness being considered? Too often I have seen middle school students, who are not meeting the expectations, labelled “slow” or “lazy”. Maybe, like their elementary peers learning to put letters together in pre-k,  they’re just not ready. Yet.

And let’s not forget all the other wonderful things that happen at the elementary level that suddenly end in middle school:

  • Circle time
  • Centers
  • Story time
  • Recess
  • Book fairs
  • Arts and crafts time
  • Cursive writing
  • Classroom reading nook
  • Classroom pet
  • Holiday parties
  • Show and tell
  • Getting a gold star
  • The sheer joy of being at school

As a middle school teacher who has spent the bulk of his career at large, K-12 schools, I’ve attended many vertical integration meetings involving middle school teachers and high school teachers. We do a pretty good job of ensuring a smooth transition from one division to the next. But, rare are those meetings where middle school teachers talk to their elementary colleagues.

Perhaps part of the problem is that middle school and high school teachers suffer from a kind of recency-effect when it comes to education. Many teachers jump from college right into the teaching career. They remember struggling with note taking, essays and exams and dedicate themselves to preparing their students for these challenges, forgetting the more distant challenges of elementary life. For me, it wasn’t until I became a parent that I was reminded of the importance of incremental, developmentally appropriate growth.

I’m not saying that students are not capable of taking on new challenges. Students will always surprise their teachers, and themselves, with what they can achieve. But, just because they are capable at an academic level doesn’t mean they are capable at an emotional level. Many times, when I have assigned a challenging task, students will approach me with question after question – not to clarify the project, but masking a palpable fear. “Is it okay if I…?” “Are you sure….?” or “But, what if….?” It’s like some important foundation, safe space, or safety net has been yanked out from underneath them. Sure, students can eventually gather themselves together and successfully step up to the challenge. But, why make them undergo the accompanying emotional crisis in the meantime? Isn’t there a more seamless way to transition to more rigorous academic challenges?

What do you think? Should middle schools continue to connect their curriculum to high school and college needs? Are we dropping elementary ideas and practices too soon? Why the rush to push students to grow up?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Please contact me with any of your comments or questions.

Ed X!

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