The Great Disconnect

Imagine being part of an organization in which the coordinators expected you and your colleagues to produce, meaningfully and with increasing depth. If you didn’t, you would face consequences.

Now let’s turn up the pressure. You and your fellows number in the hundreds per group leader.  And as if to heighten the lack of warmth, organizers have you meet throughout the day in large random groupings, so it’s impossible to get acquainted with more than a few people.  The maze-like building, in a place where promptness is paramount,  makes the setting more impersonal.

Yet it’s profoundly personal, too.  You are surrounded by hostile souls who for whom the idea of constructive output seems alien, and they do what they can to impede the production process.  They invest their energies into treating you and one another maliciously–creating salacious rumors, calling names, excluding.  Their conversation and writings fixate on the obscene.

Let’s say you are also handicapped by a dwarfed perspective, a vulnerability due to lack of experience. You’re just beginning to wake up to the idea of the wider world and where you fit into it. You feel defined as a person by it all–the treatment you receive at the hands of your colleagues, the profane thoughts uttered aloud or scratched into walls, and the brusqueness of the leaders.  You feel small and dirty, the future a blank.

How much could you accomplish in that environment?

I would argue that most of us have been there, and many responded as I did, just coping,  feeling low and disoriented. Remember it?  If you were ever a student at a public junior high school, you were expected to learn under conditions similar to what I described. Was this a time of academic attainment for you?  Or are you just glad you came out the other end intact, with scars so faded that you didn’t instantly think “That’s junior high!” when you read my first paragraphs?

Common sense should tell us that placing students in extreme conditions is counterproductive.  The psychologist Abraham Maslow would also have predicted the foolishness of looking for positive outcomes in a highly charged negative environment. Maslow’s work is widely studied by aspiring teachers. He posited that humans possess a “hierarchy of needs.” Basic requirements such as nourishment, safety, and belonging must be met before one can begin to achieve.  If you are hungry or cold, you are driven to find food and shelter; War and Peace would fuel a physical instead of an intellectual flame.

Why is there such a yawning disconnect between what is obvious to us about learning and how we actually set up our schools?  Perhaps money is a major variable in decision-making. Maybe there are too many students for the districts to handle adequately. Society has changed, so it’s likely that young kids are unsupervised, lost human beings by the time they get to seventh grade. Thus more than ever the setting is harsh, the students uninterested in learning. If the schools don’t change, the junior high experience will continue to be a disturbing chapter in the lives of American students.

And I do see change. I visit a local middle school that organizes students into smaller units to ensure that teachers see no more than a hundred students per day. Four teachers, one per core subject area, share the same space in a building, the same students, and the same “team meeting” times.  Students enjoy a spacious facility but spend most of their day in one part of the building. They are encouraged to be part of their team, to dress in team colors on special days and take part in competitions. Days are set aside for fun, and the students lap it up. Yet solid academic training is there. Reading is effectively encouraged, and systematic intervention planned for struggling students.

This thoughtful arrangement of schedules and environment seems to me to be a more fruitful approach than packing hundreds of antagonistic strangers into a building and telling them to have at it.  What do you remember from seventh and eighth grade? What did you retain from your studies?  How did the teachers interact with you? What were their instructional styles? What impeded your learning, or what worked for you? Let’s hear your stories.

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18 thoughts on “The Great Disconnect”

  1. This morning, I re-discovered my old blog.  I had forgotten that I had actually been able to rescue a chunk of it after the original site closed down. This was a newer post I had added to the salvaged collection; feeling particularly ambitious, I’d been thinking of starting an education blog. I think I’ve shared this only for FB so far, so it should be new material to Ratburger readers.

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  2. sawatdeeka:
    “That’s junior high!”

    Wow!  I did not see the above coming.   I was sure in my mind your post was going to be about something else all together different; and yet, not really so different.   I will have to read the post a few more times.   Is there a saying similar to:  ‘Once a teacher, always a teacher.’

    Thanks for the mental stimulation.   –   🙂

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  3. I went to public school.  My son goes to private school.  He is an only grandchild and one of precious few cousins in a particular scope, so we’ve been blessed by eager, helpful family.

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  4. the foolishness of looking for positive outcomes in a highly charged negative environment.”  Look for the shattered person on the triage red tarp crawling with all his will over dying flesh onto the yellow tarp.  That’s your winner, now and forever.  Hard in training, easy in war.

    President Carter: US Iranian Embassy personnel suffered 444 days in captivity.
    President Reagan: Hostages were released with the hour of Reagan’s swearing in. He’d do it, and Iran knew it.

    Violence is always the answer.  If it fails, then you didn’t use enough of it, Pearl Harbor vs. Hiroshima.

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  5. I’ve never (yet) been as miserable as I was in 7th and 8th grade. It was like an internment camp, each interminable day bookended by a long cold noisy, smelly bus ride. I hate to even remember it.

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  6. It has been said that the last man & woman on Earth will go to their graves still arguing about how best to educate the children they never had.  The debate on education will persist until the collapse of our civilization — and beyond.  The benefit of that debate is to remind ourselves that the way we do things now is not the only way things could be done.

    Seventh grade – about 14 years old.  What I remember is the girls in our class changing shape.  In the days before internet porn, this was very confusing & distracting to 14 year-old boys.  Even today, expecting pubescent teenagers to get excited about conjugating Latin verbs does not match the conjugation they are spending most of their time thinking about.

    Western societies have grossly over-extended the period of education and made it into an extended adolescence (or possibly a form of disguised unemployment?).  It is said that Germans today are about 30 before they enter the work force.  One size does not fit all, especially in education.  However, it might be beneficial to adopt more widely the European idea of a “Gap Year” — with some very significant changes.  Most European teenagers apparently spend their Gap Year between high school & university getting drunk and catching sexually transmitted diseases.  Instead, make it something like a Gap 3 Years, starting at around 14, with a requirement that the 14-16 year olds serve apprenticeships, work on the land, go to sea — any productive endeavor in which the teenager spends a significant amount of time with adults instead of with other teenagers, where peer pressure inevitably becomes a race to the bottom.

    17 or 18 year olds with good recommendations from their employers could then be considered for further full time education.  Old fashioned evening schools should also get a boost, as a way for those who want to continue at productive work to extend their education.  Most existing universities should be shut down, and all university administrators should be fired.  High school teachers should generally be recruited from military veterans, and high school administrators should follow university administrators in seeking productive work.

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  7. I got in trouble in 1st grade for trying to check out a library book on frogs and toads. It was labeled as a 2nd grade level book and therefore unavailable to me. I had a bitter feud with the librarian, carrying the book to the checkout counter, having the book taken away from me, and being sent bookless from the library.

    Things went downhill from there.

    As a happy ending, one day the bitter old hag wasn’t their, and the substitute librarian let me check it out. To this day I can identify numerous species and I  was able to correctly identify clumps of eggs in a stream near my house.

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  8. darn it. one wrong move of the mouse and one looses it all.

    Sawatdeeka, darn good post. I had some poignant comments, but they were lost in the mouse movement.

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  9. I had a good school.  I liked school.

    Snooks had a poor school.  She hated school.

    When we moved here, Snooks and I settled for a small house so we could afford to move near the best public school.  The “best” was so awful we pulled our sons out and homeschooled them.

    Homeschool rocks.

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  10. Hypatia:
    I’ve never (yet) been as miserable as I was in 7th and 8th grade. It was like an internment camp, each interminable day bookended by a long cold noisy, smelly bus ride. I hate to even remember it.

    Oh, the bus ride. Don’t remind me. I only had to endure it for a few months.

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  11. Gerard:
    darn it. one wrong move of the mouse and one looses it all.

    Sawatdeeka, darn good post. I had some poignant comments, but they were lost in the mouse movement.

    So sorry to hear that, Gerard. Hate when that happens.

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  12. MJBubba:
    I had a good school.  I liked school.

    I liked most of my schooling, too. That move to Pennsylvania for part of a year in a public school was just hard. That’s not to say all public schools are bad–this one happened to be a particularly lonely experience. Sometimes, I had stomach aches at the end of the day. Partly, I was worried I’d lose my way at the end of the day and miss my bus home. I have a poor sense of direction, and that huge building overwhelmed me.

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  13. Gavin Longmuir:
    It has been said that the last man & woman on Earth will go to their graves still arguing about how best to educate the children they never had.  The debate on education will persist until the collapse of our civilization — and beyond.

    I actually support many aspects of traditional education. It’s just that creating an environment where young kids are alienated socially and where they can be cruel to one another decreases the chances they’ll succeed in learning anything.

    I agree that 14-year-olds would be enriched if put to work and exposed to outside opportunities.

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  14. Sawatdeeka and all, let me attempt again, (and I will not move the mouse like I did before).

    I missed out on the “traditional” jr high school because I attended a parochial school that was from the dark ages. That school went up to grade eight.  Taught by nuns, well if you didn’t have a good home that helped with “studies” it was crap. I tried a summer school to help me prepare for high school, aced that, but the high school, well your OP should also cover that. The guidance counselor, didn’t exist except for as I remember it a very short “out briefing” before we graduated. School (hope this don’t get bleeped), sucked. yes I learned things, mostly how to survive. But that was so many years ago, it’s really hard to remember over 50 years ago.

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  15. Gerard:
    darn it. one wrong move of the mouse and one looses it all.

    Sawatdeeka, darn good post. I had some poignant comments, but they were lost in the mouse movement.

    Oh, dear Gerard!  Last night I wrote out TWO long comments detailing my 7th  and 8th grade experience .  Before I could post the first my iPad died, and  after redoing it I found out I wasn’t logged in!  So I gave up. Just as well.  But all evening I could almost smell that awful odor of sweat and pencil shavings…

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  16. Gerard:
    but the high school, well your OP should also cover that.

    From my own experience and from those close to me, it seems that high school is like emerging into the sunshine after the claustrophobic social environment of junior high. My daughters’ local high school here in Montana was like a small college–they could choose from a range of course offerings, could go on a challenging academic track or a vocational track if they so wanted, enjoyed mostly high quality instruction, and benefited from good social connections in their extra-curricular activities.

    My younger daughter chose agriculture for her freshman year. She had all the core courses, mostly at a different site, but also learned to take care of livestock, do some woodworking, and just have those hands-on experiences many of us lack. Both daughters got to take advantage of some AP courses, which allowed them to earn some college credits (on the condition that they pass the challenging test with each AP course).  Those AP courses and exams were more intense than any academic experience I’d had, even in college.  By her senior year, my younger daughter had stacked her day with band and music, and she loved it.  Students are recognized at graduation with emphases like foreign language or AP.  A friend of my daughters focused on construction, so his afternoons were spent helping to build a house.

    My own high school years were by-the-textbook direct instruction, and by my senior year, I was mostly done and we seniors seemed to have a lot free time. But those four years were a good experience, and what I learned from the textbook gave me the vocabulary and concepts I use today.

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  17. sawatdeeka:

    Gerard:
    but the high school, well your OP should also cover that.

    From my own experience and from those close to me, it seems that high school is like emerging into the sunshine after the claustrophobic social environment of junior high. My daughters’ local high school here in Montana was like a small college–they could choose from a range of course offerings, could go on a challenging academic track or a vocational track if they so wanted, enjoyed mostly high quality instruction, and benefited from good social connections in their extra-curricular activities.

    My younger daughter chose agriculture for her freshman year. She had all the core courses, mostly at a different site, but also learned to take care of livestock, do some woodworking, and just have those hands-on experiences many of us lack. Both daughters got to take advantage of some AP courses, which allowed them to earn some college credits (on the condition that they pass the challenging test with each AP course).  Those AP courses and exams were more intense than any academic experience I’d had, even in college.  By her senior year, my younger daughter had stacked her day with band and music, and she loved it.  Students are recognized at graduation with emphases like foreign language or AP.  A friend of my daughters focused on construction, so his afternoons were spent helping to build a house.

    My own high school years were by-the-textbook direct instruction, and by my senior year, I was mostly done and we seniors seemed to have a lot free time. But those four years were a good experience, and what I learned from the textbook gave me the vocabulary and concepts I use today.

    Things have certainly changed, somewhat for the better in most places. My PHD daughter, Dr. Phil, went to a public school, the same one I attended. It had not changed much except for being in a new building. My son attended a preparatory school, and that was a rough one, but he survived with even a merit type medal from them!

    When I went to High School,  I was assigned into a class group, (how I don’t know). it was, (no wise cracks Mr 10-cents), called S&M for Science and Math, ( NOT sadism and masochism, although we did have an algebra teacher that was 90 lbs soaking wet and she ruled with an eighteen inch wooden ruler). The other groups were A&L for arts and language, (Top Billing), Secretarial (third billing), and the bottom of the barrel General. I aced the science classes, except for chemistry, had to take it twice, the math I struggled with and the foreign languages, two years were required, I had two of Spanish, barely passed, and one of Latin, barely passed. the English language classes, I did OK, the history and civics classes I did better than OK.

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