On Tuesday, I lived out just about everyone’s worst nightmare: I went back to middle school. I was tasked with following the class schedule of a typical 7th grade student at a local middle school in order to put myself into the shoes of today’s student (the very same students, in terms of age, that I hope to one day teach) and get a better understanding of a typical school day from their perspective. I’m extremely glad that I went into this task knowing that this was my purpose, because that completely altered the way I viewed each class period and each teacher, not with the intent to learn something from the teachers (in terms of lessons or practices), but to learn from the kids (in terms of what works and what absolutely does not).
Let me first say that I was exhausted after that day, and my observations hardly even qualify as active participation throughout the day. I cannot give enough credit to those teachers for doing this job, day after day. But I will say that it was very clear which teachers had been… affected by the job, and it was in those same classrooms that the students were little tiny, talkative, distracted, disrespectful monsters. I went to 7 class periods and can honestly say that the kids I shadowed were only willfully engaged in two of them. The first was P.E. and they seemed to enjoy getting away from the lectures and getting to play outside with their friends for a while. Whereas Orchestra class had crept by with the students regularly checking the clock on the wall while some were allowed just to choose not to participate in the activities, P.E. seemed to pass far too quickly. They didn’t want to go inside, because they were having fun participating.
However, the only content class that engaged the students was, luckily for me, English. The teacher was everything I hope to exemplify one day; she was stern enough that they got quiet when she asked and never talked when she was talking but she was personable enough that they still felt like they could participate, sometimes in fun or funny ways.
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They were reading After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick and each student’s nose was buried in a copy of the book while an audio version was played aloud. They were engaged with the assignment and with one another in a way that I hadn’t seen for the other 6 hours that day. This wasn’t about playing or talking with friends, like in P.E.; this was a solitary act of reading that each student wanted to do, not because the teacher assigned it (although, Mrs. H. probably could’ve gotten them to do anything), but because they liked the book and wanted to know what happened next. They didn’t want to put the books down when their chapters were completed and I actually heard a few groans as they returned to homeroom for the final bell. When they were actively participating and engaged in the classroom activity, they enjoyed themselves, learned the intended lesson, and were unhappy when it was over. This was a huge juxtaposition to the same kids running out of their Life Science class as though the room was on fire.
I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that time flies when you’re having fun and it’s wonderful to see that such is also the case when you’re learning. I learned a lot from this experience; not only is there something about me and/or my appearance that 7th grade females consider to be unbelievably hilarious (I can only assume that they saw through my professional exterior and could detect my jovial spirit, which apparently brought them immense joy), but I now know that with the right teacher, the right disciplinary measures and attitude, and the right classroom activities, kids who are otherwise bored and disinterested in education can be engaged in a way that helps them to see enjoyment in learning and reading. I think I’m closer to knowing what those “right” things are after my middle school repeat. I must say, though, I hope I don’t have to do that again.
Let me just comment that this was utterly enlightening in terms of understanding what is expected of middle grades students and why, I think, it is generally unreasonable. I’m in my late twenties and have received “higher education” and life experience so, by all accounts, I should be better equipped to maintain focus for longer periods of time than I was 15 years ago. However, I wasn’t any more focused than the students I shadowed all day, and I, personally, considered the “constant lectures, constant focus, constant good behavior, constant engagement, minuscule break for lunch and then right back to it, for 8 hours, five days a week, plus homework” expectancy to be not only unattainable, but practically torture! The people making the decisions about what is required of today’s students would do well to go back to 7th grade for a day. We’re asking a lot of these kids and, honestly, it’s no wonder that they can’t focus for a 50 minute lecture, 7 times a day, five days a week. I hope I can remember this in the future when a rowdy student gets on my last nerve, and hopefully I’ll learn plenty of ways that I can harness that energy, or adapt my lessons to suit the needs of these kids.