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Middle School, A Gift From the Public Education System

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This post is written in memory of Jane D. Baker (1927-2013), a colleague who modeled the lesson that it's neither the years nor the mileage that count in effective teaching, but the passion and the love.

In the 1980s independent schools were falling all over each other to turn their middle grades--five through eight, roughly--into middle schools. The model was developmental, with built-in advisories, special programs in "wellness," dedicated time and space, and highly collaborative teacher cultures.

Our models came overwhelmingly from public schools. The middle school movement seems to have started in biggish, relatively affluent suburbs with robust public systems, and it hit neighboring independent schools like a juggernaut, spreading fast.

In the olden days there had been junior high schools, sweaty holding areas for students passing through the first confusing stages of adolescence--often just seventh and eighth grades--until the serious business of high school could begin. Independent schools with high schools often relegated these grades to a "Junior School" or "Lower School," depending on how far down the grade ladder enrollment went.

The Junior School where I started grade seven in the fall of 1962 had the wisdom to keep us on a separate schedule, in a separate building, with a separate faculty. We had some great teachers and others more entertaining than effective. The general theme was, "Wait until you get to the Upper School!" There, we knew, were dragons in the form of senior faculty of legendary sternness and eccentricity. The years passed against this backdrop of impending doom.

What a pleasure, then, to find myself ten years later teaching in a middle school--also part of a school serving grades 5 through 12, and also in a separate building with (mostly) a separate faculty. The dividers between the classrooms were minimal, the program teacher-designed with plenty of discussion about what kids in grades 5 through 8 needed. We met as a body every Friday afternoon about kids, curriculum, pedagogy--rich conversations that were the best professional development I had had and that helped push me toward those certification courses I wrote about earlier.

The middle school idea had come to this school from local public schools, and a colleague late of one of those was our informant and guide. The director was an ex-Marine aviator who had come to teaching in an epiphany and whose spouse had been a public middle school teacher. Ideas poured in from the outside, and I'm guessing the director was exorcising some personal ghosts as he embraced the middle school ideal. We were a team, and we knew it; in retrospect I would guess our giddy solidarity was hard for our upper school colleagues to bear.

I spent a lot of time comparing my own experiences with the experiences of my students. A couple of wonderful, caring teachers in my past couldn't compete with our Middle School Team. My pleasurable memories of 8th-grade Latin couldn't match the vibrant buzz of Project Time, a three-week all-middle-school deep dive into a broad topic, grades mixing, teachers following their passions--kids all excited, all the time.

I hit another middle school a few years later; same pattern. Infiltration by public school-trained teachers had created a proud, intentional professional cadre and even transformed some very senior teachers, with experience in august independent secondary boarding schools going back to the '40s, into middle school zealots. Life was good, and the teaching was fine.

I'm just pointing out that one of the great developments in American education, one that thankfully changed the lives of tweens permanently, was, at least in my experience, a window into the amazing work that public schools and their teachers were doing to change kids' lives.

To a degree I can't exactly calibrate, because I'm not living the experience but only hearing about it, this makes all the sadder the distractions that now seem to keep so many of our brothers and sisters in public schools from evangelizing even more transformative programs for their (and potentially our) students. It makes me respect all the more the passion and creativity of teachers who continue to come up with new and better ways to help kids learn and grow, even in the face of corrosive factors over which they have little control.

But, brothers and sisters, we're still ready to learn from you.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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