Entering The Middle School Zone

You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into… the Middle School Zone.

Imagination and stamina? Check.  Content area expertise? Check.  Patience, sense of humor?  Check.  Seems like all systems are go for lift off. Right?

When I crossed over ten years ago, I was a traveler unprepared.  I thought my instructional trunk was well stocked with tools and texts and other tricks of the trade.

Can you spell gullible?

 Then I entered the middle school zone, where the hallways are loud and messy and arms and legs are everywhere.  Pink hair extensions and the unmistakable aroma of Axe.  Tears give way to laughter then to tears again. Alliances and entourages shift hourly.

Every cliché you have ever heard was undoubtedly coined in a middle school corridor: mountains are mole hills, haste is making waste, books are being  judged by covers, watched pots aren’t boiling, the enemy of an enemy is a BFF.

In this simmering stew of emotion and hormones, America’s Strongest show up each day in the hopes of sharing our passions for our respective content areas.

We are part-time performers, part-time psychics and full-time practitioners, full-time scholars.  It also helps to be selectively deaf, to know that One Direction is not a road sign and to have a very thick skin.

And once we get over the fact that middle school kids still fall out of their chairs, still cry when they are frustrated or scared, shout all the time except when you ask them to read aloud, we can get started on instruction.

But wait….there’s more.

For my science colleagues, here is a content area analogy: Middle school kids defy every law of physics: they are an inexhaustible source of energy and no reaction is ever appropriate. They are spontaneous and have yet to develop verbal filters.  They are surrounded by alternating currents composed of rebellion, insecurity, immaturity and inexperience. They want desperately to be taken seriously even as they act ridiculously.

 But they also are capable of  thoughtful, sensitive discussion. They are learning–the hard way, by experience– harsh life lessons about friendship and heartbreak. They are beginning to see that achievement comes only with hard work and patience. Being part of this growth every day is every bit as important as delivering content area information.  Success in guiding kids to independence, responsibility, self respect, patience and kindness doesn’t translate to numerical calculations, though.  When data shows that middle school test scores unilaterally decline, no one takes any of this other “stuff” into account.

Middle school is everything Rod Serling described in the Twilight Zone and then some. And we are middle school teachers: America’s Strongest.

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Appreciating the Everyday

Friday evening gave me one of those moments when I attended the opening at a gallery featuring an old friend’s photographs.  The images were crisp and clear and exposed perfectly.  Moreover, so many of the photos were familiar places, simple, beautiful scenes others had no doubt passed and dismissed, or more likely, passed and simply ignored. Yet, seen through the right eyes, these everyday scenes made me smile and lowered my blood pressure even as they took my breath away.

This celebration of the everyday was a call to appreciate my own everyday: my husband’s spontaneous laughter, our children’s personal and professional success, the easy company of good friends.  This is the stuff that life is made of, but like the scenes in the matted photos in the gallery, this is often the stuff we take for granted just because we see it every day.

In his professional life, this photographer captures the tragedies of human existence: car wrecks, house fires, death.  But that’s business; the photos in the gallery, those were pure pleasure.  And that someone can be this close to disaster daily and still maintain this incredible eye for beauty, that inspires me.

The lesson?  There’s always a lesson, right? After all, I am a teacher.  So much of life is about what we see.  See it.

What Would Socrates (or Annie Sullivan or Albert Shanker) Say?

Socrates.  John Dewey.  Maria Montessori. Jaime Escalante. Christa McAuliffe. Annie Sullivan.  Even by the most stringent application of the Danielson rubric, these folks are examples of highly effective teachers.  What would they say to high stakes standardized testing, APPR, Race to the Top?

Fade in on the scene: A stark corridor outside the closed door of the governor’s office. Fine mahogany door frame, frosted glass on the door, the governor’s name spelled out in three inch gold letters.    The characters are seated on uncomfortable institutional folding chairs waiting to speak with the governor regarding his educational policy.

John Dewey:  Everyone knows that children will excel when school is experiential.  Great Caesars’ Ghost, man, people  are assessing kids with a number 2 lead pencil?  To what end?

Albert Shanker (excitedly, spitting a bit as he speaks): To tear the heart out of the teachers, that’s what end!   It’s all about breaking the bonds of union solidarity.  I tell you, once teachers are assigned numerical scores, brotherhood will jump right out the third floor window of Roosevelt High School.  Defenestration. When that happens, people, it’s all over.

Jaime Escalante (sporting a a backward facing beret):  It gets worse, Jack-O.  When demographics “prove” that minority kids are destined to fail, some number two lead pencil pushing jerk in the state house or white house will say they cheated because everyone knows minority kids can’t learn calculus.

Dewey:  Surely you jest!

Socrates (adjusting his toga, standing): Say what you want, but teachers are used to being whipping boys for what ails society. When things go bad, it’s always the instructor’s fault.   Look what the Greeks did to me!  But if I may, how will students learn to think if all they are doing is coloring in spherical dots arranged in groups of four?  Moreover, how will teachers know what they have learned?  Likewise, won’t this tempt teachers to tailor instruction simply to meet the demands of the test?

Shanker: Hey, you with all the questions, Socrates, listen for a minute, will ya? None of this is about learning.  Not really.

Dewey: Not about learning?  Nonsense.  Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

Socrates: The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.  Just sayin’. (He sits.)

Shanker: You are all missing the point here, people.  This about vilifying teachers.  It’s about punishing teachers for making a living wage. It’s about proving we are doing what everyone now believes he can do better than we can. It is about destroying one of the only powerful unions left in this country!  There is nothing in any of this about learning or kids for that matter.

James Carville (peeking around the corner for an instant): It’s about the economy, stupid! (He disappears.)

Annie Sullivan (adjusting spectacles):  But I have questions, too. What about the interpersonal nature of the student teacher relationship? Would anyone deny that the relationship I worked to develop with Helen Keller was an organic element of our instructional success?   Is there any way to give teachers credit for this?

Maria Montessori (with a trace of an Italian accent): Please,  someone, tell me how this system of assessing children and evaluating teachers will improve education, especially the education of the most fragile children with disabilities. I would like to know more, such as how choice and freedom of movement  and self discipline will be part of this instruction. I have always believed that the ultimate goal of education is independence and I would so like to see how this progressive means of  student assessment and teacher evaluation will achieve that end.

Annie Sullivan: Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction.

Shanker: Those days are gone, Annie.  Now it’s every man for himself.

Jaime (bitterly):  Yes, dream on, sweet lady. Leave no children behind, unless they are minority kids.

Annie Sullivan (sadly):  Or deaf and blind kids.

Montessori: Or disabled kids.

Christa McAuliffe: To think I used to really believe that we touch the future because we teach.   People used to like us.  Teachers were respected.

Socrates: You think so, huh?

(The door opens and there is a collective sigh of relief among the waiting educators. The governor appears, nattily dressed in an Italian suit. He conspicuously adjusts his silk tie and clears his throat. He stands waiting as if there should be some type of acknowledgment of his presence. When no such gesture is forthcoming he addresses the group.)

Governor: Sorry that you all have been waiting so long, but I am afraid I am off to a press conference now followed by a fund raiser.

Dewey: But what about the children?

Shanker: What about the teachers?

Governor: No time for them right now.  I have a state to run and people to pander to.  See ya!

Fade out.