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Tales From the 'Iron-Gated Prison' That Is Middle School

A 9th grader named Annie sent a letter to Ira Glass, producer of NPR's This American Life. "I just escaped the whitewashed brick-walled iron-gated prison that is commonly known as middle school," she wrote, "and I'm finally out for good." She asked him to devote an episode to the inside world of middle school. This weekend, Glass aired an absorbing segment in which he did just that.

Glass began the show by interviewing Annie. The now high-school student described the inter-personal drama, endless criticism, and fear of being ostracized that characterize the middle school years. "What can be done to make middle school better?" Glass asked. It's a process that students have to go through to figure out who they are, she explained. "I don't think you can really do anything about it."

One of the show's producers who used to be a middle school teacher, Alex Blumberg, claimed students in middle school are so wrapped up in their hormones and social and emotional learning that they probably aren't retaining much content. "I came away thinking you're sort of wasting your time trying to teach middle school students anything." He (sincerely) agreed with Glass' (joking) suggestion that kids at that age should be sent away to work in factories for a few years.

However, Linda Perlstein, a long-time education reporter and author of Not Much Just Chillin', explained that because of the many changes occurring in the brain around puberty, the skills people learn and practice around that time tend to stick. (This could explain why I still get Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" caught in my head sometimes, or why I can still shoot both right- and left-handed layups.) And Marion Strok, principal of Evergreen Academy Middle School, a charter in Chicago, disagreed with both Annie and Blumberg. While raging hormones and emotional changes can't be helped, students "won't have to suffer if we do things right." (She then corrected herself, saying they won't have to suffer "as much.") Adults can make a difference in these students' lives by being flexible and listening to their concerns, she said.

In the final act of the six-part piece, Glass talks to a teacher from a KIPP school in Newark, N.J., who did make a difference in a student's life by harnessing the middle school "machinery"—mainly the power of peer pressure—for good. When a 7th grade student struggling with hygiene and anger problems had ticked off every other student in the class, the teacher, Shannon Grande, pulled several of the female class leaders aside. She told them of the angry student's grim home life—no electricity or water, his responsibilities caring for his grandmother—and solicited their empathy. The girls took it upon themselves to change the class' reaction to that student's outbursts, substituting compassion and offers to help for the usual berating. The student began to realize that not everyone was against him and was pressured into controlling his flare-ups.

The hour-long radio show brings to light many questions that middle school teachers face daily:

• What more can teachers do to make middle school a safe and comfortable place? (See our recent Teacher Book Club discussion on cyberbullying for some ideas on this.)
• Is constantly fearing ostracism—or actually being ostracized—really a necessary part of the middle school experience?
• Can kids figure out who they are without feeling the anxiety and even anguish of those years?
• How else can peer pressure be used for good?

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