Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Why the difference between 11 and 16 is bigger than 5

Over lunch a friend asked me, “Knowing what you know after teaching your first year of middle school, what would you have done differently? If you could somehow send a message back to yourself in July 2006, what would you say to help yourself prepare for the year differently?”

My immediate thought was that I should have told myself, “You’re in for a wild ride, bucko, so just get ready to deal.” (The school I joined last year is attempting to do a LOT...I have plenty of interesting educational tidbits to share on this blog.)

But then I thought it over, and I think it would have helped me to I think the one piece of advice that would have helped me the most this year was, “Pretend you are entering your first year of teaching.”

Because I went into the year thinking that I knew what I was doing. Sure, I’d never taught middle school before. But I’ve got two years of high school under my belt. And about ten years of doing volunteer work with middle schoolers? Of course I was ready for the year!

What’s the difference between teaching a 16 year old American History and teaching an 11 year old Roman History? I thought it basically boiled down to covering less content, assigning shorter essays, making tests less difficult. Maybe have a few more “fun” classroom activities, a couple of projects like “turn an everyday household item such as a shoe into a model of the Colosseum”, that sort of thing. And phase out from my vocabulary the five dollar words and the twenty dollar sentences, and all obscure references to Abraham Lincoln.

The word “hubris” should have been scrawled in the margins of my planner last August…heck, it should probably just float around behind me, like one of those bad-luck rain clouds.


“Pretend I am entering my first year of teaching.” See, those ideas up there are alright, they’re on the right track. But that doesn’t mean that I knew what I was doing, that I could walk into a middle school classroom and teach with confidence and expertise. I don’t know if there’s really any other way to truly learn how to teach than to just get out there and do it.

So this past year, I just did it. I planned a lot at first, leaving work at 8pm, coming in on weekends. And I would typically find that after one or two lessons I needed to completely redo my plans for the rest of the week, because I had not realized the students didn’t know how to sit next to the opposite sex without someone committing an act of physical violence, or that the article I had photocopied had five words per line that they didn’t know, or that half of the students didn’t know any way to take notes other than “copy down everything teacher puts on the board in any random fashion”. Every lesson, every week, I found something new that I hadn’t realized they didn’t know. I found all kinds of skills they didn’t have, in all kinds of areas…skills I took for granted when teaching 16 year olds, skills I had “known” middle schoolers wouldn’t have; but I didn’t truly realize how their absence would affect my teaching.

I like to think I know a little bit more about teaching middle schoolers now. (I’m saying this cautiously, aware of the floating neon sign, flashing “hubris”, above my head.)

Middle schoolers cannot do some things. They don’t: have long thoughtful discussions with some degree of abstraction / nuance, sit still for long, consistently act mature. If they are shy, you would sooner find your lost contact lens in a swimming pool than get them to speak up. Just turn off the fans, ask your question again, throw an eraser at the boy in the back who is now practicing kung fu on his neighbor, and hope that the poor child has the courage to repeat their sentence.

But once a guy like me who loves to ramble has dealt with the fact that he won't be able to make any comparisons between Spartacus and Malcolm X (or even Professor X), there's a lot of great things about working with middle schoolers.

The age group seems to display some wonderful traits. They can: come to class every day with a positive attitude; be extremely supportive of their peers (although five seconds later they are capable of turning around and being downright nasty); display an amazing curiosity and willingness to try out new activities. And, they don’t seem to worry too much about their marks. The letters “SAT” only describe what they did after they entered my classroom. This was such a breath of fresh air after working at my previous school.

True anecdote: yesterday I bumped into a student I used to teach at the grocery store. While his mother was checking out, he came over to talk to me. He's going to be a junior next year. One of the things he asked me: "C'mon, Mr P, tell me - what did you get on your SATs?" What was the score I got on some bloody test I took one cold winter Saturday seven and half years ago. Pretty soon kids won't know that the thing was out of 1600 once, so I can tell them some bs about how you can't compare the tests anymore.


Well. I’d better stop this post before it becomes a novel…probably already too late.

I’ll see if I can get one post per week up here…would be nice if I could write up two of them, seeing as I am not doing much else right now aside from swimming regularly and watching at least four episodes of House / Prisonbreak / Lost / Six Feet Under per day. (but not of each series - that would be a lot of television, even for a summer holiday.)