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.