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The In-between Years

How a teacher prepares his students to dive into the shark tank that is middle school.

As usual, Jatavia was the first to arrive exactly at 7:30 a.m. Normally a quiet student who's eager to complete the morning grammar and history work that’s displayed on the blackboard, this morning she didn’t go immediately to her desk. Instead, she gingerly shuffled my direction. I could tell that something wasn’t right so I inquired, “Is everything okay, Jatavia?”

“Mr. Friedland, you promise not to tell the other students?” she finally whispered.

“Of course Jatavia, what’s on your mind?”

She hesitated, but she eventually explained that the previous night she had a nightmare about life in middle school. In her dream she was an outcast; the girls made fun of her intelligence and weight, while the boys called her ugly and were eager to throw things at her in class. It got so bad (she explained at this point with tears streaming down her face) that she trapped herself in the bathroom so that she could avoid the harassment of her peers.

It was no coincidence that Jatavia was having this sort of dream. The previous day with the high pitched squeals of middle school cheerleaders, and an off-key rendition of the Black Eyed Peas's “I Gotta Feeling” played by the band, the fifth graders (teachers included) were welcomed to their future middle school during a half-day transition orientation.

While the faculty and many of the students put their best foot forward in an attempt to show the school in a positive, productive, and principled light, it was apparent that disorder was the norm. The tour ended in the cafeteria where my wide-eyed students had lunch with the sixth graders. Afterwards, we boarded the bus and returned to school.

When we got back to our comparatively innocent and orderly classroom, the body language of the class was split in two. Half of my students were bursting with excitement, while the other half was sheepish and quiet. I opened the room for discussion by simply asking: “So, what did you think? Are you ready to go to middle school?” I wanted to get an idea of what they were thinking so I asked each student to write down what came to mind when I mentioned middle school. I told them that their writings were a great way to reflect on the orientation and were completely confidential.

Their reactions ranged the gamut from being excited to switch between classes to being intimidated and worried about all the unknowns. As I was sitting at my desk that afternoon, reading these responses, I also couldn’t help but reflect on the idea of middle school. In my mind, the middle school years can be the toughest years for a child. When I talk to other people that are also in education, I start to get the feeling that for many, middle school has the potential to be the lost years of a child’s education. Students can arrive at middle school with skills on or near grade level, but because of a tornado of variables that may include pitiful school organization, lack of quality teachers, and adolescence, a child’s education has a distinct possibility of treading firmly in place.

I suddenly got a nervous feeling when thinking about my students’ futures. For students like Jatavia, who were intimidated and nervous about entering a new phase in life, I had to reassure them (without being dishonest) that everything was going to be okay. This was challenging because Jatavia’s concerns of sticking out are legitimate, and no matter how well behaved she acts and protected she is by school policy, she will still have to dive into the shark tank that is middle school and ultimately fend for herself.

When I said goodbye to my students at the start of summer, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. With some, I realize that their maturity level is not the highest, their support network is not the strongest, and, at 11 years old, asking them to stay on a path of academic progress that is riddled with social pressures may be too much. However, I am hopeful that with the constant messages about life choices, responsibility, and diligence that were hammered into their heads throughout the year, that the majority of my students will persevere and ultimately seek a productive path for themselves.

Image: John Steven Fernandez, from Creative Commons

Randy Friedland teaches fifth grade at an elementary school in Atlanta.

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