Middle Grades Matter

“You teach middle school? Why?! All those hormones and growth spurts and changes. How do you do it?”

These words are not uncommon for middle grades teachers to hear. The general public, other educators, and even parents of young adolescents are often shocked to hear that anyone would want to teach this age group. And who can blame them for being skeptical? Children ages 10 to 15 are experiencing a great deal of change. In no other time, besides the first years of life, are humans experiencing such rapid cognitive growth.

School Crosswalk SignEarly adolescents are extremely social and care deeply about what their peers think of them.  This might explain why groups of 8th graders wear feathers in their hair one month and multi-colored contacts the next (even if they have 20/20 vision). This is a period of dramatic physical change. Girls get taller, boys don’t…yet. Voices deepen after they rise in pitch. During the middle grades years the only constant is change. Middle level educators know that these changes dramatically impact the way that middle level education must look and how we as teachers must structure our instruction to ensure career and college readiness for our future leaders.

In addition to all of these changes, adolescence brings excitement to learning, a curiosity about the world, and a longing for guidance. Who wouldn’t want to teach this group of impressionable and unpredictable youth? One middle level educator said it best when he stated, “These are the pivotal years, where we make or break a student, where we turn them on or off.”

As Teaching Ambassador Fellows we’ve had the opportunity to travel across the country and talk with many middle level educators. In all of our conversations similar themes have emerged.

1.)   Middle grades’ students need a variety of choices in their classes, their programming, and their activities. Students are trying to figure out who they are and offering them an array of choices will allow them to try new things in a safe space.

2.) The middle grades experience needs to be one that focuses on the whole child. It cannot simply be about academics but has to be focused on the social and emotional development of each child. Life skills, study skills, and social skills need to be taught during these years because these foundational skills are crucial to future success.

3.) Middle grades schools need time in the day and access to caring adults for teachers and students to build relationships, for teacher collaboration, and for planning interdisciplinary curriculum. Without sufficient time, students’ needs cannot fully be met.

4.) Middle grades schools need to have clear intervention programs for struggling students. Once students have been identified as “struggling” there need to be school or district-wide programs in place to help support these students, their families, and their teachers. These intervention programs must be meaningful and consistent.

5.) Middle level education must recruit and retain highly effective middle level educators.  They must be experts in their content area, possess excellent instructional strategies that are specific to middle level education, and strive to develop positive relationships with their students.

6.) Middle grades schools need to have a strategic partnership between students, teachers, and families. School-wide structures need to be in place to engage, welcome, and communicate with all families. When students see that their families are valued, welcomed, and engaged they are more likely to feel valued and welcomed in their school community.

Geneviève DeBose and Kareen Borders at a middle grades roundtable in Mason, Ohio.

Research shows show that many students at the greatest risk of dropping out of high school can be identified in middle school by their grades, attendance, behavior, and test scores. Countless studies have shown that if middle level schools are to meet the diverse needs of young adolescents, schools must be developmentally responsive, socially equitable, and academically rigorous. They have to be places where kids are turned on, instead of off; where that 6th grader gets a friendly reminder to take his homework out of his backpack; where despite all of the physical changes they are experiencing every student is accepted and has a safe space to build relationships with those around them, who are going through the same kinds of changes.

The middle grades can be a time of turmoil or a time of triumph. We know that with all hands on deck our young adolescents can thrive. Middle level education must be a distinct and valued focus at the local, state, and national level.  As we aim to welcome graduates with 21st century skills into the world as productive and collaborative citizens, middle level education clearly matters.

Secretary Duncan recently spoke at the Association for Middle Level Education’s (AMLE) annual conference. Click here to read the speech.

Geneviève DeBose and Kareen Borders are Teaching Ambassador Fellows at the Department of Education

12 Comments

  1. Nice article! It is such an interesting, challenging, and inspiring time of development.
    As our staff works to foster a substantive academic program and an atmosphere of support and guidance, we have seen how we can make a significant difference in the lives of our students. We love this age! It is a very important and exciting group of students with whom to work. We have been engaged in three recent initiatives. We have worked to develop a concrete set of standards and strategies to promote critical thinking and problem-solving. We feel that these skills are essential to college, work, and citizenship in the 21st Centruy. We have put renewed energy into our support system for students by creating a Peer Leadership Program, a student advisory committee to the principal, and a stronger and more integrated social skills curriculum. We are also working to develop better assessments that will measure progress in both of these areas. Performance assessments and standardized assessments such as The College Work Readiness Assessment are helping us to gather better data on our efforts.

  2. Great article! I am a middle school teacher, and you are right in every way! Interventions need to be in place for students to be successful, and teachers do need to have a personality and make school a “fun” place to be. Middle school is a breaking point for kids, and that is where we need to catch them and turn them back around.

  3. So, given this undestanding of middle schoolers, how are schools/school culture differentiated to meet those needs/understandings? What are the best practices in terms of building a school culture that supports middle schooler change/growth?

    Thanks.

  4. But ! The thing is, Is to get Teachers to help these kids and not just be there for a paycheck and an 8 hour job.

  5. In middle school, the teachers’ personalities are also very important to consider, in addition to the students’ change. After all, if the teacher is a “fun” teacher that also educates efficiently, then the student would feel far more desire to be at school due to the “fun.” However, if every teacher is a boring, straightforward teacher, then the students will feel that the school isn’t worth it. Yes, I definitely agree that middle school can make or break a student’s future. Just think of all those people out there who would make the best teachers ever but don’t (or do) because of their own experiences in school (especially middle school)!

  6. Well written article! I totally agree that we need to teach the student as a whole not just our subject area.

  7. I was recently told by the school counselor to learn to let go when asking for assistance on my child. I felt his behavior to be highly unprofessional. Learning to let go is not the answer for a student who was suspended for fighting and has drastically dropped in academics. Last year she did well. I am not sure what is going on and therefore asked for advice. I am attending a parenting class to hopefully get some answers.

  8. Great description of the middle-grades student. It’s such an important and exciting stage of life, and you seem to understand and embrace the challenge of teaching this amazing age group. Your six themes resonate very well with the National Forum for Middle-Grades Reform’s vision of high-performing middle-grades schools. Our vision centers on three highly interrelated components: academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity. By choosing only three, we wanted to reinforce the point that student achievement demands both high academic expectations and strong social-emotional support. Furthermore, good schools work not just for some students but for all, including those who are traditionally at risk of educational failure. Your six themes are closely aligned wsith that vision which also forms the basis of the Forum’s Schools to Watch criteria. Keep up your great work. Middle-grades schools and students need more advocates like you.

  9. Great reminders for teachers, parents and administrators. You specifically mentioned the importance of appropriate intervention programs for struggling middle school students. Equally important is the creation and implementation of sound instructional programs for students. For example, English language learners need access to comprehensible instruction in English and their native language throughout the school day, not just when they are seen by a specialist/interventionist.

  10. We just had a review of schools in Illinois. It seems like the middle grades got a better evaluation report than the High Schools. We need to do something to get the high school’s academics at a higher level.

  11. Thank you. This is a terrific synopsis of the middle grades. And I deeply appreciate the 6 criteria that foster student engagement. The 6 criteria suggest qualitative guidelines for effective middle grades programs.

    Much of the 6 criteria sounds like what John Dewey wrote about in the 1920s, with attention to the whole child. And Nel Noddings’ more recent emphasis on the ethic of care suggests that schools can help nurture well-rounded young people.

    When it comes to effective teacher evaluation, we should consider how teachers can best support middle school students. What kinds of assessments can we use that help us develop and sustain such qualitative teaching practices?

    • I personally think we should considered going back to the way things used to be. Whoever decided to put 6th grade in middle school and 9th grade in high school; should go and take a second look at this decision. When I was growing up, the norm was Elementary consisted of K through 6th grade; Jr. High was 7th through 9th grade; and High School was 10th grade through 12th grade. This format allows the 6th grade student to mature a year before going on the Jr High and the 9th graders to mature a year before going on to High school. I personally don’t believe a 14 yr old ninth grader is ready to mix and mingle with high school students. It forces them to grow too fast.

Comments are closed.