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The Question of Middle School

Today's New York Times has two more interesting sections about schools and teaching.

Firstly, there's the four letters they chose to publish in response to Tom Moore's op-ed piece under the title Heroic Teachers, On Screen and Off. The writers make some interesting points about the issues raised, and I've linked to the letters in case anyone wants to read them.

But secondly, there's an article on the question of middle schools, and that's what I want to focus on today.

The article, "Taking Middle Schoolers Out of the Middle" by Elissa Gootman, discusses the "national effort to rethink middle school." There are two basic philosophies when it comes to middle school, both of which are based on the assumption that middle school (meaning a school for grades 6-8)ought to be eliminated. One philosophy, expounded by Paul Vallas, the chief executive of the Philadelphia school system, is that students in grades 6-8 are better served if they are part of an overall K-8 school. His idea is that students in these grades need the stability and consistency of being in a comfortable, familiar environment.

Not too surprisingly, the other philosophy is that students in grades 6-8 are better served by being part of a high school environment, in which they can look to the older students as role models and begin to gain exposure to the concepts of varsity sports and applying to college. As it is, there aren't as many 6-12 school as there are K-8 schools, and most of those were created less to tackle the problem of middle school students and more to have extra time to work with students at a high school level.

I read this article with interest, as I've been trying to figure out where I stand on this question. My own experience is somewhat relevant. As a student, I never attended a middle school, per se. I attended two different 1-6 elementary schools, one from first to third grade and then the other from fourth to sixth grade. Then, from grades 7-12, I attended Hunter College High School, an exam school in Manhattan, meaning that overall I had what some might consider two possibly traumatic transitions over my own schooling. I left behind one peer group when I moved into fourth grade, and I left behind another peer group when I entered seventh grade. So not only did I have to deal with new schools, but I also had to deal with making a whole new set of friends.

Furthermore, I've taught in a variety of different schools. I taught at one K-12 school where K-6 was all in one building and 7-12 was in another; I taught at a 9-12 school, where students from different feeder schools mixed together; and I taught in a 6-8 middle school that was part of an overall K-8 school. And what I found is that while students had many different issues dealing with school, most of these issues didn't seem to be based upon specific transition difficulties.

In short, I'm not sure how much it matters. It's true that when I taught middle school, we had an overall philosophy of using the middle school years to help students transition, so that when they graduated they would be ready for the high school experience. And I like to think that we succeeded. But my guess is that such an experience could also be provided just as easily to a group of middle schoolers in a 6-12 school, or even to a group in a 6-8 school. To be honest, I never thought of middle school as an independent concept until I was teaching in one, as my own school experience caused me to see the natural divisions as 1-6 and 7-12.

In conclusion, well, I have no conclusion. I'd be curious to hear about other people's experiences and what they think on the issue.

Comments

I started middle school in 5th grade; our whole peer group transitioned together. At the end of 5th we moved and I went to a 6-12 school for 6th - 8th, which was also fine. It was a small school (Alternative school with about 150 students) and we had a lot of interaction with the high school students - I still have a gift from one, he gave me Walter Farley's Man O' War. I met one of my dearest friends in 6th grade and we still visit. My parents decided to put me in the traditional public high school, and I have to say that was awful. It felt like a factory - the teaching involved a great deal of memorization and almost no thinking, and a lot of speeches about how special we were (honors level, the school had a 4-level tracking system) and how honored we should be to be in these classes. The Interlochen Arts Academy, where I escaped for grades 11 and 12, was a huge relief, in spite of the much longer hours. Class discussions, and time to talk to the teacher after class if you wanted - what a concept!
Sorry for the ramble.

-P
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