How Can We Make Middle School Less Awful?

Snapshots of life at home.
Oct. 26 2012 3:55 AM

The Worst Years of Our Lives

Everyone hates middle school. But this crucial, oft-ignored part of your children’s education is getting a makeover.

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Paul Cuffee Middle School puts these recommendations into action with a program called Developmental Designs, a social and emotional framework that was created to help early adolescents monitor themselves and make wise decisions regardless of who’s watching. At the start of every year, Paul Cuffee students come together to create and write the school’s social contract, which is a set of guiding principles to keep the school safe and running smoothly. Here’s this year’s version:

1. Respect the environment, yourself, and the community.
2. Cooperate: Teamwork makes the dream work.
3. Support each other even when the odds are against us.
4. Be yourself, do what you love, and try!
5. Be resilient: Fall 7 times, stand up 8.

When students do something—clogging a toilet, perhaps?—that falls outside these principles, middle school principal Nancy Cresser sits down with them and asks which one they think they’ve transgressed. “They know exactly which ones they’ve violated and they figure out how to fix it,” she says. Instead of storming off or pouting about the unfairness of the rules, Cresser says that Paul Cuffee students are OK with being held accountable. They’re the ones who created the rules, after all. So the students in question come up with a plan to fix what happened. The school encourages positive behavior by offering “chicken points” to any student who is caught doing a random act of kindness without the thought of being rewarded. The classroom with the most chicken points after a month or two gets a prize that they determine—throwing a pizza party or not having to wear their uniforms for a day.

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While all this emphasis on students’ feelings and responsibility might feel like yet another education gimmick, a growing number of experts agree that prioritizing middle schoolers’ sometimes volatile and often mysterious emotional needs is at the heart of how we can best educate our 11- to 14-year-olds. A literature review published this year by The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research finds that while middle schoolers are developmentally ready to do challenging work, they can’t always do so unless schools also build up their sense of what they think is possible for themselves.

At Paul Cuffee, it works. In 2010, 70 percent of Paul Cuffee’s middle school students—mostly from low-income families—were proficient in the New England Common Assessment System (NECAP) reading test. Fifty-nine percent of students were proficient in math. Across town on the wealthier east side near Brown University, the Nathan Bishop Middle School’s scores were 42 percent proficiency in reading and 32 percent proficiency in math.

While a highly selective teacher hiring process, slightly longer school days, and Saturday classes for students who need extra help all play their part in this success, principal Nancy Cresser says that it’s the social and emotional support that the school offers throughout the day that make the difference. “I don’t think you can offer a high-level curriculum without making sure students feel safe,” she says. “If you raise your hand and make a mistake, that’s risky for a middle school kid.”

Creating these kinds of schools can be a challenge, according to Balfanz, not only because very few teachers go into the profession wanting to specialize in middle school. Training for programs such as Developmental Designs that create a culture like the Paul Cuffee School is extensive and expensive and requires a school’s entire staff to participate and change their attitude to truly believe that intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic punishment—otherwise known as old school.

Experts say it’s a shift worth making. “Middle school is a time that if used well can be rich and full of intellectual development,” says Balfanz. “It should be better than just doing time until college.”

Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen are the co-authors of Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun.

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