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The Middle Children

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In the ongoing national debate about middle schools, many—including teachers, parents, and policymakers—are questioning which configurations work best for those often-surly, hormonally-charged adolescents on the cusp of young adulthood. Some believe that middle school provides a suitable transition between nurturing elementary schools and competitive high schools. But others argue that the nurturing should continue through 8th grade, while many feel a grades 6-12 setup would focus kids on college and careers as early as possible.

What do you think? Are middle schools doing a good enough job educating their students, both emotionally and academically? Or should some kind of a two-tiered system (K-8/9-12 or K-5/6-12) be instituted nationwide? If not, what would you suggest?

14 Comments

Jobs for America's Graduates is partnering with one of its State Organizations (JAG-Maine) to expand Maine's very successful Middle School Program. The three (3) major goals of a JAG Middle School Program are: 1. Students will stay in school and transition into high school. 2. Students will improve their academic performance, school behavior, attendance, participation and self-esteem. 3. Students will improve their skills in leading and being an effective member of a team. A variety of experiential-based learning techniques energize classroom sessions, anchor key learning, discover best practices and demonstrate the power of activity-based and adventure-based learning. Middle School Specialists design community-based learning activities to encourage involvement and attachment to the community to emphasize citizenship and responsibility. Middle School students participate in the following activities:
• Service Learning Projects—students are responsible for selecting a project, organizing the details and executing a successful project
• Volunteerism • Fundraising • Job Shadowing
National recognition is provided states at the annual National Training Seminar of Jobs for America’s Graduates for Outstanding Service Learning Projects. www.jag.org

k-4 5-6 7-9 10-12

I think our middle schools are doing a good job of educating our young people at a time when they are faced with a barrage of choices and challenges. One way we can improve our schools is to engage the parents in becoming involved in our schools, not just attending parent-teacher conferences.

From my own school experince and the experience of my two kids, now ages 17 and 21, I think that for most kids, middle school is a negative experience which erodes self-esteem and contributes little to any real learning. All the grading, evaluation, regimentation of schedule, plus generally putting so many youth in a pressure cooker environment that seems to me deleterious to most kids.

I think most kids that age thrive in a more open, informal environment, around supportive adults, where they can actually start making a contribution to the world and are not pressed in with so many other kids of their same age. I would recommend various community service projects as an alternative to having kids that age in school. Maybe by the time they are 15 or 16 they would ready to chart a course for themselves that involved some kind of academic work towards college and career.

My preference both as a student and as a parent would be for a K-8 school, perhaps with a separate wing for 7-8th grades. As a student, I attended a 5-8 middle school (fifth grade) and K-8 school with 7-8 in a separate wing (6th and 7th grade) and a 7-9 junior high (8th and 9th grade). The transition from 4th (elementary) to 5th (middle school) was extremely difficult both for myself and my classmates. I was very happy to return to a more nurturing, elementary school environment in 6th grade, even though we were changing classrooms as a group in both situations.

My sons' recent experiences in a 6-8 middle school have been terrible. The emphasis seems to be on conformity (called responsibility) rather than learning and growth. Kids are easily lost in the shuffle.

The pervasive attitude of middle school advocates seems to imply that pubescent kids aren't worthy to associate with either older or younger children. Why do we have to protect the kindergartners from the 7-8th graders? After all, these are the same kids we're asking to babysit our young ones after school. At a time when they are going through such a profound (and frequently traumatic) change in their lives, why do pre-teens not deserve a little extra nurturing?

I don't see an easy solution to the middle school debate. I don't feel putting 6th-8th graders in the same school as k-5 is viable though.The primary school already spans 6 years and huge developmental issues. I also don't believe 6th graders are ready for high school exposure. The best solution may be to divide the difference. Put sixth grades back in the elementary school and seventh and eight grades into the high schools.This will cause many problems with shifting of school boundaries/districts. Middle schools would of necessity be turned into high schools.
The middle schools aren't equipped with the sports facilities,drama,or music departments like the exisiting high schools.The disparity would cause it own problems, although these are not insurmountable.Team sports schedules would be a nightmare.On the positive side it would create more neighborhood schools. If the middle schools were demolished or turned into say 4th-6th grades leaving k-3rd in the primary schools then, mega- high schools would exist for 7th-12th grades. Our high schools are so large now that students get "lost in the mix." More schools can be built to reduce the numbers, but communities are having a hard time finding room and money with the present system.I believe I've raised more issues than solved them but this debate needs much thought and consideration of "the big picture.

I believe that this question is part of what is wrong with our education system today. The question is vague and much too general. There are many kinds of middle schools out there being run by many different kinds of people. There are people who have good and bad experiences at schools. No duh!!
Why not ask a question about what you see as successful middle school practices? Then you can aks abouat unsuccessful practices if you want to pretend to be controversial.Why is it that the media must find ways to divide and annoy people with general and vague questions? I find this kind of question inexcusable in a publication that is supposed to be professional.

I had a fantastic middle school experience back in the mid-70's. Many "new" practices of today were being used then. In my school, 5th and 6th were on the first floor, 7th and 8th on the second. We almost never saw one another. 5/6th had limited class changing where either morning or afternoon was spent in "core class"- English and Social Studies. This gave the students a teacher who knew them better and was more engaged.
I can say that that school system still works effectively to nurture mind, body and spirit. Sad to say, now that I have much more experience and knowledge of schools, Irondequoit Public Schools (NY) is the exception.

Additional shuffling of grades will not accomplish anything. The things that will help are these:
1. Respect for the child's emotional needs. Middle school children in our district do not have a core classroom. They move about to six or seven different teacher, different sets of rules, and disconnected bits of curricula. They need a place to call home. They need a core classroom for at least half the day.
2. Respect for each child's individual educational growth. We say we do this but it is a huge lie. We say that we respect diversity but then insist that every seventh grader should learn exactly the same 54 standards at exactly the same time. It is not realistic and it does not work.
3. Have a sensible approach to success and failure. Think about this -- when you were in college, if you failed a course, you had to repeat that semester of that course. There was no talk of just moving you on because of your age. There is also no consideration of holding an adult student back in every subject for an entire year because of failure in one thing. Children should be treated the same. If a student is slow to learn math but successful in English, have him repeat just a quarter of math (not the whole year) while moving ahead in everything else.
4. Allow much more time for education in character, responsibility, study skills, and time and money management.
5. Recognize that many families do not really want the "product" that we are selling. We are not reaching children from poor families. We have to consider how to market our product. As long as we push something that isn't really desired by a third of our students, the value of the product will drop in the marketplace.

-MathTeacherGuy

I work in a 7-12 building and find that the mix of students is good for all involved. The "sevvies" can see how the older kids behave--more maturely, I hope! The high school kids can see the younger ones and while some teasing goes on, the older kids also look out for the younger ones in some cases. THE best mix occurs in extra-curricular activities that involve kids of all ages, like drama, speech and FCCLA. Here kids can learn from each other. I love watching our school musical, where a sevvie and a senior are one stage side by side. My seventh grade daughter knows a lot of the high schoolkids and gets along with them very well. My seniors commented about a troubled eighth grader, and I gave them some suggestions for making that kid feel more comfortable in school.

The mix of 7-12 has many advantages.

This has been my concern for sometime. Just where do you set the line. I think that if we use the older children grade 6-8 grade. As mentors for the younger chldren in grades K-5 our students may not have the problems I see today. Many times I believe the problems are there because children are so board, they have nothing they are being held responsible for.They do not have anything they feel good about in their lives. Teaching a "pal" group, with children wanting to help others may make a difference. Does anyone know of a school doing this?

I teach 8th grade at Hart County Middle School. Currently, our 8th graders come to school and then go to P.E./Connections classes. They return to their academic classes at 10:15 for 4 periods of instruction until 3:00. I am interested in any research about MS scheduling i.e., Should 8th graders have P.E. etc. at the end of the day, middle of the day, or beginning?

I am a full-time mentor of first year teachers in the Boston Public Schools. I have also taught all grades, from first through graduate school... mostly upper elementary and middle school ages.
I agree with Janet that the question is looking for a "simple" answer to a complex issue. I also agree with Gerry (MathTeacherGuy) about some of the things that kids at all levels need. Ideally, perhaps, we would restructure all schools into multi-generational Community Learning Centers that bring together young children, teens, adults, and seniors. We have at least one high school in Boston with a child-care center that serves the children of teens and teaches parenting skills.
We are also moving toward more PreK-8 schools, which I think is a step in the right direction. Middle school students, who are exploring their identities, need opportunities to develop close, healthy relationships with peers and adults... the departmentalized program at most middle/junior high schools make this almost impossible. Clustering teachers/kids can help, but wouldn't it be great if kids (and their teachers) had "on hand" elementary teachers who already know them and their families? The potential for working with younger children is also a powerful incentive for adolescents to feel their power to make a difference... and to develop into caring, responsible people.

In response to Mike Edwards:

Study the schools in the Far East, particularly China and Japan. They all begin the day with physical exercise. Scientific research supports the "jump-starting" of the brain in order to facilitate real learning.

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