A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Are Middle Schools bad for kids?

Yes and no. Middle schools aren't-- the "Middle School Philosophy," worshipped unquestioningly, definitely is.

What brought up this question is the article in Time magazine's Being 13 special edition. Sez that several districts across the country are switching to K-8 schools--of course, to raise test scores as one of the main reasons.

I spent more than a decade teaching 13 and 14-year-old kids. I taught in a K-8 parochial school and in a public middle school. Here's what I saw:

If a student had a "failing" grade-- not that that meant anything, since there was no retention-- even after you had mentored and encouraged and voluntarily stayed after school with them on your own dime to tutor them, after you had sent notes home to the parents, after you had repeatedly called the parents (keeping a log of the discussions if you knew what was good for you), after you had spoken to parents in face-to-face conferences, after you had taken countless late assignments and given them six more copies of every paper they ever lost and given them four textbooks since they lost those too (and you knew those books were gone forever because you weren't allowed to charge the kid for the lost books but you had no money to order new ones)-- at the end of the year, you were asked what more you, the teacher, could have done.

With a straight face.

By an administrator who either spent two years in a classroom or who last stood in front of a class 25 years ago. If you said "Nothing"-- which was safer than sarcastically making a remark related to doing their work for them or wiping their "noses"-- then the kids were socially promoted. If you actually could think of something else you could have done-- I had one colleague who actually went to one kid's house and woke him up in the morning, fercryinoutloud-- then the kid was promoted to the next grade because it was really the teacher's failure, not the responsibility of the kid.

It is completely verboten to consider that perhaps the student had some part to play in this drama. By consistently demonstrating no concern with learning, the student learned nothing. And even when she is passed along to the next grade, she still has not learned that material. Which might be useful as a building block for learning in the next grade. And the next.

Not to mention that the student HAS learned that he is a passive player in their own education-- which is the most dangerous lesson you can teach someone.

All in the name of an alleged "Middle School Philosophy" which spurns intellectual rigor and academic achievement in favor of "affective development" and -- my favorite-- "self-esteem."

I say that in today's society, kids don't have three years to spin their wheels intellectually while educators focus on helping them love themselves. Many kids love themselves so much right now that they brook no thought that they could do better and they have no shame when doing wrong.

We have created and celebrated a culture of adolescence in modern society which always tries to make things come easy-- which means nothing. Adolescence is a very recent concept, really developed only in the last few decades. It is no coincidence that bar and bat mitzvah and confirmation-- rites of passage into responsibility and the beginning of the path to adulthood-- have been traditionally scheduled for millennia at or about the age of thirteen. Middle schools infantilize students at the expense of their education. Young people should be transitioning into being responsible for their actions, not being cocooned from every pitfall.

Middle schools and their adherents demonstrate their lack of faith in students to learn. They assume that kids can't do it by coming up with the hit-parade of excuses. Guess what? If you have real rapport with your kids, when you talk to them they will cop to the fact that they didn't work hard enough, and that they deserve their grade.

Although it would be easier if I didn't, I fiercely love my students. I am such a sap that when I see those "Eureka!" moments with my kids, or when I get hugged by gawky former students, I get tears in my eyes. Really. It's very embarrassing. And the kids know I love them when I demand their best effort, nothing less.

I manifest that love by expecting them to learn-- to read, write, contemplate, to wrestle with ideas like Abraham wrestling with the angels. Letting them off easy is, unfortunately, the middle school way. And it's not working.

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At 8/11/05, 12:56 PM, Blogger Polski3 said...

Good Comments! Should be required reading for every Jr. High/Middle School administrator and all the newer teachers in those schools who think the old verteran teachers are nuts/too hard on the kids/lacking understanding/lacking compassion/insensitive etc.

At 8/11/05, 1:55 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Hmmm. Watch who you're calling "old," bub. I prefer "chronologically enhanced."

At 8/24/05, 3:38 PM, Anonymous k said...

I'm an infant teacher in training, though not an infant in age ;-)
being 49.

And I would like to teach in the middle schools, grades 6-8 in our district.

I'm confused. What is different about middle schools that doesn't work for kids? What is key to what works if they stayed in elementary school until 8th grade, then onto high school?

In our middle schools the students go to six periods a day, all with different teachers. So that looks, to me, to be just like high school. What they miss is having one person keeping an eye on them which I can see is an advantage. So keeping them in an elementary setting would the best thing.

I've also heard the trend may be going back to longer years in elementary school and going to an 8-9 grade jr. high. This is what we had years ago when my children were young and middle school came in as the great new thing. It was sold to us as a way to integrate lessons - that language, social studies and math would all be doing this big, wonderful unit tying it all together. When my children to there this concept was nowhere to be seen. And that the same time our state mandated standards kicked in.

thanks for any input!

At 8/25/05, 8:23 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Well, I'm not too sure it actually matters WHERE those 6-8 grade years are accomplished-- my beef is with the attitude toward the kids by the administration and some teachers, wherever the kids physically are.

I've taught in a K-8 school, and there's one in my district as an alternative school. Unfortunately at the HS we are seeing that kids from the K-8 school evince the least successful transition to the high school as 9th graders, although admittedly the sample is small as a statistical reference. The middle school kids do a bit better, but a huge number manage to garner at least one semester F in their freshman year-- which I consider to be unacceptable.

When I taught in middle school, I was a part of a team of core teachers plus a reading teacher. We kept track of the kids-- we knew when they were disciplined, we kept them in a small area as they moved from class to class except for electives. I taught two of the core subjects as a combined unified studies class, but frankly, that is NOT what I've seen middle school to be about.

You have to provide a safety net for kids transitioning into adolescence. But where middle schools absolutely betray the task entrusted to them is when it came down to accountability on the part of the kids in terms of whether they had learned the material. More on this on my main page, since this is getting long.

At 2/17/06, 6:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you kidding? Do you know how much stress teenagers have to go through already? The leap between 8th and 9th grade would be too much to handle for some kids. My children's school is about to switch to include K-8, and I am completly against it. 7th and 8th graders need more freedom to take direction in their lives, and decide what they want to do and become. If they are limited in classes and oppertunities by staying in an elemantary school, they will have a VERY hard time in high school. Lots of teens commit suicide because they feel that school is just too much to handle. K-8 does not help!


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