Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Not-So-Wonder Years

I read an interesting article today about middle school, from the standpoint of how to minimize some of the chaos involved in teaching students during those years:
Sit in with a seventh-grade science class at Seth Low, a cavernous Brooklyn middle school, as paper balls fly and pens are flicked from desk to desk.

A girl is caught with a note and quickly tears it up, blushing, as her classmates chant, “Read it!” The teacher, Laura Lowrie, tries to demonstrate simple machines by pulling from a box a hammer, a pencil sharpener and then, to her instant remorse, a nutcracker — the sight of which sends a cluster of boys into a fit of giggles and anatomical jokes.

“It’s the roughest, toughest, hardest thing to teach,” Ms. Lowrie said of middle school. “I’ll go home and feel disappointed with what’s going on and I’ll try a different tactic the next day.” As for the nutcracker, she sighed, “I should have used a stapler.”

Driven by newly documented slumps in learning, by crime rates and by high dropout rates in high school, educators across New York and the nation are struggling to rethink middle school and how best to teach adolescents at a transitional juncture of self-discovery and hormonal change.
Read the whole thing (hat tip: Althouse). My own middle school years certainly had their share of disasters, and I don't know of too many people whose experiences differed from mine. I'm in this environment on a regular basis, since I teach students at four middle schools every week. The one thing that really astounds me is the wildly varying physical differences among the students (some look like they still should be in elementary school, while others tower over me and look old enough to be driving already--and this is sometimes among kids in the same grade!).

I'd never want to teach middle-schoolers in groups (save for the occasional sectional and the beginner classes I do at the start of every year), but they're just fine one-on-one. Some of them are hyper and goofy, but I can be that way too, so we usually get along just fine, and I hope that playing music acts as a good and much-needed release during a critical time of life. (Come to think of it, I need to amend one statement above about teaching them in groups; my band at jazz camp is at least half middle-schoolers, and they're great, year in and year out. Maybe it's because "all the cool kids play jazz," or that, at 8:30 in the morning in the summer, everyone's too asleep to be hyper.)

So what is the answer to the middle-school dilemma? Some have suggested radical changes to the school structure: K-8 in one building, or perhaps 6-12. Others say a return to "junior high" (7-9) would be better, though from what I've seen, schools seem to be moving away from that direction rather than toward it. (Oddly enough, my own middle school was called a junior high, despite being 6-8, though they've since started calling it the middle school that it's always been.) Proponents say that sixth-graders do better when they're in elementary school than if they're in middle school, and when I student taught at a junior high, the head director swore up and down that ninth-graders did better when they were "top dogs" in junior high than when they were "lowly fish" in high school.

Maybe the answer is that it's going to be turbulent no matter what happens, just because of that particular time of life that the kids are in. So hire great teachers who have a true dedication to that level, pay them well, and then everybody hold on tight, because it's going to be a wild ride no matter what.

You might want to rethink this marriage thing, folks: A man proposed to his girlfriend, they got into an argument a few hours later and he knocked her out with a steering wheel lock. It kind of reminds me of a coworker of mine at a pizza place in college who came to work all stressed out one day because her boyfriend had tried to run her over with his car. Two weeks later, they were married.

Heartwarming holiday tale update: The Swedish goat statue survived Christmas!

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my cousin Matt in Indiana. It's been a long time, Cuz.

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