The ABCs of Middle Level Education
For the Record. For Every Student We Serve.
When I was in college, I was a radio DJ at WXJM 88.7FM—although only a handful of listeners would know. I worked the timeslots that felt like the air was made of stars and caffeine: 1am-3am and 6am-8am. During those early mornings, I would hurriedly walk from my dorm room in the dark with my backpack full of CDs, tapes, and records. I was known for playing songs by artists that few people had heard of, playing songs in odd combinations, and playing songs that weren’t on the A-side of the record. What does all of that have to do with middle level education? Stay tuned, listeners!
For those of you who may not be privy to the joys of records and LPs, here’s a quick lesson. The A-side of most records is typically where the artist and record company lined up the singles—those sure-fire, hot hit songs. Those were the songs that jumped up the charts, songs that fans craved to hear, and songs that stuck in your head. And as a music fan and a DJ, I appreciated the cool, hummable melodies of those songs. But for other reasons, I loved the B-sides even more. I wanted to hear the songs that didn’t make it to the A-side. I wanted to hear what made them different. I wanted to discover what the artist was trying out. I wanted to wonder about the crazy magic in those songs. I wanted to check out the risks on the record. So what do records and B-sides have to do with the field of middle level education? Stay tuned for more, listeners! Here comes the answer after this short break!
First, there’s a connection with the process of playing a record and working with young adolescents. When you play a record, it’s different from the digital music world we live in today. Today, you scan through your playlist on your phone, find what you want, and hit play/shuffle/repeat. With a record (especially as a DJ on air), you need to (1) find the groove in the LP for the song you want, (2) delicately place the needle on that groove, (3) find the exact spot where the song begins (leaving a little empty sound space), (4) plan what to say to intro the song, and (5) then hit play. It takes patience, time, a careful ear, and a disposition that accepts and embraces flaws. Because the song may start early. The song may start late. The song may be the wrong song or it may have words that may be wrong! There is nothing like an “on air” goof to get the heart racing! Working with young adolescents is very much the same process. How’s that? Stay tuned for even more, dear listeners!
If we think about young adolescents as music, we can’t simply plug them into a USB port, select the instructional song for the day, and hit the play button. Our students are like LPs, and like pedagogical DJs, we have to (1) patiently discover their unique record grooves, (2) take the time to find the music of their shifting lives, (3) carefully put our ears to listen as it plays to us, and (4) be open to the B-sides. Being open to the B-sides with young adolescents means that we need to anticipate and embrace the flaws and the unsettling songs they bring every day, because not every tune is going to be an A-side hit. Of course, our students will have great moments and bright ideas. And like hit songs on the A-side, we need to celebrate those “educational tunes.” We need to let their songs of excellence play for all to hear, and we should crank up the volume loudly and proudly. That’s why, for example, we put up their exemplary work on our boards, walls, and websites: to show them and the whole world that young adolescents can create glorious, melodious songs of learning. We love their hit songs on the A-side! But what about the other side of that record? Stay tuned to hear more, listeners!
We also have to love our students’ songs on the B-side, too. As we relish the harmony, we can’t neglect listening to the disharmony. As we tout the major chords, we can’t ignore the stories in the minor ones. As we hum the polished choruses, we can’t turn our ears away from the flawed, unfinished, discordant ones. That’s because the young adolescents we serve (even our “high achievers”) bring us their B-side songs every day, too. And those B-side tunes are different, and they are important, too. So in addition to turning up the volume on students’ exemplary work on the A-side, we need to honor their mistakes along the way. In addition to celebrating their friendships and leadership on the A-side, we need to be there when they feel friendless and without direction. In other words, our young adolescents need us to turn the record over, carefully drop the needle in the groove, and check out those B-side tunes. Perhaps that’s how we serve our students: by listening to the B-side. Perhaps that’s where we need to be to support their growth in the middle grades. For the record.
4 Ideas to Consider 4 Change
Why does bullying have such a powerful link to the middle grades? How do we begin to unravel this one?
I think understanding bullying and why it has such a powerful link to the middle grades starts by reflecting on your own story with it. It's difficult to pin down when bullying and I got to know each other, but I think it started full force in the fifth grade and continued through early high school. When I was 10, I was at a new school because I had just moved. I was out of shape. I was socially maladjusted. I stood out. So certain kids sought me out with their verbal arsenal, and their weaponry was cruel. One kid called me "Elephant Boy" in front of the class every day. Another one told me to "skip a meal" when he saw me. One girl was dared to go out with me for half a day, and then, of course, she broke up with me at 3pm. I found vile things written about me on walls—all because I didn't fit in. It was pervasive. I felt powerless to do anything about it. I didn't want to tell anyone at home—because how do you tell your dad, a U.S. Marine, that you can't take care of yourself? I didn't want to tell anyone at school—because how do you tell a teacher or a principal about all that stuff and it will only make it worse? I didn't want to go to school anymore—because how can you concentrate in class when you think/know that everyone is secretly laughing at you? But I did want to do something about it. In my mind, I had massive revenge on them all, and I imagined scenarios that made me the victor and destroyer. Clearly, I didn't act on any of my imaginings; instead, I kept it in my brain, found solace in music, discovered peace in writing, and learned from it all. Even now, I remember the names and faces of my tormentors, and oddly enough, there are many days when I thank them. They made me thick-skinned. They made me develop grit and resilience that I would need later as an adult. They helped me prepare for social interactions with certain people. They even supported me when my own son came home from school after enduring the same kind of cruelty. I didn't have the perfect answer for him, but I could listen and respond from a place of care.
So that's my story with bullying. What's yours? How does it affect how you support all students?
Here's how my story has shaped what I think about bullying.
1. Maybe we should stop calling it bullying and focus on the learning—because everyone has the capacity for cruelty as well as kindness. There's a person doing that vile stuff, and there's a reason why they are doing it. By reducing the person and the actions to a "bullying" caricature, are we really addressing the issue? Are we really helping bring about behavioral change that helps every student? As an assistant principal in charge of eighth grade for more than six years, I dealt with my share of bullying issues. I handled and signed more triplicate forms, called more families, and talked to more angry, frustrated, sad, and tired teachers and students about disruptive conduct and bullying than I can even count. I interrupted classes and heard the classic, "Ooooh" sound from students as I took one of their peers to my office, so we could talk about bullying and behavioral "infractions" It was never easy. Each time, I wondered how I would feel if I was the student. Each time, I remembered kids who picked on me. And each time, I wondered about the learning—because that's what middle grades behavioral conversations should be about. The learning. In This We Believe, the authors talk about how the "school environment" should be "safe, inclusive, inviting, and supportive for all" (p. 14). So this means making the school supportive for students who behave and for those who misbehave. Supportive for students we conveniently call "bullies" and for those who have been victimized by them. Instead of labeling a kid, turning them into ink and paper, inputting them into a computer system, and giving them a consequence, perhaps there's something else we should do to support their behavioral learning. In my office, we did reflection sheets together; created drawings about their feelings before, during, and after the incident; wrote raps about what happened; and even recreated and role-played. For many students, being in my office for a disciplinary issue was undeniably uncomfortable, but for others, it was the only time when they felt safe and comfortable enough to talk through some of this stuff. These extra, different actions take extra time, but they are worth it. If we don't do them, students who "bully" may simply become adults who do the same thing later on.
2. Remember that we are more than bullying in the middle grades. As a principal, one of the first questions I heard from new sixth grade families (and their kids) was "How do you handle bullying at your school?" It was always a fair question to ask, and I always told them how much I appreciated it. I didn't deny that students often made interesting behavioral decisions as they were trying to figure out their place in the school and in the world at large. And, yes, some of those choices could be labeled as "bullying," and we handled it through very systemic channels from a place of safety, care, and learning. And then I switched the script. I discussed all of the wonderful student leaders we had. I mentioned all of the great service-learning students we had. I explained all of the ways that our students were achieving and giving back to their communities. Because we are more than bullying in the middle grades. Thus, the next time someone asks you about bullying at your school or in your classroom, acknowledge their concern, but then tell them the rest of the story: the positive, limitless, awesome story of our young adolescents.
3. We need to understand why kids act out because of bullying—especially the kids that don't "fit in"—and respond to them before they act out.
Unfortunately, I can write from experience. There is nothing worse than knowing that you have to go somewhere filled with pain. It looms in front of you, and you are filled with dread. When school is that place, you either want to stay home, shrink away, or strike back. You can't skip school because you'll get in trouble at home and you'll also miss class. You can't shrink away at school because everyone is on you, laughing at you, making fun of you. You can't strike back because you'll get in trouble at school, at home, and maybe worse. But then, who cares anyways? If no one cares about me, then I'll make a bigger statement so they'll care. If no one really knows me, then I'll do something so they'll never forget. So when I hear about students who have taken matters into their own hands at school, I'm desperately saddened. And desperately filled with powerless understanding. And there's another connection to This We Believe, that reminds me that in an effective middle grades school, "Health and wellness are supported by curricula, school-wide programs, and related policies" (p. 14). This not only means the physical health of our young adolescents but their mental and emotional well-being, too. Fortunately, the conversation about SEL has increased over the years, so students are learning how to interact positively with others and how to negotiate cruelty when they see and hear it—and when they feel the urge to be cruel themselves. Those programs should continue to grow and shape the way we learn about "bullying"—and act to remove it from our schools.
4. Finally, a bit of plain news for the adults in the room. If we want to change school behavior and bullying, we need to start by reflecting on us—the adults who misbehave and who bully in our schools—because students pick up on what we do and say. For example, how can we expect our kids to follow a Positive Behavior Support plan if there are adults in the building who aren't positive, behaved, or supportive? There is a discipline reward system for students to follow, but there are staff members who don't adhere to those systems themselves. They tell their students to be on time to class and how to behave in the hallways, but they are often late to or unprepared for faculty meetings—with no consequence. They ask their kids to use civil discourse with each other, but they often ignore kind, positive verbal and nonverbal language with other staff members—with no consequence. And there are families that want our schools to be positive, safe places for their children, but they often speak negatively and combatively with our teachers and staff—with no consequence. If we hear fellow teachers and staff members use harmful, "bullying" language with students and each other, we shouldn't turn our ears away. We should have the kind of positive, responsive school cultures that allow us to help them understand that what they're doing is hurtful, and that they can change. In other words, if we want to work on student behavior in our schools, let's be honest and work on adult behavior, too.
Your Altitude is Connected to Your Attitude
What does it mean to be brave? Bravery has many different connotations in the middle grades. First, as most of us who work with young adolescents know, if you go to any party, picnic, or public place and tell people that you work with middle grades kiddos, the response we get is a mixture of bewilderment, bemusement, and “Whoa. I could never do that. You’re so brave.” Brave. As if we are literally waging war on some unimaginable front. Brave. As if we are desperately trying to defeat a foe bent on destruction and mayhem. Brave. As if we have signed ourselves up for a lifetime of harsh conditions, misery, and disappointment. Brave. And when they say “you’re so brave,” we often play along and perhaps even share a wild tale from the “front lines” to confirm their suspicions about working with young adolescents.
Maybe we say, “Oh this one kid I had once…”
Or we utter, “You’re never going to believe this kid in my class…”
And sometimes we smirk, “This kid drives me crazy--you’ve got to hear this one…”
Now, I’m not immune to this kind of talk, but here’s the charge: I think we should battle against that talk— because it disrespects our kids and our profession. Instead of buying into that negative narrative, we need to combat that deficit rhetoric.
Okay, so how do we talk about bravery in the middle grades then? Let’s start by talking about what we get to do—instead of what we have to do. We bravely get to work with awesome kids. We bravely get to collaborate with awesome teachers. We bravely get to ask awesome questions. We bravely get to see awesome gains. We bravely get to face challenges that no one else faces. We bravely get to hear awesome jokes that no one else hears. So let’s tell it clear: the work we bravely get to do doesn’t come from a subtractive, desperate, combative place. It comes from a place of hope, possibility, and opportunity. We are brave because we value and understand young adolescents and admire the fact that they question and challenge us at times. And we are brave because we want our students to have the tools—the social-emotional, academic, behavioral, and moral currency—they need to be successful, happy, and well. So the next time somebody calls you brave for working with young adolescents, explain your bravery like that—from a place of duty, responsibility, joy, and honor to do the work. So yeah, I get to work bravely in a middle school—what do you do?
And how about the bravery that our kids show every day? Instead of telling wisecracks and disparaging stories about them just to get a laugh at a party, we should be celebrating their bravery, too. They are bravely changing more rapidly than at any other time in their lives. They are bravely navigating social worlds in our hallways, buses, classrooms, locker rooms, cafeterias, and in cyber realms, as well. They are bravely trying to determine how they fit in, why they stand out, or why they blend in so much that no one notices them at all—even at home. They are bravely asking really serious questions and looking for really meaningful answers in a world that sometimes doesn’t take them seriously. And despite all of that evidence of bravery, people still talk about young adolescents being wild, aimless, mischievous, or “off the chain” because they are “swimming in a sea of hormones.” There’s nothing respectful or brave in that kind of reductionist talk. Reducing the brave work of young adolescents to exaggerations, caricatures, or cartoonish metaphors is erroneous, harmful, and disrespectful. Our students are brave explorers, researchers, and leaders who deserve to be celebrated, not devalued, scoffed at, or mocked. So the next time somebody says you’re brave for working with “those kids,” be brave and talk about your kids—your scholars—from a place that sees them with purpose, passion, and potential. So yeah, I get to work with brave middle school kids—what do you do?
So be brave.
So be brave by standing up if you hear someone belittle middle school.
So be brave by talking positively about the middle grades.
So be brave by talking positively about what you get to do.
So be brave by celebrating the students and educators you get to work with.
So be brave.