What’s happening in middle school?

Frankly, a lot more than you might think

by Glen Herbert

“I always equate it to stairs in the home,” says Jeff Bavington of the process from grade to grade, though he’s quick to note that “not all stairs are equal.” The step to Grade 9 is widely seen as unique, and it is. It marks the move into all the demands, requirements, and stresses of high school. For many students, it’s a move into a new world, socially, but also academically: the marks they earn there are the ones that will—or won’t—get them into the post-secondary program of their choice.

That said, the move to middle school is important, too, and arguably a very close second. We don’t think of it with the same gravity, though Jeff Bavington, principal of Hudson College in Toronto, feels we should. As with high school, he says that it realizes an important transition in a child’s life. “Both from a social-emotional standpoint, but also from the academic standpoint. It’s really about trying to set the student up for success as they enter high school.”

Puberty is one of the things that colours and distinguishes the middle school experience. “This is the time of biggest growth for a human being, aside from infancy,” says author Linda Perlstein. “Your bones are growing faster than your muscles, so you can’t actually sit still.” Still, Bavington cautions that it shouldn’t simply be seen as two years to wait out before students get on with the business of learning. It’s an essential stage in a child's academic growth. He uses the arts as an example where, in the primary grades, literacy is about learning to read and write in the most literal sense: symbol recognition, basic grammar, manipulating a pencil across the page. The next step—processing information, building critical literacy skills, and expressing unique thoughts—all too often gets short shrift. Says Bavington, “Too often we see very bright children who are capable of thinking in a critical way, but when we read their writing, and they’re coming in in Grade 6, it’s just such surface writing.” They’re passive writers, in part because they are passive readers. At Hudson, the process of moving them from passive to active begins in earnest as early as Grade 3. This is based in the understanding that kids are capable of engaged, critical thinking at a relatively early age, and certainly earlier than some have traditionally assumed. Further, middle school is where it becomes difficult, academically and emotionally, if they haven't received that foregrounding exposure. The next step—taking what they learn, applying it, expressing it, using it—is the specific work of middle school.

Trying things out, thinking in new ways

It’s learning of a whole different order. “That’s what I see as the real difference here, is that teachers will outline the long-range planning, across the curriculum, making the students active learners.” In science, that means getting them thinking in scientific ways, exercising their growing scientific vocabularies in creative, thoughtful ways. At a recent science fair, “some of the experiments didn’t work out, but what was interesting was that the students who were able to analyze why something didn’t work out the way they thought it would, that alone was a valid exercise.”

Students need to learn that it’s not about getting the answer, but about asking questions and making sense of results. “All kids can be trained to think that way,” says Bavington, “it just requires a teacher to provoke them” into those patterns and behaviours. “You’re dealing with children who are in a different developmental phase,” says Hudson’s Vice Principal, Rose Bastien, who oversees curriculum development. “So now we’re moving into that middle school environment where we want to foster greater independence.” The requirements, too, are greater, from learning proper citation style for secondary sources, to effective test-taking skills, to learning the behaviours of ethical engagement and leadership. “It’s a very different time. It’s one that asks the students to be more independent, to be more organized, to be able to self-regulate a little bit better for themselves.”

The stakes can be deceptively high. This is the time where we can typically get locked into feeling a certain way about ourselves. It’s when we start to decide things like ‘I’m good at math’ or ‘yeah, I like science’ or ‘I’m a good writer.’ It’s also when the opposites can really take hold and it takes the combination of an excellent teacher and an excellent environment, and then the support to overcome any negative connotations in those areas. This is the time when you confront your weaknesses for the first time, and begin to become acquainted with the underlying issues that might have caused some deficits in your knowledge. The school, and the stage and sequencing of the curriculum, needs to be attuned to that.

Growing into a sense of self

Ultimately, middle school marks a shift in how the learners sees themselves, how they posit the relationship they have with the content, peers, and the world around them. There’s a social component, famously, to students’ growth into the teen years. They are really beginning to define themselves in relation to others and, most importantly, in their sense of themselves. Equally important, though, is how they begin to see themselves as learners. What am I good at? What ideas do I have? How do I learn to express myself, to broadcast my thoughts and ideas in the classroom?

At the end of the middle school experience, Bavington hopes to graduate students who are more self-aware, specifically in those key ways. “To understand a bit more about yourself, the types of learner that you are, and what particular areas that really excite you.” He wants them to have adopted a posture of inquiry, challenge, and a familiarity with what it means to take risks and respond appropriately to success and failure. With anything, to understand that this is going to require more persistence, and maybe more assistance from teachers and mentors, to make you feel more confident in those areas.”

The program he and Bastien have built was created with those outcomes in mind, in an understanding of the importance of the middle school period in a child’s life. As Bavington recognizes, you arrive as a little kid and you leave an early form of the adult you. You learn about who you are, who you want to be, what you want to do, and begin growing the means to achieve it.

It’s big. And it’s all happening in middle school.


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