That seventh grader may have a point. In the annals of education, middle school often is disregarded. Mary Beth Schaefer, an education scholar at St. John’s University, has studied the progress of the movement to better accommodate middle schoolers over a 50-year period beginning in the 1960s. Schaefer tells a story of fits and starts: Efforts to reform middle school regularly made their way into national policy debates, but those conversations always dissipated quickly, resulting in stagnation or even skepticism of the cause’s validity. Middle School Journal, Schaefer notes, dropped by close to 100 pages per volume from 2010 to 2013. And yet we know that middle school is a pivotal time for children, whose bodies and minds develop more rapidly during early adolescence than at any stage other than the first two years of life.
So it doesn’t help that adults often dismiss middle school as the nightmare they remember it to be. “They tend to fear this precarious age range,” Cruz, the D.C. principal, says. “[Adults] misunderstand those years” as a chapter that these days is defined by sexting and narcissism, poor critical thinking, and civic apathy.
“Adults want to control,” Cruz says. And that may be why grown-ups struggle to adequately serve middle schoolers, whom she describes as “consistently inconsistent.” Yet Cruz is optimistic that middle school could be great.
One easy fix: a little bell-schedule rejiggering so that middle-schoolers can fuel their growing appetites when their bodies need it. Cruz’s school, Oyster-Adams, decided to implement a 20-minute snack break at 10:45 a.m. so the district’s existing lunchtime for the school (which also serves younger grades on another part of campus) wouldn’t leave her with hangry tweens. Another change: Middle-school classrooms should budget for air conditioning—tween bodies do not smell or feel good when it’s stuffy inside. Of course, the structural changes that benefit one community of preteens may not make sense in another.
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One common denominator across the middle-school crisis is a simple empathy deficit. “Little people have all the feelings that adults have—[just] with way less world experience,” Cruz says. The principal told me parents of younger students elsewhere on campus often complain to her about the middle schoolers cursing and being haughty when they “drop off my innocent, little, tiny fourth grader.” She addresses the issue, but when this happens she thinks to herself: denial. “Everybody struggles with [early adolescence],” she says. “It’s not like you can just skip that.” She often notices a similar attitude in public spaces—when adults are on a bus with middle schoolers, for example, they often glare and shake their heads at the tweens, who if they’re in a group are very likely causing a ruckus. But those insolent preteens? “That’s gonna be your kid in a few years!” Cruz thinks to herself. Or: “I bet you acted kind of like that [in middle school], too.”
The middle-school movement has experienced somewhat of a resurgence in recent years. For these efforts to be successful, adults will have to embrace the messiness that is middle school. Tweenhood is torturous, and tending to those in the midst of it can be excruciating and embarrassing: Tweens will make lots of mistakes, and they’ll learn from them, and still make more mistakes after that. Yet those mistakes—and the growth that follows—are precisely what give middle school its meaning.