George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

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

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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.

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

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.

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Ah, Jason, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I've taught middle school English since 1988, and my curriculum has changed quite about over the years. Rather than focusing on "high school ready" (whatever that might mean), my goals are that during their time in my classroom, my 8th graders will become (or continue to be) readers-for-pleasure, and that they will identify as writers (as opposed to fearing or hating writing). I don't think I give them an "easy" class experience, but I think the work they do is age-appropriate. In the fall semester, they all write their own novels (thanks to NaNoWriMo), so they build great confidence and fluency in their writing while creating a story that is meaningful for them. In the spring semester they each produce a magazine on a topic of choice, so they build expository writing skills while again writing on a topic that matters to them. These two projects are popular and challenging, and most students say they enjoy and learn from them a great deal (once they get over the shock of what I ask them to do!).

As far as reading goes, while I teach them to write literary analysis, they do so from books they choose. I read aloud to them every day, an excerpt from a different book each time, so they are exposed to a wide variety of genres and authors. We talk (and write) about books we love -- just like adult readers do.

It is a shift from elementary school, and we need to adjust our expectations and lessons for their growing minds, but I don't like the idea of forcing them into a high school mode before they are ready. Plenty of brain research to back that up! Thanks for sharing this important topic.

Jason Deehan's picture
Jason Deehan
Teacher. Author, Founder of Pursued excellence in Korea, Kuwait, Canada. Currently doing same in the DR.

Thank you so much for your reply. I totally agree that students are capable of taking on new challenges. Students will always surprise their teachers, and themselves, with what they can achieve. But, because they are capable at an academic level does that 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, should we make them undergo the accompanying emotional crisis in the meantime? Isn't there a more seamless way to transition to more rigorous academic challenges?

I guess, after all that blah-blah of mine, transition is my concern. I will think about this over the next few days (we are off at my school because of a hurricane) and see what I come up with!

In the meantime, thank you again for your insights and take care!

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

When students ask those kinds of questions, it reminds me of the need for them to have more opportunities to be in charge of their learning. Yes, they may fear doing it "wrong," but I think they are used to step-by-step directions that tell them exactly what to do. It's not easy for them to have more responsibility and make more decisions in their school work, but I think it's important and valuable to give them those opportunities at this age.

Hoping you are all safe and dry!

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