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'Strong Up the Middle'

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Matt doesn't tell this to many people, but he still has a corner of his "special blanket" which he hides under his pillow when friends come to visit. Sarah may not admit it to everyone, but she still has a stuffed "teddy" which she faithfully tucks in every night at bedtime. Is this unusual? No. Matt and Sarah are typical of many 8th graders.

Sarah makes her mom drop her off across the street from school; her mom wrestles with her to give her a kiss good-bye, but Sarah rushes out of the car, leaving the door open--hoping no one sees her. Matt comes home after school and answers: "Nothing!" to his parents' repeated queries about what he did in school that day.

Sarah and Matt are two young adults asserting their fledgling independence, trying to stand on their own, wobbly two legs.

The middle school years, covering roughly the ages of 11 to 14, are difficult ones for children and their parents. The students straddle two worlds, with one foot planted firmly in each. One moment they lay claim to adulthood, insisting on being treated as grown up. A moment later, they regress to toddlerhood, needing parental reassurance for their every move. Often, they exist in both modes at once, causing even the most patient parents and teachers to lose their cool.

In "Turning Points," the Carnegie commission's special report on the education of young adolescents, middle school youngsters are described as facing "fateful choices, fateful for them and for our nation." The report concludes: "Under current conditions far too many young people will not make the passage through early adolescence successfully. ... We face an economic imperative to insure that these young people are properly educated." A healthy school system provides ample resources to meet the challenge of properly educating kids in the middle.

The middle school movement recognizes that teaching students who are at such a volatile stage of development requires more than a "junior" version of high school. Students this age are grouped into smaller units or "clusters" where their progress can be closely monitored by a core group of teachers and support staff. The security provided by such a system allows students to begin to develop their independence within a structure that doesn't let them stray too far from the path.

On its best days, a middle school strives to engage early adolescents in a meaningful way, while it empowers them to be more responsible about their own learning. To do this well there must be a solid curriculum which challenges all learners, as well as a caring environment with a supportive organ-izational structure to help keep track of each child's academic and social achievements.

There is an old baseball adage that says when assembling a championship-caliber team you need to be sure that it is "strong up the middle." It is wise for towns to apply this rule when building an excellent school system. Too often, the early adolescents of a town are seen as pariahs, and their school is figuratively "orphaned" by the parents and the community at large. There is an attitude of "this is just a phase they're going through" as parents and educators acquiesce to the collective sense that early teens are a lost cause.

As a middle school teacher, I can vouch for the difficulties of working with this age group. Like the weather in New England, the mood of middle school youngsters is virtually unpredictable, but one thing is certain: Wait 15 minutes and it will change. The energy and enthusiasm that overflows from these youngsters can and must be channeled into productive work. We should not allow the rough edges of unfinished youth to discourage us from making the three middle school years valuable links in the chain of learning.

We live in an era when schools are asked to do a better job of preparing our children for life in a more complex world. The curriculum must provide strong foundations in writing skills, the use of technology, algebra and higher math, foreign languages, the sciences, and the arts. Most important is that we develop in our students a capability to react creatively to change, a skill which will enable them to adapt their learning to the pace of the 21st century. The whole child is best served in the caring environment of a middle school, which bridges the gulf between the nurturing comfort of the elementary school and the more purposeful rigor of the high school. A successful middle school nourishes the minds and the self-esteem of the students it serves. What could be more important?

So let's not take our middle schools for granted. And most of all, let's encourage the Matts and Sarahs as they take those ever-so-tentative steps toward maturity. We can all help them develop the skills and confidence they will need to face the challenges of the future.

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