7 ways to make middle school less…middle school

By Jennifer Brookland

April 7, 2015

Memories that fall between the fun of childhood and the accomplishments of young adulthood are sometimes ones we’d rather not relive. Those middle years are, for many, a complicated and trying time punctuated by awkwardness and anxiety.

Students at this age are in physiological, emotional and cognitive transition. They face new academic and social challenges, and the stakes for both are higher. And this all happens at a time when support from classmates, teachers, schools and parents often drops off.

These middle school years can be more than something we survive—and they have to be: In many countries, increasing numbers of students who drop out of school begin their adult lives lacking in the skills and attitudes necessary to join the workforce, cope with life pressures, and contribute to society.

“People say ‘this too shall pass’ instead of seeing it as the best opportunity to encourage young people,” says Eric Rusten, a Senior Associate with Creative Associates International’s Education for Development Division. “Middle school is a wonderful opportunity for us as educators to help these young people shift their trajectory in more positive ways.”

So here, from Rusten and two other Creative experts who have worked with adolescents in Morocco, Jordan, Brazil, Indonesia and Mozambique, are seven ways to take advantage of this period of transition, and make middle school a time of opportunity and positive growth.

1. Demand more

When 3,344 Jordanian students answered survey questions about how they felt in school, only about half of them said their teachers set high expectations—the same amount who said their teachers cared about them.

But expecting students to be high achievers is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It builds their self-esteem, increases their confidence, improves their performance in school and even increases their motivation.

In Indonesia, Rusten listened to a 15-year-old girl explain that becoming a student support technician for her school’s computer system, with the responsibilities it entailed, actually changed her life.

She was responsible for preparing computers for class, maintaining and repairing them and updating software. She was also asked to manage the maintenance budget and train student technicians for the next year.

“Before, I hated school and was a poor student,” the girl said. “Now, I come early every day and am at the top of my class.”

2. Smile!

When students in Jordan were asked what changes they would bring to their school if they were principal for a day, they said things like: “Make a rule against teachers hitting students”; and “ask the teachers to just talk to students and respect them and to stop yelling and abusing us.”

One 14-year-old girl simply said, “I will ask all the teachers to smile at the students and to call them by their names.”

Making the school environment a friendlier, more nurturing place might not be something teachers inherently view as their job. But it contributes greatly to a more effective learning environment for students and increased confidence that translates into academic and social success. It can also make teachers happier and increase their job satisfaction.

3. Expand the classroom

Learning also takes place through non-academic pursuits. Think of sports teams, drama and debate club, or school-based community service. But many schools are devoid of these opportunities for children.

In Morocco, 21 percent of middle school students interviewed said they do not feel a part of their school.

“We need and want students to be given a major role in school life,” says Abdelkader Ezzaki, who leads Creative’s middle school project in Morocco. Part of that means engaging young people in activities where they can develop responsibility, collaboration, and the psychosocial skills that will serve them in class and out.

And don’t think the social and learning environment of middle school ends outside the gate. Instead, mosques, businesses and other community institutions can play a big role in helping students feel more positively about school.

“It is not only on school or teachers,” says Senior Associate Jeffrey Coupe. “If we mobilize those resources and find an adult or two or three adults who care about each individual child, that goes a long way in terms of reducing risk factors.”

4. Listen up

Middle school students have the most at stake, are most concerned about their futures, and are most unsure. Yet it is teachers and administrators who control resources and time, and do most of the talking and deciding, Rusten points out.

He says adults can only enable young people to be autonomous and purposeful by consulting with them and engaging them in authentic and meaningful ways.

“It’s a really powerful experience to actually listen to young people,” says Rusten, who believes they truly want the guidance and feedback adults can provide. “They actually want to be walked through the thought process and test their ideas out. But you can’t get to that part without first listening.”

Coupe agrees that letting young people take charge of their lives will overturn the way adults view them.

“As you see changes in children and youth, you’ll start to change your world view,” he says. “And I think that’s really a good place to start.”

6. Give in

Rusten is always shocked when teachers ask how to motivate young people.

In his experience, youth are exceptionally motivated—given the right conditions, that is. They want autonomy, they want to master skills and they want to live with purpose. When they can control their own lives, are good at something and do things that matter within an open, safe and respectful environment of inquiry and care, they will be motivated, he says.

The problem, of course, is that adults don’t like ceding control, especially in a school environment where they feel responsible. But by recognizing that they can’t control young people’s lives, adults can act as facilitators.

“Think of young people as assets,” Rusten suggests. “Realize it’s not about us, it’s about them. This is their future, their lives. Our job is to help them shift the trajectory of their lives just a little bit.”

Those who do are sometimes surprised at the positive results.

One astounded coach in Morocco told Rusten, “I knew that these young people were good with us, now I realize that they are so much better without us.”

6. Make learning useful, and personal

At a workshop Rusten helped organize in Mozambique, a 16-year-old girl and orphan was outraged when she heard NGO workers blame poverty for students dropping out. “We didn’t leave school because we were poor,” she declared. “We left because the school doesn’t provide anything we need.”

In Jordan, eight out of 10 middle schoolers reported they spent at least half of their math lessons memorizing formulas.

Children like these who do not gain knowledge and skills that will actually benefit them in their lives can easily become disinterested, or see no value in staying in school.

Making their learning useful and personalized can make the difference in their attitudes and performance, especially since an academic deficit can often lead to a behavioral one according to Coupe.

Easier said than done…. but possible and necessary.

“I don’t think deep seated cultural beliefs are going to come easily, but if you start by developing an ethos of positive behavior and feedback, over time positive change will convince people,” Coupe says.

7. Change from within

When middle school teachers in Morocco resisted a reading across the curriculum approach, Ezzaki had them create the content for it.

Teachers, who had ownership of the new approach, created a more engaging and motivating class environment, and were shown how to help struggling students.

For their part, students become more autonomous in their learning as their reading improved. Not only did they test higher in reading and other subject areas, but they dropped out of school at significantly lower rates as compared to the national average.

The program, called Improving Training for Quality Advancement in National Education, was institutionalized by the Ministry of Education into pre-service and in-service teacher training. Eventually, it was scaled up and funded by the government as Creative’s new RASID program.

“Change does not need to happen from outside,” says Ezzaki. “It can happen from within.”

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