How to Create Healthy Middle Schools
Leadership Insights

Teaching the Awkward In-Between: Why Middle Schools Must Support Academic and Social Learning

By Monica Fuglei June 15, 2016

How to Create Healthy Middle Schools

1989 was a big year for me: I moved to the big city and started middle school. Thus began the tumultuous years of early adolescence and every cliché we associate with them: friend problems, boy problems, body problems. At the same time, despite or because of those events, this was when my love for reading and writing sparked into a lifelong obsession.

In early adolescence, students move constantly between their childhood and teenage selves

I’ve watched my own daughter go through a similar journey of trials and triumphs during her middle school years. Adults often consider this time to be a great valley, with childhood and elementary on one side and almost-adulthood and high school on the other. We may have negative associations with the onset of puberty and blooming independence of tweens. However, research shows that those in-between years have a profound influence on students, and their time in middle school helps set the stage for who they will one day become.

Have education researchers been too traumatized by middle school to study it?

Historically, education research focused on elementary or high school with little attention paid to how to best serve students from 11 to 14 years old. In their article “The Worst Years of Our Lives,” Slate contributors Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen wonder if the sparsity of middle school studies could be based on researchers’ reluctance to examine painful experiences in their own seventh-grade pasts. They interviewed Deborah Kasak, Executive Director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, who said, “Adults don’t like to look back on those years.”

Fortunately, the focus of education research has changed in the past decade. Experts are now investigating how to make middle school learning as effective — and painless — as possible.

Puberty includes rapid brain growth and the potential to learn skills that last a lifetime

Research into the valley between elementary and high school unearthed the significance of the preteen period of development on lifelong academic and personal success. In a 2011 episode of This American Life titled “Middle School,” host Ira Glass said that middle school is when “your brain turns you into you.”

Glass’s guests for the episode included a middle school principal, several current middle school students, and education reporter Linda Perlstein, author of the book “Not Much, Just Chillin: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers.” Perlstein confirmed Glass’s comment, saying that rapid brain growth in puberty results in the activities and skills middle school students engage in and enjoy becoming “embossed” in them.

Middle school is also when some students begin to believe school is not for them

For middle school teachers and administrations, this developmental stage poses significant challenges, particularly when they know how heavily they can influence the long-term development of their students. Glenn and Larsen interviewed Robert Balfanz of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, who stated that “Middle school is when kids make a decision if school is for them or is something to be endured.”

Balfanz’s research found that sixth-graders in high-poverty schools who fail classes, skip school or receive a poor grade for behavior are 75 percent more likely to drop out of high school unless their schools intervene. Because this time is so important, it’s essential that schools create a culture of development, support, and accountability for middle school students.

What does a healthy middle school culture look like?

According to the National Forum’s Schools to Watch Initiative, four characteristics can help develop a supportive culture for middle schoolers:

  • Understanding of and sensitivity to adolescent students
  • Shared vision
  • Democratic student participation and trust in their leaders
  • Mentor relationships between students and faculty

Programs based on these recommendations are now being implemented to help students develop an academic and social persona as they develop through their middle school years, a strategy with long-term benefits. Such efforts give them confidence to see themselves as scholars who take risks and challenge themselves.

Middle school teachers have a profound opportunity to mentor and support students

While teachers influence student development at every level, it’s clear now that middle school teachers have a unique opportunity to help students begin to formulate a successful long-term relationship with education. The trust, leadership skills, and mentorships students develop during those years are essential. These preteen education years aren’t the great in-between, but a profound investment in future adults.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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