BY SARAH ANDERSON
I began my teaching career as an outdoor educator, leading and engaging small groups in hands-on, community-building activities. After working with a group of kids for just one week at a time, some of them gave me thank-you letters that told me I changed their lives. Many of these kids had never spent a week away from home or walked in the woods at night or held a squirming salamander. Their boundaries had been pushed, but in a safe place, and they had become stronger for it.
After working as a teacher-naturalist for a couple of years, I decided to go to graduate school and hone my skills in the classroom. My first assignment as a student-teacher was in a traditional middle school in a poor, rural community. After working in the woods with lots of creative freedom, I knew the move to the classroom would be somewhat rocky. But the transition wasn’t merely difficult, it was downright shocking.
I spent the first few weeks observing classes and writing notes in my journal. The students openly cursed at each other and at their teachers, talked through class and threw spitballs. The teachers had little control over behavior, and kids did not seem invested in their education in the least. Many things about the environment did not support learning- the intercom frequently interrupted class, as did phone calls from the office and bells signaling the end and beginning of 40-minute periods. Teachers did not reprimand students who made fun of their peers or for saying that something was “gay,” and quiet kids were completely lost in the chaos.
As an outsider looking in, my initial reaction was to wonder: how was this allowed to continue? How was this “education” meeting the kids’ needs, not just as learners but as human beings? If kids were wondering, “What does school have to do with my life?” they were right. What was going on in this school was not helpful. In fact it was hurtful. My biggest question: how common was this? It felt to me like the entire model needed to be scrapped, administrators needed to call an emergency series of meetings with the community and create something entirely different.
I brought this experience with me when I began looking for my first teaching job. It taught me a lot about what I didn’t want in a school. Even though I knew not all traditional middle schools are as undisciplined and unsafe, I knew that I didn’t want to work within the traditional model.
I spent two years teaching at an independent middle school before joining the staff of a new and growing charter school on the other side of the country. I was the sole middle school teacher, although now I share the job of teaching 7th and 8th grade with a partner. I was given the freedom to create my ideal middle school classroom. In a way, it’s been a great experiment- one that has yielded many rich results.
Middle school students are social animals. Adolescence is a time when we develop a keen sense of self-awareness and an intense interest in other people. Since most 13 and 14-year olds are more passionate about each other than anything else, and since their brains are really geared towards social development, this is the basis of my classroom. Before all else, we practice how to treat each other well and how to share ourselves honestly and openly.
Every day begins with morning meeting. The class sits in a circle and we take turns greeting each other. Next, each student shares something from their life- an event, an announcement, a fun fact- and others ask questions. Every student is required to share something once a week. Both sharing and question-asking are part of the curriculum. We are practicing important life skills- how to speak about our lives and how to show active interest in other people.
Morning meeting is not something that takes place in most traditional middle schools. Students may come into an advisory for a few minutes before rushing off to their first class, but there is usually very little time dedicated to the transition from home to school. Many teachers associate morning meeting with elementary school and may see it as too “young” for middle school. Students are sometimes resistant at the beginning of the school year- rolling their eyes and asking, “Are you serious?” But I’ve found that the routine sets the tone for the morning and allows us a chance to acknowledge and enjoy each other before getting on with the business of the day. And after the initial resistance, students usually move to accepting and then embracing the activity. By mid-year, they usually run the meeting themselves.
Another essential element of my classroom community is class meeting. Whereas morning meetings are a time for us to connect and share, class meetings are a forum for us to address and solve problems. Twice a week, we gather in a circle. After going around and giving each other acknowledgements (another life skill that needs to be explicitly taught and practiced!), a student facilitator checks the agenda book to see if anyone signed up to have a problem addressed by the group. If someone did, they have a chance to explain their problem. We then go around the circle and everyone has a chance to offer a positive solution to the problem. A student scribe writes all of the solutions down in our log. The student with the issue can then choose from the list of solutions and we check back in with them during the next meeting to see if the solution helped.
Some problems are small and class-wide: pencils keep disappearing from the classroom, or there is a disagreement over saving seats. Other issues are more complicated: people have been using a lot of hurtful language, or someone needs help resolving a conflict between two friends who aren’t getting along. Either way, I’ve found it to be immensely powerful to step back and allow students to present and solve problems as a group, without me doing it for them. This, by far, is one of the most valuable skills they will take with them into high school, college, the workplace, and life. Not every solution works, but that’s part of life, too. We always revisit solutions that aren’t working and try to find a way to adjust and improve. I’ve also found that just having the chance to speak about a conflict to the community- to be heard- can be enough to defuse an argument.
As a student teacher (and as a former middle school student myself) I heard students frequently question the relevancy of the curriculum: “Why do we have to know this?” “When will we use this in life?” “What’s the point?” Although some of these complaints can be chalked up to general adolescent resistance, I often found myself wondering the same thing. If learning isn’t directly connected to their lives, why should students care? I took this question into my teaching by constantly looking for ways to relate a curriculum idea to student experience. If we’re learning about the Bill of Rights, we examine the rights of minors in school. If we’re studying statistics, we collect data about ourselves, our classmates and our families. If we’re reading a futuristic novel where technology replaces human relationships, we go on a technology fast and reflect on our personal experience.
I extend curricular relevance even further by working with community members to create authentic projects with real outcomes. Instead of just learning about water quality in the classroom, students collected several samples from nearby urban creeks and presented their results to a panel of local scientists. Instead of just reading about the Civil Rights Movement, we researched how it impacted our city and produced an educational series of skits to teach other members of our community. Every spring, we participate in Project Citizen, where we identify a local problem, research it and propose a policy-based solution. We present our work at the state house and make a plan for putting our idea into action. Over and over again, I have seen kids who came to my school as disinterested learners transform into actively engaged citizens. There is no question as to why we are doing what we are doing. We are collecting the water quality data because the scientists need it. We are proposing a solution to a community problem that we all agreed exists and needs solving. The kids aren’t simply turning homework in for me to grade- the audience lies beyond the classroom walls, in the “real world.” It’s an incredible confidence boost to know that the adult community values your work.
I have found that engaging with the wider community is a crucial element of building strong middle school classrooms. This does not just mean interacting with adults, it also means creating healthy connections with younger children. Who came up with the idea to isolate adolescent kids day after day in a building with hundreds of other people their same age? Sure, young people this age love to focus on their peer relationships, but should these be the only relationships we foster? This is the age when kids take their first real steps towards adulthood and responsibility. How much can middle school students learn about the adult world by being absorbed daily in the pre-teen/early-teen world?
A K-8 school offers countless opportunities for adolescents to take leadership roles. They can function as tutors, reading buddies, teachers and generally good role models. I have a service internship program where students from my class volunteer in a younger classroom every Thursday afternoon as a teacher’s aide. Not only does this allow students throughout our school to build stronger relationships, it also allows middle school students to move beyond the peer group. Students who do not always have the best interactions with kids their own age can thrive in a leadership role in a younger class. I have seen depressed students glow with pride when they return from the kindergarten classroom, hands full of cards declaring, “I love you!” For some students, this is the first time they’ve succeeded in a leadership role. It can change the way they think about themselves and what they think they are capable of. Such growth would not be possible if they were not permitted the chance to interact with younger kids.
A Success Story
The first day Sammy came into my class in the 7th grade, he was quiet, timid and never smiled. His mom explained to me that his family had been desperate to get him out of their traditional neighborhood school. They believed he had been severely bullied- although he refused to talk about it. He had become increasingly withdrawn and had recently contemplated suicide. Sammy kept to himself for the first couple of months in my class. Late in the fall, during a class meeting about hurtful words, he broke down in tears about how painful the experience at his last school had been.
From there, he slowly began to share more and more of his true personality with us in morning meetings. During project work, we found that he was an enthusiastic public speaker and by his 8th grade year, he earned one of the lead roles in the middle school production of Romeo and Juliet. Despite his mother’s fears that Sammy would backslide once he returned to a larger, mainstream high school, his freshman year has been extremely successful and he is having a blast. His mom emails me periodically to give me updates and thank me for what our school did for her son. This is only one story.
I believe that the structure of many traditional middle schools doesn’t help our kids, and in many cases, it can hurt them. By providing alternative structures — ones that make more sense for the needs for emerging young adults who want to be grown-up but still need tons of training and guidance- we can help change adolescence from what many consider the worst time of their life, to what it should be: a time of wonder, awakening and community.
Sarah Anderson teaches middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies at a place-based charter school in Portland, Oregon. Originally from rural Vermont, Anderson has also taught nature studies to urban middle school students in the California Redwoods, career skills to at-risk youth on an educational farm in Vermont and Civics and Global Studies at an independent school in Maryland. She earned a masters in education in Integrated Learning from Antioch New England Graduate School. Sarah is an alumnus of CWI’s Summer Institute and her essays on teaching are regularly featured in Community Works Journal.
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