Checking Boxes II

Why Middle School?

My memories of middle school are mostly about bad hair and misery. I spent seven years in Catholic school (for a variety of reasons) and started middle school in seventh grade. I was smart. I was awkward—physically and socially. The only people I knew even a little were some kids I had been in daycare with years before. Academically, there was nothing to challenge me. One day my younger brother and I came home with the same homework. He was in fourth grade; I was in eighth. I became a band nerd and the eleventh-worst basketball player on the B-team. I ran track (poorly). I ransacked the middle school library for anything with swords or dragons.

If I work at it, I can remember most of my teachers from middle school. Few of them made an impression on me—probably not their fault. I came in knowing almost everything in most of their classes. I was a good student, but I was also a terrible student. Those books from the library? I’d sit in the front row of class and just read them. I wasn’t disruptive, but I felt zero need to pay attention.

I had a funny realization, though, as I was finishing up the first of my first two long sub assignments. Out of all the teachers and professors I’ve had, the one whose style I’ve come closest to adopting is my middle school math teacher, Mr. Johnson. I had Mr. Johnson for math and “computers” (this was the early 90s). He made sure we did the work. He answered our questions. As long as the work was getting done and we were learning, he was relaxed about everything else. We played computer games when we were done with our algebra assignments. The favorite among my group was a space trader simulation. You could make the most money transporting drugs, but they could also get you arrested…unless you’d purchased enough guns to defeat the police. We were in eighth grade. It was awesome. (I also played the Moria rogue-like on those back-of-the-room monocolor-monitor computers.)

There were things Mr. Johnson did not have to deal with in a small-town middle school two decades ago. Nobody had cell phones, for one. (I hate them. I really hate them. The only thing I enjoy is the utter disbelief when I show students I still use a flip phone.) That guiding ethos, though… I like that: the work matters. The learning matters. If that stuff is happening, the rest doesn’t have to be a grind. Of course, you sometimes have to make things a grind to ensure that the work and the learning happen.

I started today with “why middle school?” The answer is that interesting things result from both sides of Mr. Johnson’s approach: from pushing the students, and from giving them space. Legitimately interesting things, not just “interesting.” Sometimes they’re awful—to the teachers and to each other—but they’re also growing in every direction at once. Teaching middle school, you get to witness that growth and encourage the directions it takes to be productive.

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