Let Me Count the Ways: How Do You Talk to Middle School Kids?

by Carol Starin

Middle schoolers are certainly making the news these days. The New York Times began a series two weeks ago called “The Critical Years*” and teachers throughout the country have entered into a discussion about ways to work with these kids. Years ago, a colleague of mine suggested that 7th graders shouldn’t go to school—they should come back when they’re in 8th grade.

I asked the 5 things Advisory Group for their input, ideas and strategies for working with this age group. So many people responded that we’re going to do two columns.

Peter Stark wrote that “middle school is my favorite age group to teach.” He points out that we first need to understand who we’re dealing with before we can talk about strategies

Words of wisdom and experience from Peter Stark.

One must consider carefully where middle school students are in life: transition is the only constant. As volatile a group as the Terrible Twos, for much the same reason, middle school students are experiencing a burst of independence while learning to fit into new bodies. If we could hear the inner thoughts of a caterpillar during metamorphosis, wondering who will emerge, a moth or a butterfly, we’d have a glimmer of middle school mentality.

Not knowing themselves whom they are becoming, middle school students develop a protective cocoon of attitude. A deep need for attention coincides with a profound uncertainty about the world’s reaction to the individual’s emerging identity and new voice. As my teacher Professor Saul Wachs says that with this age group, one must remember that they do not always ask questions in order to learn the answers. Or as the French statesman Georges Clemenceau replied when a journalist asked him if it was true his son was a socialist: “Messieur! My son is twenty. If at twenty he were not a socialist, I would shoot him! And if at forty he is still a socialist, I WILL shoot him!”

As one who grew up on a chicken farm AND who taught middle school, I can testify that middle school students are like chickens only in one important way: Chickens are naturally vicious to each other. If chickens see a spot of blood on another chicken, they become frenzied and tear the wounded chicken limb from limb. Middle school students feel a similar urge and act mercilessly toward classmates who express or betray vulnerabilities. This reality makes the task of encouraging students to develop and express independence of thought doubly difficult.

It’s an odd age, one that demands conformity while proclaiming the values of questioning and individuality. The one kind of questioning that rates high with middle school students is the daring question, one that by its insouciance raises the questioner’s place in the pecking order. The art of teaching middle school consists in part of harnessing these contradictory impulses and putting them to work toward learning.

It’s important to model behavior for students. For that reason, I keep reference tools on hand on my desk and make a point of using them in class: looking up words, for instance. Though middle school students may express astonishment that a teacher knows anything, they are even more healthily astonished if the teacher doesn’t pretend to know everything and expresses both curiosity and the ability to learn.

I learned from my teacher Professor Nahum Sarna to keep a syllabus of material for each text I teach, to add to it insightful comments made by students, and then to cite them by name to other classes. This teacherly behavior demonstrates the principle of bringing a source “b’shem omro,” “in the name of its originator,” and also shows real respect to students’ ideas.

The middle school teacher must make the classroom a safe place to question certainties, exploring that part of our tradition that encourages such questioning. For this reason, I often teach a lesson about what Biblical characters are designated “God-fearing” in our tradition: It is those who push God the hardest, those who do not fear to look an unfair, chaotic world in the face and seize the opportunity to apply God’s rules to new situations, thus expanding the boundaries of the created universe, and in a religious sense, becoming God’s active partners in the creation of the world. In Christian tradition, Job is “Patient Job.” Not so in our tradition, nor in the text, where God approves of Job’s questioning even while admitting that there are no easy answers.

The teacher who is afraid that students will question Everything Religious should stop being afraid. They will. They should. It’s normal and healthy, and perhaps even necessary for intellectual and religious growth.

Thank you Peter.