I am to address the following three questions about middle school students: Who are they? What do they need? What do you (the teacher) need?
I have been teaching long enough now to see many past students enter into their life vocations. Particularly enjoyable is when one of those past students becomes a teacher. Recently one wrote to me on Facebook requesting my input on a talk they were to give about teaching that particular species of student spoken of in hushed tones, the inimitable “Middle Schooler.” This infamous type of student scares many an adult professional teacher at the very mention of their category. Many of my years of teaching have focused on this age group, so I set forth here just a little of what I can put together regarding the care and feeding of such animals.
First, I am not a fan of aged groups for students. It has always seemed both arbitrary and impractical to think that every child of a certain age is uniformly like the rest of those his age. Not only is the developmental curve of the genders different, so that middle school boys drive the girls in their class nuts, but even among the same gender, nothing in human life follows any clock precisely. I wonder aloud if the reason folks going through puberty, which is the general characteristic of said middle schoolers, get related to their own building these days is because neither those older or younger want to be around them.
This leads to a quaint term I use to define these kids: Tweeners. I did not invent that, but glommed onto it when I realized it accurately describes them. They are no longer of elementary or grammar age, but they certainly cannot yet enter into the young adulthood of high school. So they are caught in between. And most of what characterizes their learning, actions, and behavior flows from this tween-ness. The following are the basic characteristics that classify one as a middle schooler or Tweenager.
- Great changes, physically, mentally, and emotionally – changes, especially as many as are coming at your average tweenager, result in confusion, which often leads to frustration and even anger, which then leads to heavy metal (in some cases).
- Growling insecurity – the changes lead toward this. “When I was young, everything made sense cause Momma told me they did. Now, not so much.”
- Groupthink – As the tweenager finds that the world has lost its luster for them, they seek others to help them make sense, and not trusting parents, turn to peers. Parrots simply repeat what they hear; tweenagers bank their lives on all saying, looking, doing the same thing.
- Growing independence – But in the midst of all the confusion, change, peer pressure, and pop culture, there is a real sense within most of them that adulthood is upon them and they need to figure out how to live it on their own. They don’t want help to be obvious anymore. They want help, but it needs to be subtle.
So given that this is what is going on inside them, what do tweenagers bring to your average classroom?
Questions – and they don’t want cliche’s or inauthentic half answers. Using their desire to argue every point, and ask all the questions the teacher does not want asked is the key to teaching them well. Be fearless, or at least don’t let them see you sweat. But be honest; they can smell dishonesty a mile away.
Daily Fluctuation – don’t think you have a tweenager pegged to the wall. They will be the happiest kid in the world and five minutes later be the opposite and you will not be sure why. But this means they are open and even excited about having differing kinds of lessons, not the same ol same ol.
Tabula Rosa – in some ways, the Middle School years reveal a mind that seems swept clean of anything it learned prior to the onset of puberty. Teachers speak of this as though it’s an act or a deception, but I think it’s real. In many cases all that has been taught before the hormones began to rage was either embodied in the student’s life (as thus still there, even if they don’t consciously know it) or was not internalized, and is truly lost. This affords the teacher an excellent opportunity to rebuild a better foundation, but you have to see it before you can embrace it.
There are a few more suggestions about what a teacher should come with to a tweenager:
Loving a tweenager is tough for all the reasons given above and more. The only constant most of them can find in a fast changing world is themselves. So many of them latch onto that constant and become unbearably narcissistic. This makes them targets of ridicule, rejection, and lots of sermons about living for others. The wise teacher thinks this through and gives them the one gift that anyone can always give, love that sees past all the baggage. The most oft used phrase I have with this age is, “this too shall pass.” It might be confusing for the moment, but there are folks who love you and you can make it to adulthood just fine.
What is love if not patient? Tweenagers want to believe, and want others to believe, that they have it all together, that they are able to be treated as adults. That is a lie that is becoming a truth. Most of middle school is about getting them from child to adult, and that is not an overnight thing. When teaching, realize that it is never once and done, especially when teaching an art (something they do as opposed to a science, something they know). If repetition aids any learner, it is the tweener to be sure. This is why mimetic sequence in teaching is so important at this age. You must A) prepare the mind of the learner for anything new, attaching it to what they already know, then B) present the new idea with as many examples, models, and metaphors as you can rally, C) have the student give it back to you, and then you can finish it off by D) adjusting, reteaching, patiently coaching them to a better mastery before E) assessing their progress so you know they can move to the next idea.
Gone are the days when these kids would sit spell bound while just soaking up lessons. This age wants to be doing. But they are lousy at doing anything resembling real academics. So you are in many ways bringing them out of the cave of grammar school and into the blinding light of higher ed, and they mostly stumble about in the new moment of that act during middle school. So you are there to guide, and coach, and give feedback, and yes, I will say it again, be patient. But don’t let them hang on to the past and put all the weight on the teacher to pull off the lesson. Push them out into the light of their own education. Show them how to think and how to gain their own education. It’s all about that giving them a fish or teaching them to fish analogy.
Humor and Humility
Nothing says teaching like these two words. If you can’t laugh with these kids, you are gonna make them and yourself cry. Because of their very nature, they are going to mess up and mess up big. The drama levels are far too high to approach their age with great formality. To use a musical metaphor, think of teaching this age very much like Jazz, not sure what is going to happen, but the master teacher can riff off any hook they give you.
So I hope these are helpful comments, but in the end, teaching any age is an art. To the extent that any of us believe you can boil an art down into a science, you kill the art. Having the above in mind may make the task of teaching tweenagers a joy rather than a nightmare, but then again, my own experience tells me that such an endeavor is more mystery than formula.