Lissa Wade and Cristen Geary P ’35, Co-Heads of Middle School
Middle school students are notorious for exhibiting rapidly changing emotions that sometimes prompt adults to use the phrase, “(insert name here) can be all four seasons in one day.” It takes a special skill set to help a pre-adolescent navigate daily challenges–whether they be academic, emotional, physical, relational, real, or imagined. If adults aren’t reading the signs and responding effectively to verbal and non-verbal cues, we may miss an opportunity to empower a young person through a difficult moment. As with most things in life, helping a child on their road toward independence is a process, not an overnight achievement.
We recently came across a quote from Dr. Lisa Damour, who attributes this wisdom to child psychoanalyst Erna Furman: “In parenting we are always in the business of helping kids take over the work of caring for themselves. First, we do things for them. Then we do things with them. Then we help them do things on their own.” This resonates with us as middle school educators who strive to help students find their purpose and realize their potential during what is widely known as an emotionally and physically turbulent time. For us and for our teachers, there is no more rewarding work we can envision than the process of helping a child discover their purpose and potential.
How do we go about the work of helping children discover their purpose, potential, and, ultimately, their excellence? In middle school, we hope we are beyond the point of doing things for them! However, we do identify many things we still need to do with them. Teaching students how to “do school” seems obvious, but we would be remiss in overlooking foundational pieces such as time management, organization, goal-setting, and finding motivation when you’re tired or uninterested. Taking time to explicitly teach these executive function skills in Advisory and other class spaces prepares our students for success in their personal and professional lives. With still-developing attention spans, students need to try out numerous strategies in order to find the habits that suit them best. When am I ready to shift from a paper planner to an electronic format? Why is my binder a mess (again)? Should I do the easiest task first or the hardest one and get it out of the way? Why do I have to read directions (again)? When can I declare my research finished? So many questions.
Do you remember when your middle school student was a toddler who asked hundreds of questions in one day? Well, turnabout is fair play. As our students move out of binary thinking and begin to practice more divergent, open-ended thinking, they can be uncomfortable with the notion of more than one answer to a question. They also can be uncomfortable hearing their teachers plant seeds of reflection by responding to their questions with more questions: Why do you think that? What helped you reach that conclusion? What’s another possibility? Whose voice is not represented here? This can be a struggle for pre-adolescents who are learning to reconcile conflicting emotions. Engaging students in reflective practices helps them take ownership of their learning, chart new goals, and become more self-aware. Whether evaluating themselves on the Willing Learner Metric, offering perspective to a peer during a formal art critique, or recording a submission for their performing arts class, practicing the skill of giving and receiving feedback is essential to the work they will do in any professional setting.
Throughout middle school, teachers help students become comfortable having more questions than answers, especially at the conclusion of an extended research project. Students who are in the process of developing their self-esteem do not love this idea. They would much rather present their research findings expertly and impressively. During their month-long research project on a country connected to their global language, eighth-grade students delved beyond the superficial elements to consider problems confronting that location and its citizens. Using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, students explored driving questions to learn about what is being done (or not) to address those challenges. Weeks of research culminated in an international festival at which students delivered a formal poster presentation to share their work with a live audience. They were so eager (and well prepared!) to present their work with confidence and conviction. It was a lesson in humility for them to realize they had barely scratched the surface in learning about their location. As they worked during class time, breaks, and any other minutes they could carve out, we heard many of them comment about how much they loved this project. They found it to be relevant, important, and meaningful. We know of many middle school alumni who continued to follow their country’s current events, long after the project was completed. Doing this important work as a 13- or 14-year-old will, we hope, stay with them and remind them that the pursuit of knowledge is an ongoing process and worthwhile endeavor, one they can continue on their own.
Adults are advised to emphasize process over product when coaching young people in their developing independence. It can be challenging for students to view the feedback they receive as an opportunity for growth when what they want most is for their product to be admired and celebrated. Middle school students love to create and share things with others; it’s the next level of “show and tell.” Marianne Crowley recently led her English Language Arts students through a process analysis project that focused on verb tenses, transitions, and clear writing that considered audience and purpose. To kick off the project, students followed directions containing confusing text and images to create paper tubes capable of flying 30 feet if folded correctly. The poorly worded instructions resulted in frustrated students who then better understood the importance of clear directions! For their final project presentation, students submitted a written draft of their process analysis on a topic of their choice in a format of their choice – essay, video, infographic, photos, slides, etc. Topics included: how to steam a perfect egg, how to care for orchids, how to do a back walkover, how to increase your happiness, how to shoot a basketball, scrambled eggs 101, how to play the video game “Identity V”, how to make your bed and the health effects of it, how to tune a guzheng, and how to fold a short-sleeved shirt. In selecting a topic that mattered to them, students were excited to create something personally meaningful, while taking care with the process in order to achieve the excellent result they wanted.
At Wellington, we pride ourselves on teaching students how to think, rather than what to think. This is a process. Age-appropriately, adolescents will frequently declare something they have read online or heard from a family member as their own strongly held belief. By engaging students in reflective questioning, giving and accepting feedback, and valuing process over product, we set the foundation for them to build and support their independent thinking, and to enjoy learning as a lifelong process on their own. Through trial and error experiments in science, logic and reasoning challenges in mathematics, interpreting causes and effects of world events, or examining health disparities in the United States, we are equipping our young leaders to normalize not knowing something yet. Their work, ours, and yours is not yet finished.
In an instant-gratification society that can dissuade us from enjoying the process, we embrace the predictable nature of both seasonal changes and middle school development. We love that our students can be all four seasons in one day because it reminds us that they are climbing, stretching, blossoming, and thriving – all important parts of the learning process and their journey toward doing things on their own.