Two years ago our school underwent a reorganization to create a designated middle school. Previously the school was split into two parts: Lower School which included Montessori sixth grade and Upper School which was grades 7 through 12. Administrators recognized the differences in the middle grades and a new principal was hired to oversee the Middle School, which is now grades 6–8. I was fortunate to join the faculty during the transition/planning year and have loved every minute of my time here.
At the end of eighth grade, I was looking for a way to transition my students to high school, while reflecting with them about not only this year but also all the middle school years. Simultaneously, I was working on spiffing up my presentation for Back to School Night. I was thinking about many things that we spend time on as teachers, most of which are not in the curriculum. I decided I would talk about the "Hidden Curriculum of Middle School" thinking that I could talk to parents about all the other things we try to teach their children.
Since I needed some help about how to categorize the "Hidden Curriculum," my classroom became my lab. I have 65 young ladies who are usually more than happy to give their opinions about things so I decided to ask them. I asked them to tell me about three things they learned in middle school that were NOT related to science, math, English or foreign language. Student evaluation is something I do every quarter, so this didn't seem out of the ordinary for them.
To my utter astonishment, their answers about three things they had learned were insightful, heartfelt, and humorous. I found myself getting teary reading their comments about how they have learned to ask teachers for help and about how teachers aren't that scary.
Our students work hard. As a school community we have very high expectations. We try to remember that they are kids still but we want them to be prepared for a rigorous college prep high school environment so we do push them. Well, I'm happy to say I think we are doing a pretty good job based on the girls' reflections.
The things they talked about broke into these categories, and here is what they had to say in each one. Their words are in italics and mine are regular type. I plan to use many of these at Back to School Night and I shared their wise words with each of my classes on our last day together.
Friendship is very important to middle school girls. Many of them realize that friend groups are fluid and they like that. I agree!
"Don't care about popularity because it really doesn't matter, when you stop caring about how popular you are you can have real friendships with friends that you love and who truly support each other."
"Lunch tables should not define your friend group."
I wonder how often this actually does define their friends. I'm grateful that our counselor and principal have instituted "Mix it up day" in the cafeteria once a week or so. The girls all have to move after they are already sitting down to sit with different girls.
"I learned that you won't always be friends with a person in your class. You don't have to be their friend, but you have to be friendly and kind to them."
These are wise words for now and for the rest of their lives.
"Friend groups change and it is going to be okay. When I first came to Viz I had pretty much no friends my first year. Now looking back, I wish I could've told myself that I would make many friends the following year. My friend group changed again this year and I am happier than ever with my friends."
2. Study Skills/Academics
As I said, our curriculum is rigorous. We are demanding of these young ladies. We give homework and we expect them to do it. We make them write—in English, history, science, foreign language and yes, even in math.
"Believe in yourself. Don't do what everyone else is doing just because you might be afraid of doing something wrong. Yes, every project is different but you have to be really creative because after you're done with your project or assignment, then you will be more confident when you present it or turn it in."
Doing what everyone else is doing is exactly what we don't want them do.
"I personally tend to study the night before but I've been working on trying to study a couple nights before some of the harder tests. And for homework, I have been more productive lately when completing assignments; sometimes I finish them before they're due. But overall, I learned that time management will not only affect you now, but also later in your life."
Procrastination is a middle school habit. Let's be honest, we could all learn from this one. I put off grading papers sometimes. It's human nature, but to have a student say it and mean it is amazing to me.
"If you are stressed with homework put your phone downstairs."
This one really makes me smile. I know how hard it is for them to disconnect while they are doing homework. I'm thrilled that at least one of them sees that this is something they have to be in charge of doing.
Many students are afraid to ask for help. They don't want to look silly or have anyone think they don't know something. We work with them to encourage them to talk to us and ask for help. We teach them how to email questions to us or set up a time to meet with us. We are a one-to-one laptop school so emailing is a necessary skill for the students.
"Teachers do look at your test schedule and recognize how much stuff you have to do, but they are not trying to make you stressed, they are preparing you for real life when you have a job and need to do a lot of work at once."
"Second, TALK to your teachers!!! I can't stress this enough! If you don't understand something or if you are super busy and just can't get something done. Email them or talk to them. More often than not they completely understand and will give you the help you need to be successful. Teachers are there to help you through school and aren't really all that scary once you talk to them. You may even find you have something in common!"
"The final thing I have learned while in the middle school is that you will have teachers that you love and teachers that you dislike, yet none of the teachers hate you, some may be harder on you than on other kids only because they know what you can become."
I love that they recognize we are not out to get them but want what is best for them. I was delighted by how many mentioned that we are not scary since we work hard to build positive relationships with them.
4. Thoughts on what is important
They also had funny tips and real things to say about keeping middle school in perspective. One even said, "Middle school doesn't last forever."
"Treat people the way you want to be treated! Make friends with everyone."
"Don't get stressed out about the little things."
"Viz as a whole, has taught me to never give up until I reach my goals, because even though one day I might not feel like doing something or lose hope, I have my friends and teachers to help me get through it."
This is one of my favorites since we really want them to learn not to give up even when things are difficult or the answer is not easy to find because that's a life skill.
"Bring Band-Aids to school, they will come in handy at least once and you will be grateful for those specialty rainbow dashes gallivanting their way across your healing wounds."
This reminded me to keep humor in the classroom and to laugh at myself and enjoy the little moments with the students. They are funny people.
"By far the most valuable thing I learned this year is how to be a good friend to people and how to be a good friend to myself. Just because someone is smarter than you in science, doesn't mean that you aren't smart. Compliment them, but don't tear yourself down because they may be better at science than you. Everyone is talented at Viz and we shouldn't waste time trying to live up to other people's achievements. Also what kind of goes with that is that grades and numbers do not make you as a person. Grades shouldn't matter THAT much. Learning is the real test of wisdom. I sound like my parents in this omg."
This is one I am going to share with parents for sure. I know that parents don't always know that their kids listen to them, but I know that they do.
I feel that these ladies are ready for the challenges of high school. Allowing them the time to reflect on their time in middle school leaves them with a positive sense of these years that can be challenging. I am grateful for their insights and the reminder that understanding them as people is more important than any content I can teach them.
Tracie Cain is a sixth grade math teacher and eighth grade science teacher at Visitation Academy, an all-girls school in Saint Louis, Missouri.