I love teaching middle school. Seventh and eighth graders are, by far, my favorite age to have in the classroom. They are starting to really think and form opinions for themselves instead of just parroting others, to become their own people, and to start taking those steps out into the broader world, and while they may say they hate school and learning, most of them secretly don’t and are not nearly as jaded as high schoolers become.
That all being said, I’m not sure you could pay me enough to be a middle school student again. My middle school years were pretty hellish–being the smart kid, complete with the large glasses, a fashion sense that was more in line with someone twenty years older than me, and a klutz to boot did not help. Neither did the queen bee mean girls I went to school with who thoughts of make me cringe a little even today. (Okay, so if you offered me several billion dollars, I would would probably repeat 6th-8th grade a couple of times. As my father has pointed out to me, everything has a price even if it is not always monetary, but it would definitely take a good chunk of change to get me back in those slightly smelly, hormone and social alienation-laden days.) And I am definitely not the only one with similar memories and experiences.
As teachers, we have the ability and responsibility to make this time just a little easier for these tenderfoots in our care. So for the next couple of weeks I am going to write about lessons I wish all my middle schoolers could know and what we, as teachers, can do to help.
Lesson Number One: Middle school can be horrid.
One of the biggest drives among middle school students–speaking from both my memory of the time and from watching them as a teacher–is the desire to fit in, to be similar to and be liked by those around you. This is particularly difficult when you are culturally, socially, or emotionally different from your peers, or you have significantly different interests or maturity levels then your classmates. And for all that I love teaching these kids, let’s not pretend that they can’t be downright cruel to each other. From the out-right alienated to the everyday teased, life can be really hard for the typical middle school student.
As a teacher, you can’t completely stop some of the problems from happening. As much as we would like to protect all out charges all of the time, that is simply not possible. There are some simple things though that you can do to soften the impact. Here are a couple of suggestions to keep in mind:
- Don’t assume that just because a child has a smile on his or her face or doesn’t complain, he or she is okay. Often children (and adults for that matter) hide behind a mask when they are hurting the worst. Sometimes what students need is not for you to fix everything, but just to know that someone gets that middle school can be miserable and that someone understands.
- Be cognizant of circumstances when difficulties commonly arise and when things happen. Passing periods, socializing by the lockers, the lunch line–all these places can be trouble spots. And while there are some places you can’t go (i.e. the locker room while the opposite gender is changing for instance), make your presence or the presence of an adult known where you can. Often just an adult paying attention will stop cruel comments from ever being made and hurtful actions from ever being taken.
- Pay attention to situations where students might become alienated within your classroom–and this may differ from class to class and year to year. Is there a student who gets left out when you let the students form their own groups? Does a particular activity publicly draw attention to one of your student’s weaknesses or differences? Is there a child who regularly seeks you out at a particular time and why might this be (regardless of what excuse he or she uses to see you)?
- Be aware of who your wolves are, and don’t give them free reign among your sheep. Remember though, that wolves are not evil–often times they are just as much in need of your love and care as the rest of your flock. That wolf who runs amok in your school is often really just a sheep who has donned a wolf costume to protect him or herself or because it is what he or she has been taught. As a teacher, think about the novels you choose, the conversations you have, the writing prompts you use, and the example you set (both by what you do and by what you don’t do). Help these students find their inner sheep.
- Cultivate empathy. Don’t try to do it alone either or it will end at your classroom door. Make this a school-wide, even district-wide priority. There is no more important quality than empathy in forming a better school culture and world.
I hope everyone’s year is off to a great start! If you have any further thoughts on this topic, I invite you to share them in the comments section below.
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This Week’s Journal Questions
For the teacher: What is a definitive experience from your childhood? How does it effect you today?
For the student: What is either a favorite or least favorite memory? Describe it. Why do you feel so strongly about it?
A Recipe from My Kitchen:
- Zest and juice of two oranges (approximately 2/3 cup juice)
- 1/2 c sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon cardamom
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 7 Tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
- 7 egg yolks–broken and lightly whisked
- Put juice, zest, sugar, vanilla, and cardamom in a small sauce pan.
- Place over low to medium low heat and whisk until gently steaming.
- Add butter and whisk until melted.
- Add egg yolks.
- Continue whisking constantly mixture thickens and can coat the back of a spoon.
- Immediately remove from heat.
- Pour into a heat-safe bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Hint: Push the plastic wrap down until it comes into contact with the surface of the curd and no air can touch it. This prevents a skin from forming on the top of the curd.
- Refrigerate until cool.
- Stir, pour into serving dish, and serve.