Middle School Ninja Warrior

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I love middle school.

My high school teacher friends think I am slightly crazy and my elementary colleagues don’t understand. But it is true.

Middle school rocks.

As I take my place in that hormonal primordial stew seasoned with Axe and bravado, I know I am home. And there is no place like home. It isn’t always smooth sailing and there is typically more than one person  ready to tell you what you do not know. But home is where the heart is and as devoted middle school teachers will tell you, there is no shortage of heart among their students.

Middle school kids still laugh at the obvious. They may have one foot in childhood and the other in the grown-up world, but they are still young at heart. Their  unbounded energy is contagious. They are exploring their interests and their capacity for empathy. They are beginning to make the essential link between work and success. They are old enough to be responsible and simultaneously young enough to care.

Yes, they are a volatile potion of combustible elements. Yes, they are a fragile package of contradictions. But there is also unmatched enthusiasm, life and curiosity resulting in passion, animation, and discovery.

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Success in middle school isn’t necessarily quantifiable. The data doesn’t always reside on a spread sheet. Success in middle school is measured in moments, those tangible experiences when kids find their voices, discover their talents.  Facilitating the journey into adolescence is as rewarding as it is exhausting. It is a lot like mastering the obstacles on American Ninja Warrior. You need to be smart, flexible and strong. You must effectively manage your allotted time. Above all else, you need to be committed to being the best you can be every day.  Middle school, like the warp wall, is not for the weak.  It can be all consuming.

It’s a work out. But then you hit the buzzer. And suddenly, it is all worth it.




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.