Middle school has a terrible reputation. The titles of James Patterson’s middle-school series say it all: From the number-one New York Times bestseller Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, which launched the series in 2011, to last summer’s Middle School: How I Survived Bullies, Broccoli, and Snake Hill, to this spring’s Middle School: Ultimate Showdown!, the titles reflect a dystopian vision of life in middle school. And he’s far from alone in this. When it comes to young adolescents in schools, Americans seem determined to perpetuate a narrative of hormones and horror. In her book Operating Instructions, writer Anne Lamott described her worst fear as she anticipated the birth of her son: the knowledge that “he or she is eventually going to have to go through the seventh and eighth grades.” In my own research, I found that more than half of middle-school teacher education graduate saw the statement “middle school students can be appropriately described as ‘hormones with feet’” as true.
Yes, it’s true that young adolescents are navigating profound and often complex changes—new bodies, new brain capabilities, and new social realms. But as a former public middle-school teacher who once taught more than 100 young adolescents each day, I have seen firsthand that middle schools can be constructive, happy places. When there are teachers who understand young adolescents and are prepared to teach them, smaller schools and classes that facilitate meaningful relationships, and an intellectually challenging, engaging, and relevant curriculum, middle school can be some of the most inspiring and enlightening years of a young person’s—or teacher’s—life.