Does Middle School Matter?

In the earlier years of middle school, many students still have what I consider an elementary school attitude: a please-the-teacher thought process. They do the work not necessarily because they see the value in it, but because they want the teacher to think well of them.

Some eighth graders still have that attitude, but many have grown beyond that. Some want to learn in general; some are interested in the material or enjoy the class; some may not see a lot of value but know that good grades are important (even if the reason why is ethereal to them.) Others, however, just bide their time until high school, because that’s when school really matters.

Middle school grades do not go on any transcript. Most colleges don’t look at middle school grades. Middle school is just what we do until we’re old enough for the real work of high school. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t count. It isn’t important.

And it’s true that middle school is a great time to make mistakes. Try things, figure it out, determine what study habits work and what don’t. If you bomb a test because you tried to study while watching TV, or because you didn’t think taking notes was all that important, it’s ok. If you did poorly on that paper because you thought you could get away without revising or proofreading, it’s not going to ruin your life. If you made bad decisions when you chose your partners for that group project, you’ll know better next time. It’s not a big deal, because middle school grades don’t go on a transcript.

The problem is that many middle schoolers don’t use sixth, seventh, and eighth grade to learn the study skills and organizational habits they need to succeed in higher grades. Instead, they try to skate by, doing the bare minimum, with the intent of turning it on when they become freshmen. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t work that way. The habits a student has created in middle school become ingrained and difficult to alter. If you never took notes in middle school because middle school didn’t matter, then you may not know how to take good notes in high school. If you never took the time to revise and edit a five paragraph essay in seventh grade to learn how it should be done, you may be lost when it’s time to write that ten page research paper as a freshman or sophomore. If you never really learned basic pre-algebra, high school math may stymie you.

Middle school content is important because it serves as a basis for upper level courses. But I think the really important thing about middle school is learning how to be a good student.

That’s something I want to try to teach better. In the past couple of years, I’ve allowed students to take notes or do research in whatever method they felt worked best for them. I realized, though, that sometimes students don’t know what works best because they don’t know what options are there. A colleague of mine told me that first quarter, she makes students take notes in a particular style. Second quarter, they must use a different format that she shows them. Third quarter, they learn a third method. And during the last quarter of the year, students choose the method that worked best for them. I thought that was brilliant. I did that a little bit with note taking this past year, and I plan to be more didactic in how students take notes for research papers next year. Sure, some will still skirt around my methods, but I want to teach them good methods so that they can make educated choices later and succeed better.

Middle school matters. I’m figuring out how to make it a better educational experience. But my students also have to decide that it matters to them.

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