30 June 2010

A Half-Dozen Things Your Middle School Should be "Teaching"

My experience in school from the age of, say 11 or 12, to 14 often leads me to the conclusion that the best "middle school" would be almost no school at all. Kids have so much to learn during this period of their lives, but almost none of "that" is academic. They need to learn how to function as independent "adults." They need to learn their bodies. They need to discover the world. They need to pursue passions of all kinds. They need to learn how to hurt and how to recover. And they need to begin to imagine their future.

With all that to do there is precious little time for reading nonsense like A Separate Peace or caring about Algebra, and even less time for putting up with the arcane rules and schedules of early secondary education.

So "middle schools" don't work. They are way too often brutal places of boredom mixed with terror.

If summer (and, not counting Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc, it is summer) is a "rethink" time, let's rethink some of this. We won't tear these buildings down before September, we can't even reconceive the whole curriculum, but here are six things we could do for the next school year.

One: Teach kids how to "hide" when they need to. This seems counter-intuitive for schools which are constantly trying to get kids to "man up" and "pull yourself through it," but we all need to hide at times, to escape, and whether we're good at that or not has a big impact on our success in life.

How and when to disappear, to tune out, to self-protect, is a crucial adult skill. We learn to do via various tabs on our laptops - flicking between what we're doing and what we're "supposed" to be doing. We learn to do it by closing our office doors or putting the phone on "private." We learn to do it with long walks to the toilet, or copy machine. We learn to do it with tasks around the house. If we have nothing else (and we usually give these young teens nothing else), we learn to do it through cigarette time (nurses and doctors all used to smoke simply because this "required" you to leave the patient floor) or by disappearing into alcohol or marijuana hazes.

So let's get better at this. I think every middle school classroom needs three things it doesn't usually have: (A) A big soft chair facing the window, (B) A small tent, (C) "Do Not Disturb" signs kids can put in front of them ("No being called on, no being asked to read, no involvement in the moment's class activities"). All of these are escape options, chances to hide, to take the pressure off, without needing to flee the classroom. They shouldn't be used constantly, and they shouldn't be used inappropriately, but, of course, that's what we're teaching.

Remember, they need to hide. Sitting in class for 45-90 minutes is almost impossible for these kids (or for me), and middle school hallways are no break in a tension-filled day.

Two: Teach kids how to dream big. Subject learning in these years does not work unless it feeds into a framework built on a student's imagined sense of the future. They will, in effect, learn what they think they need to know. So the only way to encourage diverse learning is to encourage big, diverse dreams. Dreaming big requires project-based-learning where students can chase their passions and discover what lies along the path to that future. And project-based-learning, in most middle schools, requires faculty cooperation so kids can work on one project across the curriculum. I don't care if the passion is video games, I can bring math, history, language, biology, chemistry, physics and more into play, if you just toss out "textbook order" and start working from the learner's perspective.

Three: Teach kids how to manipulate their world. Chris Lehmann of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy still thinks "technology should be like oxygen, invisible." I could not possibly disagree more. I believe Heidegger was right, and that "technology is how we manipulate our world." And if technology is how we manipulate our world, we have to understand how technology works, or we have no hope of ever producing students who will invent new technologies.

So students need choices, and time to investigate, and time to play. Toolbelt Theory is not just a "special needs" thing - it is a fundamental vision of how to help all students become better tool users, because the thing which makes human's special on this planet is our constant invention of new tools (many animals use tools, but their tools do not evolve).

So, toss out that pre-designed middle-school-planner. Stop buying all of one kind of computer. Consider different kinds of desks and chairs. Give kids choices and help them find what works for themselves, for each given task.

Four: Teach kids real skills. The old American "Junior High" used to have lots of different curricular components. For many of "us," shop was the best part of the day. In my Junior High I learned to been wood, to wire electricity, to arc weld, to replace sparkplugs, and to cast aluminum. I built a radio and a coffee table. Barry Gundelach built a rowboat. Other people ("girls") learned to cook and sew and stuff.

At some point we decided that none of that was important, and now we have a nation which needs a class at Home Depot in order to replace a light switch.

I think these skills were, and are, important. Not just as survival skills - I not only know what to do if I have to do it myself, I know whether someone doing the job for me is ripping me off or not - but also as windows into possibility. Why can't our students aspire to be chefs? Or electricians? Or welders? Or auto repair techs? Or fashion designers? Or whatever? By refusing to include these skills in our middle school curriculum we rob our children of this moment of introduction and this moment of aspiration.

So skip those silly study hours, or even some "enrichment" hours, and get your kids outside and dirty.

Five: Teach kids how to control their day. Young teens are caught in a bizarre middle ground. Remember when you were old enough to pay full price but too young to do "anything" without a parent? It not only sucks, it is a really bad training system. Kids learn that life is totally unfair. And if life is totally unfair then choices like cheating or giving up are perfectly acceptable decisions to make.

So let's begin to help kids be responsible for their world. Not through negative grading practices ("You forgot your homework!"), but through real world choices. Do I want to listen to my music while I work on stuff? Do I want to work in a group or on my own? Do I want to hand in assignments on paper, or via email, or via Google Docs? Do I want to sit on a chair, or sit on the floor, or stand up? Do I want to read on paper, on a computer, or on my phone? Do I decide that "I know this" and can thus "tune out" this lesson and work on something else?

Life not only becomes fairer when the critical comfort decisions are in your own hands, it becomes a valid learning experience as well. Kids learn what works for them and what doesn't. And the payoff for that learning is huge.

Six: Teach kids the value of global communication. I'm probably overly optimistic when I imagine a "post-nationalist" future, but sometimes when I see young Europeans gather, or I watch online teen conversations, I can see it - boundaries matter much less to this next generation, and ideas flow around the globe. We can encourage that, and we can offer it to all kids, even if their homes/families are disconnected.

Bring the globe into your classroom. If your school filters it (and you have tenure) tether your computer to your phone and bring the globe in. Introduce them to Twitter, to social bookmarking, to foreign newspapers and radio. Have people Skype into your class from other nations. Do Google Apps projects with schools across the sea. Visit history sites and museum sites from other continents.

And most of all, encourage the kids to do more of this on their own. They will not only grow up better educated and more prepared for their economic future, they will be much more open and tolerant.

That's my quick half dozen, feel free to add your own in the comments...

- Ira Socol


Stephanie said...

Teach kids that they can generate original thoughts and respond to assignments with original thoughts instead of providing the rote answers expected by the teacher.

Bill Genereux said...

Do you remember the books by Clifford Stoll back in the 90's? High Tech Heretic & Silicon Snake Oil? Basically he gave a laundry list of reasons why we didn't need to put computers into classrooms. Many of his ideas were worth considering and many turned out to be just plain wrong.

One thought he expressed was a criticism of the idea that once classrooms were wired, the children could interact with professional scientists, musicians, etc. but Stoll thought this would be silly since the professionals would be too busy, and too inundated with requests to interact with classrooms from all over the world.

My suggestion is we try to make Clifford Stoll's fear actually happen. Just about every classroom is wired. Are the professionals out there getting pestered to death by school kids? I don't think so. I've encountered very few examples of teachers letting their middle schoolers interact with working professionals. My favorite is Paul Bogush's class podcast: Lunchtime Leaders. His students even interviewed the governor of their state! How cool is that?

Let's get the kids interacting with professional adults!

Rabbit Hollow Prims said...

These sound really good but the last one is impossible at my school. I teach 6th grade and many of the website especially all social networking sites are blocked. Heck even some of the teacher websites I need to teach are blocked...Crazy I know....

Rob said...

It just amazes me that the mindset of "technology has to be good for kids, so let's shovel it at them" has become a societal norm without even so much as a shred of solid evidence that technology does actually boost academic achievement or enhance overall quality of life.

Here's an example I recently passed on to my brother: Some schools are actually teaching Kindergarteners to use Powerpoint. Well, lemme tell ya, if my child needs Powerpoint skills when he hits the job market in 15 years, I will consider myself a failure as a father.

Application aptitude is no indicator of how well your child can or will adapt to new technologies in the workplace. And is it even reasonable to think that the software we use now will remotely be like that used by our children in 15-20 years? Sure, you could argue that teaching them to use today's software will give them a base from which to build upon. I might buy that except that I'm a career IT professional yet didn't even have a calculator until I was in the 11th grade. The lack of a background of technology exposure didn't hamper my ability to thrive in the workplace.

We have a responsibility to teach children to read, think creatively, solve problems, enjoy discovery, and communicate (not text) in the real analog world before we aimlessly plunge them headlong into the digital abyss.