Let’s face it: Middle school is not working. All by itself, the age range is a difficult time of life for people, not to mention the nature of the middle school model. Eleven to fifteen year olds are experiencing some drastic changes to their minds and bodies. Research has shown that this time in a child’s life will set the stage for the rest of his or her life:
“[Dr. Jay] Giedd hypothesizes that the growth in gray matter followed by the pruning of connections is a particularly important stage of brain development in which what teens do or do not do can affect them for the rest of their lives. He calls this the ‘use it or lose it principle’ . . . ‘If a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hardwired. If they’re lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going to survive.’ ” (Giedd)
Without a solid foundation or proper motivation, adolescents are headed for a difficult life.
Having this information, it is shocking to know that the middle schools in my district (and I’m sure in other districts) do not require passing grades of students to move on. We get students in high school that did not pass one class in three years. Middle school students learn very quickly that they don’t have to do any work in school; middle schools don’t want the older, more mature kids with the younger ones, so they push the students through, regardless of whether students pass their classes or not. If parents haven’t been proactive and established a love for learning in their children, students in the “use it or lose it” stage of brain development have created a bad habit that will, more likely than not, stick with them for the rest of their lives.
This is why the next step after The Never-Give-Up Initiative is crucial. My plan is that students will start their secondary education in 7th grade (not 6th grade, as is currently the norm) already having mastered a core curriculum. The students who are moving forward will have no gaps in their education. Also, they will be anywhere from 9 to 13 years old, depending on how quickly or slowly they learned the material.
Even though core standards are a good start for the elementary level, much of what students need to function as adults goes beyond what facts they need to know; they need to know how to think and solve problems. My proposal will make 7th and 8th grade crucial years for students; it is during these years that they will discover who they are, how they learn, and what they may want to do with the rest of their lives. By the end of 8th grade, students will be able to make choices for which direction they want to go in high school.
School of Discovery
School of Discovery will be the next step in preparing students for the world outside of school walls. Currently, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades are a continuation of the same subjects taught at the elementary level. That needs to change. If the Never-Give-Up Initiative taught mastery of the core concepts, then students will need something more in secondary education. The next level should begin students’ exploration into problem solving and independent thinking. In elementary school, I suggested that students have Discovery Hour; at this next level, that’s all they will be doing. They will discover how all the concepts and skills they learned can be used to solve problems; they will need to learn collaboration, innovation, and communication. Teachers will become facilitators and mentors, rather than dispersers of knowledge and discipline.
School of Discovery will not be content-based, but project-based. It will emphasize real world connections so that students will realize they can make an impact at whatever age they are. They will also work in groups, learning collaboration and communication skills and developing leadership skills. These projects will not be simple poster-board projects, but in-depth, high-level thinking projects, where students will be held accountable for their thinking and reasoning.
For example, here’s a project that might be presented in School of Discovery:
The Smith family just moved to Colorado. Mrs. Smith has a job as a fulltime professor at UCCS. Mr. Smith does not have a job yet. He has a degree in engineering. They have two children: an eight year old boy (who has ADD) and a twelve-year-old girl.
- Where should they look for a house?
- What price range should they look for?
- Where should the kids go to school?
- What are the school options for the children?
- Discuss the pros and cons of each school.
- Does Mr. Smith need to get a job?
- Discuss the pros and cons of either decision.
- If he gets a job, what type of job could Mr. Smith get?
- Create a budget for the Smith family with Mrs. Smith’s income only.
- Create another budget with both incomes, depending on what Job Mr. Smith gets.
- Where can they cut corners to have enough money to survive on one income?
- What are some alternatives to combating ADD?
- Students will also need to create some type of model of the area the family will live in and need to travel to for their jobs and schools
- It can be computerized, hand drawn, or a three-d model of a topographical map. The idea is that they are using the arts as part of the project.
- Students may also choose to write a story or a play in addition to or instead of the descriptions for each part of the project.
In this one project, students will use geography, math, and science; they will learn about professions and budgets. They will also use writing skills, research skills, and test the reliability of sources. They will need to collaborate with each other and become organized; they will need to talk to their parents about budgets and jobs and raising a family. Teachers will be around to answer questions and point them in the right direction, as well as evaluate the solutions. Through this project, students will also learn about themselves and what they get excited about. They will learn how they like to learn. Do they like to sit in front of a computer, or do they like going to a place or person and talking directly with him or her. Do they like math, geography, or science? Do they like writing or art? Students will also learn to appreciate the value of things and how hard their parents work for the things they have.
Eventually, projects will be service orientated: Students may need to solve the problem of poverty in a certain area of the country, or come up with a plan to end hunger in a third-world country. By this time, students will have been solving problems for at least a year, and will instinctively know they have to research the area, organize people, investigate if other initiatives have been tried and what the results were. Of course students will continue to use all subjects throughout these projects, while learning new concepts and theories that will be necessary in order to solve the increased complexity of the problems.
These projects will continue to develop students’ strengths and passions, which will prepare them for the next level in school. It will personalize education so students can drive their own learning. With this model, students will use their higher-level thinking skills, hardwiring positive habits for the rest of their lives.
How feasible is this plan for those middle-school years? Let me know what you think.