Friday, June 19, 2015

MIDDLE SCHOOL YEARS: So Taxing, So Critical + CRAZY LOVE: Teaching in the Middle



By Nan Austin in The Modesto Bee |

6.16.2015  ::  The tween time, that pull-parents-close-just-to-push-them-away age, confounds us all. But research shows those tumultuous years are the pivot point for young lives. The slide toward dropping out in high school most often begins right here, in the middle school years.

Those who work every day with the most at-risk junior high students, however, have hope.

“In those three or four years, the world and everything in it changes. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but having a front-row seat is a special treat for those of us who don’t mind the human drama,” writes middle school teacher Beth Morrow on in an article titled “Crazy Love: Six Reasons Why I Teach in the Middle.” (follows)

Morrow talks about the lurching progress toward maturity, often tactless honesty and the hopefulness of watching them struggle past obstacles despite it all.

“The egocentric middle school mind is hardwired for the biological fear that they are the only person in the history of the universe to fall down at lunch – wear non-matching socks – fail a test – have a cowlick on picture day,” she notes.

Parents should know that middle school isn’t so easy: Girl, 13, aspiring doctor, at Creekside Middle School career day

Students polled at career fairs in Patterson’s Creekside Middle School and Blaker-Kinser Junior High in Ceres overwhelmingly said parents did not understand how hard they worked and did not give them time to recover after a stressful school day.

“We actually do get a lot of work,” said one Ceres eighth-grader. “When we get a break, we need that break,” he said.

“I have to do chores right when I walk through the door. Let me rest!” said an eighth-grade girl at Blaker-Kinser.

“They don’t notice the good grades. They just see the bad,” said her classmate.

Her comments were echoed by mentors hired through a United Way program finishing its second year at three high-needs middle schools.

Parents should know that some people change in middle school. There is pointless drama: Girl, 13, aspiring psychologist, at Creekside Middle School career day

“Celebrating all successes is really important. They work really hard, and if nobody notices, they just say, ‘Why bother,’” said Alicia Sequeira, graduation coach at Hanshaw Middle School in south Modesto.

“Sometimes it’s just study habits, school habits. If that’s not doing their homework, not showing up on time, that’s going to go with them to high school. If we get them early, we can change those habits, get them going,” said Luis Tinajero, graduation coach at Creekside Middle School in Patterson.

“(Problems in) discipline, attendance, grades – they’re all symptoms of something else going on,” said Sandra Chavarna, graduation coach at Prescott Junior High in north Modesto.

“It’s hard to be faced with your failures day in and day out. ‘Hey – you’re failing!’ ‘You’re failing.’ ‘You’re failing!’ I think it helps to have a graduation coach who says, ‘You’re failing today. But maybe you won’t fail tomorrow.’”

Parents should know that middle school is the time that will effect your kids, good or bad, for the rest of their life: Girl, 13, aspiring police officer, at Creekside Middle School career day

The three coaches have worked since October 2013 in a prevention program run by the nonprofit Center for Human Services and funded by the United Way, Stanislaus County. President Francine DiCiano said her research showed middle school was where a small program could have the greatest impact. Each year, the team picks 40 incoming seventh-graders to mentor at each school, based on recommendations from their sixth-grade year.

While not every kid turned around completely, Tinajero said, “they all progressed.” That means better attendance, fewer discipline problems and higher grades.

Grades are a sore point, however, because bringing up an average takes consistency. The semester average has to top 60 percent to erase an F, the first thing parents see.

“I’ve had kids with grades in the 20 percents bring their work up and start getting 60s and 70s. That’s huge progress. But if we’re just looking at that letter, it’s still an F,” he said.

Family issues add to the load for many of their kids. Homelessness, responsibility for getting younger siblings up and off to school, squeezing in homework while juggling other duties – all can take a toll on grades and attendance. The mentors check in with families, check in with the kids about once a week, confer with teachers and get calls from the vice principal when one of their caseloads has a setback.

I know some kids who are like, ‘How much can I do till you give up on me?’ They test you: Luis cq Tinajero, graduation coach at Creekside Middle School in Patterson

That community feel took time to build. Chavarna describes her first efforts to contact parents as “feeling like a stalker.” When a call from the school always means something’s wrong, she said, “here some stranger says they’re going to help your child. When negative calls are the expectation, it takes a while to get used to this person who is always saying nice things about them. It takes a while to adjust to the idea.”

Teachers, too, were skeptical at first. Seeing better behavior from their most challenging students helped, as did seeing the kids buckle down and work during after-school time with the coach.

“We all stay after school for help – if not help, just attention,” Tinajero said.

“A lot of times, there’s no quiet, comfortable place at home where they can work,” Chavarna said – someplace without siblings grabbing their papers or grown-ups yelling.

At Hanshaw, former students now going to Downey High come back to tutor, Sequeira said. “Sometimes the kids don’t need the help, they just want to be there. So I have the Downey kids bring their own homework, model that behavior.”

Kids know their academic performance labels them, Chavarna said. “They’re being judged on their grades. We tell them, ‘We see your grades. We still want you to try.’ Even if they didn’t get it right away, it will stick with them. There were folks that cared along the way.”

COPING SKILLS: Advice gleaned from teacher Patti Grayson after a year in “the land of the gland” in an article on, and tips for parents of teen girls from The Camping and Education Foundation.

  • Notice and comment. Praise goes a long way in those years when self-confidence is so scarce. Tweens crave attention and yet assume everyone’s watching, translating silence to mean you did not like it.
  •  Be there. Sharing time doing a chore or project gives a chance to interact without the focus being on them – until they want it to be about them. But even just everyday positive constants give reassuring structure.
  • Add positive activities. Volunteering gives a sense of being needed; tutoring or babysitting makes them a role model. Both solidify that shaky self-confidence and sense of having grown, says the foundation.
  • "Snip the snark,” as Grayson puts it, adding that tween egos are fragile. “They’ll laugh it off now, and then dwell on it for weeks. Weigh your words carefully,” she advises.
  • Give them time. These are the inconsistent, distracted, disorganized years. Take time to laugh and have fun with them, Grayson says, “Be the oasis.”

CRAZY LOVE: 6 Reasons Why I Teach in the Middle

by Beth Morrow MiddleWeb ·|

02/08/2015  ::  If you’re nodding your head at the suitability of my title, you’re either one of us, or you think we must be… well, crazy.

Middle school students, that group of energetic, misunderstood and sometimes misguided kids between the ages of roughly eleven and fifteen, bring a unique perspective (which often changes by the day) to the classroom that their primary and secondary counterparts do not.

If you read the title and felt a warm glow of validation, you know just how wonderful middle school students can be. There’s a resiliency, a curiosity, an awakening that takes place over the middle years that slowly transforms the naive elementary student into a semi-worldly adolescent.

In those three or four years, the world and everything in it changes. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but having a front-row seat is a special treat for those of us who don’t mind the human drama.

Consider this my valentine to those volatile adolescents and the educators who cherish them: my six reasons why middle schoolers are such a pleasure to teach.

1. They remind us that no one is perfect
that’s perfectly okay. For every positive characteristic each student possesses, they’re working to hide multiple struggles. Each day is a literal hard reset in terms of making choices that will move students forward toward maturity or keep them in a holding pattern of emotional reaction. What’s wonderful is when students’ metacognitive growth converts these moments into concrete opportunities for choice, and they have the chance to begin taking ownership of their own lives.

2. Oh, the brutal honesty
Middle school kids evince a certain flair for giving an honest opinion, whether or not it’s what the receiver wants to hear. Generally, the tact filter in students doesn’t develop until the early high school years. In the meantime, if you’re seeking feedback on your hairstyle, wardrobe, musical preference or anything that involves sharing opinions, you can bet that a middle schooler will offer the unvarnished truth.

3. We can give them hope for the future
As a writer and voracious reader, I believe in the power of story. The power of stories shared from generation to generation remind us all, in some way, of our humanity. The egocentric middle school mind is hardwired for the biological fear that they are the only person in the history of the universe to fall down at lunch – wear non-matching socks – fail a test – have a cowlick on picture day.

Since my family is tired of my own awkward adolescent stories, sharing them with a new, rapt audience each year is my way of giving students some sense that they aren’t uniquely geeky and that they might survive the next several years on their way to becoming that elusive man or woman of mystery: the high schooler.

4. We can gain hope in the present
As painted by daily news reports, the world can be a depressing place. Although a cloud of anxiety and angst is common during the middle school years, watching these young folks first-hand overcome their personal struggles on their way to building the foundation for their future dreams brings a refreshing, uplifting quality to the classroom that, when properly highlighted, can be positively contagious.

5. We get to watch curiosity blossom
 Primary students usually just ‘do’ things without much personal investment. High schoolers often ignore their own interests to maintain the social status quo. But middle schoolers, when their interests are tapped, become singularly focused and intensively determined to find out everything they can on a topic.

I’ve seen struggling readers devour thick fantasy trilogies, apathetic learners become technology experts capable of teaching staff and students, and disruptive students create social service projects that fill their need for connection, build their self-confidence, and make a real difference to someone in the world.

6. We get free daily hugs
 Around the fourth week of school, one of my students, a petite seventh grader who wears a smile 24/7, walked into my room during the last period of the day as though she belonged there. She came to my desk, threw her arms around me and told me to have a good afternoon before disappearing into the hallway.

This continued almost daily until Winter Break when I happened to remember to ask her last period teacher about the behavior. “I have that group for two periods in a row,” she informed me. “I allow each of them one restroom pass a day whenever they want to take it. She told me a while ago she didn’t want to use it for the restroom but to come give you a hug every day.”

What did I do to earn this hug? How did I come to trump a restroom pass? If you’re fortunate enough to teach middle school, neither the circumstances nor the answers will surprise you. With this age group, every day is an adventure and every adventure is guaranteed to reveal another facet of the wonderfully rough and resilient gems that are middle school students.

·         Beth Morrow is a veteran middle school ESL/LA/reading educator, freelancer and columnist.


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