Sunday, July 8, 2012

Middle School, Mid-Way

After the first day of middle school last September, E came home, flung herself on her bed and wept. When I asked her what was wrong, she was uncharacteristically inarticulate. "I hate school," she said between sobs. E has never been a fan of school. Too many aspects of it either rub her the wrong way or simply aren't geared to her introverted personality. Nonetheless, after six years at her elementary school, she'd made peace with the routines, rhythms and strictures of school and had even found the occasional pleasure in it. But Grade 7 in our catchment of the Toronto District School Board means a new school, a "middle" school accommodating approximately 600 kids in Grades 7 and 8, from multiple feeder schools. For the last two weeks of summer, E had been dreading the first day at this new school, about which she'd heard mostly bad things.

Now, as she lay on her bed facing the wall, I pressed her for details about her first day, wondering if something specific — an unkind word from a teacher or fellow student, perhaps — had caused this reaction. "No," she told me, "I just don't like the environment."

I found her use of the word "environment" interesting. It's not a word we use often when we talk about schools, yet I think most adults would acknowledge that in their own lives "environment" — be it physical, social or psychological — is of utmost importance. What was it, I wondered, about the environment of E and J's middle school that made E weep at the thought of having to return the next day?

At dinner, when she had calmed down, she was able to give me the beginnings of an answer to this question. I learned from both her and J, who was in the same class, that there were many things they didn't like about the school. There were minor physical irritants — for instance, lockers crammed so close together that kids could not open them without blocking access to the adjacent locker or banging their neighbour with the metal door. Then there were the combination locks. The kids were not given adequate instruction on how to use these locks and the resulting confusion caused many of them undue stress during the disorienting rush of that first day.

But as we talked about the locker situation, I realized that it was symptomatic of a deeper anxiety on J and E's part. They told me that in home room, and during the assembly held in the gym, the rules about how and when students could access their lockers were spelled out. They were told that they had to remember which subject binders and text books they needed for a given morning or afternoon, because under no circumstance were they allowed to visit their locker between classes. The adults at the school, including the principal and the various teachers, laid down this and many other rules that first day. Grade 7 was no picnic, they warned. There would be homework, lots of it, and students would have to learn "time management skills" if they hoped to succeed and make a successful transition to high school. Middle school was, the kids inferred, a kind of scholastic purgatory, an austere, rule-bound pit stop en route to the hell of near-adult, high school responsibility.

E wanted no part of it, and it was all we could do to convince her to go back to school the next day. But her second and third days were better. Being surrounded by close friends helped her feel more comfortable and, gradually, over the course of the year, she made peace with the school's "environment." Nonetheless, the trauma of that first day stayed with her, and with us. So it was with considerable interest that I learned (from recent newspaper articles such as this one) that several Ontario school boards are considering reverting to the older K-8 model of elementary school (still in place in some schools in certain boards). The boards' revisiting of this issue is undoubtedly being driven more by the bottom-line issues — eliminating stand-alone middle schools is a money-saving proposition — than by concern for kids' well-being. But it is nonetheless worth considering the non-economic argument put forth by proponents of K-8 schools that kids fare better when they spend their elementary years all in one place.

The gist of this argument is that when it comes to schooling, change is bad for kids, whereas continuity is good. In the studies marshalled in support of this point of view, however, "bad" is synonymous with lower scores on standardized tests, especially math tests.* It may be that lower math scores are indicative of unhappier kids, but the research does not prove it. In fact, most of the research that I could find is noticeably unconcerned with kids' own opinions or feelings about their schooling. In non-academic articles on the topic (for example, this piece in the Toronto Sun), school "environment" is addressed, but only via a shorthand of stereotypes featuring hormone-crazed pre-teens, exclusionary cliques, bullies and the bullied. Conspicuously absent is any discussion of the particular environmental factors that so perturbed E on her first day: an authoritarian teaching and administrative style, the over-emphasis on rules, and the phenomenon that Alfie Kohn has dubbed BGUTI: Better Get Used To It, which he explains as follows:
“You’d better get used to it” not only assumes that life is pretty unpleasant, but that we ought not to bother trying to change the things that make it unpleasant.  Rather than working to improve our schools, or other institutions, we should just get students ready for whatever is to come.  Thus, a middle school whose primary mission is to prepare students for a dysfunctional high school environment soon comes to resemble that high school.  Not only does the middle school fail to live up to its potential, but an opportunity has been lost to create a constituency for better secondary education. 
As Kohn points out above, there is no inherent reason why middle school should be bad for kids. On the contrary, I can think of several reasons why it might be a good thing for pre-teens and early adolescents to spend some time in a transitional space between elementary and high school. For one, it broadens their horizons. Middle schools tend to take students from a large catchment area, which means that in many cases kids are exposed to more ethnic and socio-economic diversity in middle school than in elementary school.

There is also the argument invoked most often by the few remaining champions of middle school: namely, that its "rotary" system provides a stepping stone to high school, thereby cushioning the potentially jolting move from the single-teacher, elementary model to the multiple-teacher, high school model. But the problem with the stepping stone argument is that it morphs too easily and frequently into the kind of BGUTI-ism that Kohn discusses in his article. Every stage of schooling is in some sense transitional, the grades in a stand-alone middle school, perhaps more so than most. But for an environment to be healthy for kids — for a school to be a child-friendly environment — it seems to me that there needs to be a balance between an emphasis on transition and an acceptance of simply being. Twelve-year-olds are not mini-17-year-olds; nor are they merely inchoate future workers in the "global economy." They are 12-year-olds who need to feel that they are not always or not simply preparing for another stage. They are in a stage of childhood, and that stage is worthy of being experienced and enjoyed for its own sake. That is what middle schools could offer to pre- and early teens. A place for them to be who they are. A place where a kid can hang out for two or three years, and gradually get the hang of using lockers and binders and having different (potentially more specialized) teachers for every subject. A place where he or she could experience puberty, along with hundreds of other kids, without it seeming freakish or alarming. A place of being and — or being in — transition.

I know of no such place, no such middle school. Which is a pity.

*See for example, this study from the C.D. Howe Institute.