Middle-school syndrome

“Middle school,” said Rebecca Black, “is not the best time in your life.”

“The worst years of our lives,” say Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen, and they propose a way to make it somewhat less awful: “give as much attention to emotions and values as they give to academics.”

How this works at a middle school in Providence:

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.

Social engineering? Sure. But at least it’s trying to foster a sense of accountability, which unfortunately isn’t quite as common as it used to be.

Then again, when Joanne Jacobs posted a link to this story, several commenters said that the basic problem with middle school is that it exists at all. One example:

One way to fix middle school is to eliminate it … it tends not to work, kids are treated like things to be feared vs being given leadership opportunities, mentoring, tutoring, opportunities in a K-8 school. The K-8 system works … it is the adults that have the issues and the students sense the fear.

I went through the K-8 cycle myself, though I am loath to consider any experience I may have had as baseline data. My kids went through middle school, and they seem relatively sane, at least compared to their old man. What about you?



  1. Nicole »

    29 October 2012 · 5:42 pm

    Had no issues with middle school. But… my parents also didn’t rely on the school to raise me, give me values or self esteem. So my experience may not be standard, especially today.

  2. McGehee »

    29 October 2012 · 8:07 pm

    I’m too old to have been through “middle” school. The public school system called it junior-high until the year I started high school. I mean, they tore down the junior-high school I’d attended and opened the new middle school they’d built nearby, the summer after 8th grade.

    My brother was four years ahead of me and money was less tight so he got the full K-8 experience at Catholic school as well as attending the Catholic high school I was also able to attend. A comparison of the two of us would be utterly inconclusive — he skipped college in favor of an honest trade that has since gone down the California crapper, while I got a degree in Useless Knowledge.

  3. Nicole »

    29 October 2012 · 8:36 pm

    I guess mine was junior high as well. Didn’t realize there was a difference. We actually had K-4 in one building, 5-6 in another building across town, 7-8 got shipped back to the building next to the K-4 and then 9-12 was on the other side of town. Is it supposed to be harder if K-8 are in the same building or something?

  4. Lynn »

    29 October 2012 · 8:54 pm

    Middle school, or junior high as they used to call it in olden times, was fine for me – much better than elementary school but not quite as good as high school. You know… somewhere in the middle.

  5. sya »

    29 October 2012 · 9:06 pm

    The only thing about middle school that annoyed me (aside from all the social awkwardness that I never really outgrew), was not being let into the advanced classes with all the other nerds. Apparently I was too quiet–as if that had anything to do with my intelligence. So I pretty much spent those years bored out of my mind.

  6. Roberta X »

    29 October 2012 · 9:06 pm

    K – 12, the entire thing was a mixture of terror, misery, and the occasional all-too-brief flash of light. It didn’t get much better — maybe a little in High School — until I started working weekends and evenings during my Senior year.

    School was dreadful. People talk about returning to the golden days of their childhood? Not for anything!

  7. Roger Green »

    30 October 2012 · 4:36 am

    I went to a K-9 school, all in one building. Liked it a lot, actually.

  8. LeeAnn »

    30 October 2012 · 6:32 am

    We didn’t have middle school, we had “junior high”, grades 7, 8, and 9.
    Honestly, the memory of the academics escapes me, but I do know I would rather eat a heaping bowl of fried rats’ asshole pudding than go through junior high again. Or high school. Although possibly I don’t remember so much about high school for other reasons than blocking traumatic events.

  9. fillyjonk »

    30 October 2012 · 7:37 am

    Yeah, getting young teenagers to focus even MORE on that emotions: that will TOTALLY help. (You can probably hear me rolling my eyes from over here).

    I didn’t do “middle school” (actually, when I was a kid, “middle school” was more seen as 4th/5th grade). 6-7-8 were “junior high,” which really should be an anagram for Hell on Earth, but it isn’t.

    I hated junior high and would have hated it even more intensely if they downplayed academics (which I was actually good at) and played up “dealing with your feels” and social crap, which I was really bad at.

    And I agree with LeeAnn: no matter what I go through with getting older, I can still say, “Hot Damn, I never have to live through being 13 again.”

  10. fillyjonk »

    30 October 2012 · 7:38 am

    And sya: I was kept out of the fledgling Gifted and Talented program at my junior high because a teacher complained my penmanship was “bad” and I “needed to work on that instead.”

    The only worse thing than being a geek in gifted and talented? Being a geek who didn’t quite make it into gifted and talented.

    (Seventh grade was also the year I first needed glasses, and when I had to go to a speech therapist because my braces made me lisp. It’s a wonder I didn’t kill myself)

  11. McGehee »

    30 October 2012 · 9:29 am

    I went to a K-9 school

    I would’ve flunked out first day.

  12. Charles Pergiel »

    30 October 2012 · 3:08 pm

    Long ago, far away. Could the problem be that people have very different ranges of abilities AND they mature at different rates. The differences are most pronounced during the middle school/junior high school years. The schools are supposed to keep these animals corraled and since this age group has the most problems, let’s separate them out from the less volatile groups. That’s my theory. Probably not allowed to say so.
    And yes, lack of challenge for smart people is bad.

  13. Tatyana »

    30 October 2012 · 8:05 pm

    I am a product of a totally alien school system, one where there were NO elementary, or middle, or high -just one, 1st to 10th grade (now, I hear, they have 12), from 7yo to 17. All grades in the same building (sometimes quite large, almost the size of community college), with younger students going through same teachers as their older siblings. Lots of people are very nostalgic about their school years exactly due to this feeling it gave them of close-knitted community, almost “second home”, after 10 yrs with same classmates and same teachers. But even there I wasn’t like everybody else: my family moved a lot, and I changed 5 schools in different cities. So my experience was more like my son’s American schools. He went to elementary (literally – it was so close, we walked him there. He would have walked himself if not stupid school regulations). Then he was accepted into Gifted&Talented middle school; it took about half-a year to adapt. That one was on the other side of Brooklyn, he had to be bussed to and from. A nuisance. Then, when he finally felt at home there, he had to go through entry exams to HS. He didn’t need to -if he choose to stay in a neighborhood HS, but we wished him a brighter future…so he joined Stuy and become mature enough to be trusted to take subway to Manhattan…little sleep and a lot of work and more than plenty of competition. And again, several difficult months for adaptation.

    And just when he became a Mr Popularity in his HS (not quite, but very close to it), he had to start all over again in UofM…my poor, poor baby

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