I spent a year with middle school students. I taught an 8th grade science and social studies class first quarter then moved to a 7th grade language arts class. I also led a 6th grade advisory class all year. So I directly interacted with all three classes.
Sixth grade entered in August like the elementary students they knew how to be. Excited about school, eager to begin, and respectful of teachers. The students came in wearing curiosity on their faces. Curiosity is a blessing for teachers.
Eighth graders entered with the cockiness of upperclassmen. They knew the ropes, the administration’s patterns of discipline, and the social order of their internal class structure. A lot of them were resistant to learning, and required a lot of teacher encouragement. They envisioned their senior middle school year as a time of ruling the school (it’s great to be on top, after all) but could not see beyond that to prepare for high school rigor. The special education eighth grade students were tired of learning to read (another new program!?) and weary of mathematical problems they could not understand. I learned to engage these seniors with active learning, and encouraged whole-class discussions. These kids loved to talk -- and if they could talk about what they were doing they participated. They always showed significant pride of their achievements, and pride is is a strong base for learning.
Seventh grade was the real learning experience for me. How does middle school support students moving from the childish enthusiasm of sixth grade (Yay, School!) to eighth grade’s wearied attacks on learning assignments? Seventh grade must be the fulcrum, the balance point of the physics of learning.
My middle school has an extraordinary sixth grade team which has integrated multidisciplinary studies and visual and performing arts into a learning model which is supporting all students. The seventh grade educational program focuses more on lectures and structured group work, with each subject programming independently. Eighth grade was tough this year, with a group of students both interesting and challenging. Many teachers focused on maintaining discipline and order, and kept the reins close to themselves. A lot of our eighth grade classes just weren’t very exciting.
I observed these patterns as a teacher of one class plus advisory. Additionally, as Special Education Department Chair, I run IEP meetings and meet with students and parents. I also observe classrooms, and sometimes cover other teachers during meetings, so I see a lot of what’s going on in the building.
I want to be a teacher like the sixth grade team. I want to be creative, and engaging, and interdisciplinary. I want our students to leave middle school with the learning enthusiasm they arrived with, and then some. I want them to understand the relationship between all disciplines, and to apply learning strategies and self-expression throughout their academic careers.
Enough talking. What am I doing about it? I’m going to spend the next week at the University of Maryland, learning to design and implement an arts-integrated curriculum. Myself and an assistant principal are attending the program that has inspired our sixth grade team. I am excited. Don’t even know what I’m teaching next year, but it doesn’t matter.
I’m like a sixth grader -- Yay, School! Lead me to something new. I’m curious.
The opinions expressed in In the Middle are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.