Middle school (when you were that age, you probably called it junior high) has long been viewed as the stepchild of the educational system. Talk to academicians, teachers, parents, and even reporters who have covered education for decades, and what you'll primarily hear about is the "malaise" that has settled over the "wasteland" of U.S. middle schools. They aren't just talking about schools in high-risk urban areas, either. The consensus is that, across the board, middle schools fall short in the struggle to educate young adolescents in a developmentally appropriate way.
While there is no one foolproof plan to guarantee middle school success, educators now recognize the type of learning environment that best serves tweens' particular needs. Here are some of the newer developments you can find at the best schools:
- Teachers with vision, passion, and compassion, who coach and guide rather than lecture. An increasing number of teachers are getting trained and certified by colleges and universities that have inaugurated programs geared to teaching this age group.
- Creation of schools-within-schools. A body of research has shown that the most effective middle schools divide students into small groups under the guidance of a core group of teachers, across disciplines, who act as advisors and mentors. Some schools assign an advisor to each pupil who serves as a mentor, checks in with him daily, and meets regularly to assess performance, weaknesses, and strengths.
- An exciting, meaningful learning experience that challenges all students to use their minds well, regardless of ability. Concerned less with getting the right answer, good middle schools care more about how a student got to that answer in the first place. Children are taught to think critically, research, and analyze, so they can problem-solve and interpret rather than memorize facts and tables and regurgitate them back on a test. Classes in art, music, technology, drama, foreign languages, and careers offer students opportunities to explore new areas, pursue interests, and identify aptitudes.
- Thematic curriculums that link several subjects. In one Texas middle school, students read The Scarlet Letterwhile studying Colonial history. In New York City, a unit on the monarch butterfly becomes a template not just for science class, but for math and English as students compute how long it takes for a caterpillar to shed its chrysalis, experiment with what to feed it, and record what they learned in a journal they share with parents.
- Use of different teaching styles to reach and challenge all types of learners. That's why you might see the science teacher asking students to drop water balloons from the second-story window to calculate rate of fall and measure acceleration, or bring in cake mixes to simulate a volcano erupting in chemistry class, rather then simply lecturing on scientific principles.
- Innovative scheduling that allows more time for in-depth study and fits the pattern of middle school minds. It's not easy for a preteen to concentrate for 45 minutes, break for five, and then buckle down for another 45-minute period. Block scheduling allows for fewer, but longer, classes. A lecture, a project, and time for discussion makes learning more meaningful.
- An understanding of what it's like to be an adolescent and the ability to respond well to students' needs and concerns. Classes in ethics, conflict resolution and bully-proofing behavior, media literacy, substance abuse, eating disorders — the full panoply of issues confronting kids today — are woven into the curriculum. The best schools include a staff of nurses, counselors, social workers, or child psychologists who can recognize when a child needs help.
- A thriving after-school curriculum of athletics and clubs, intramurals, student government, community service projects and peer tutoring that keep kids engaged and supervised after the final bell rings.