This We Believe, published by the Association of Middle Level Education, lists the 16 research-based characteristics of successful middle schools. It also includes information on young adolescent development - cognitive-intellectual, physical, moral, psychological, and social-emotional. We as a faculty, along with any interested staff members, are reading the book this summer.As it happens, the MiddleTalk Facebook group is also studying the book this summer. Erin Scholes, one of the AMLE East Region Trustees, is facilitating the discussion. The first characteristic we are tackling is: “Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.” Among other discussion prompts, Erin asked us, “What does it mean to ‘value’ young adolescents?”
To my thinking, which will undoubtedly be shaped and stretched by the ongoing discussion, it has to start with valuing the age group itself. Part of that is understanding and appreciating their unique developmental needs, and knowing how to support them. For one example, the pressure on young adolescents’ growth plates means teachers need to ensure students have the chance to naturally move about during class in order to relieve that pressure. For another example, their focus on friends and peers means that group work is a particularly effective learning method.
Beyond that, valuing the age group means simply liking what they have to offer. Their search for identity, their desire to understand the complexities of the world, and their focus on fairness and justice all make for a compelling and inspiring mix. Their natural curiosity, honesty, and ability to focus in the present keep them - and us - engaged. Want to believe there’s hope for the world? Spend the day in a middle school.
However, with all that young adolescents generally have in common, in the end the students in our classrooms are individual people in their own right - not just “middle schoolers” but also Amadia, Briana, Choon-Hee, Daniela, and so on. It’s a given that they are special and unique - it’s our job to figure out how, to show them we care, to build the relationships they need to learn to the best of their ability. One of the things I love about each of my Humanities 7 classes is how close we get through the year. It’s not a blind “everything’s all perfect and we’re all great” attitude, but rather the kind of closeness that comes out of the knowledge that we may be stronger together but that that is true only if we genuinely know and care for each other in our wonderful yet imperfect complexities. My students talk about their search for identity, their experiences with race and gender, their sexuality. They talk about what confuses them about the world, what excites them, what they think we need to be doing. We listen, we think, and we learn. And I can combine those group discussions with individual conversations to get to know my students even better, figure out what support they are seeking and I might offer, and let them know how much I care for them.
We MiddleTalkers are in the very early stages of the conversation. Joining with current practitioners are members of the writing team of This We Believe, people who work for AMLE, and luminaries of the middle school movement; this provides us a wealth of experience and perspective. I’m so excited about this conversation - and about bringing what I learn to our own conversations on campus when we come back together in August.