Mary Kay Carstensen and her daughter, Audrey Kriva, differ when it comes to their experiences during middle school. Carstensen describes her angst-filled years as "terrible," while Audrey, an eighth-grader at the Fan's Orchard House School, finds them "exciting."
"I remember feeling, at the time, that not many people liked me," Carstensen says of her days at a public middle school in Vineland, N.J. "I was trying to fit in. I also was a little worried about body image, and I wanted to have a boyfriend."
Audrey, on the other hand, feels "very accepted" by her peers at the school for girls in grades five through eight. "At Orchard House, they want you to be yourself," she explains. "Everyone does their own thing."
Carstensen and her family live in a roomy two-story Georgian brick home in Westover Hills, a neighborhood on the city's South Side; they thought long and hard about where Audrey would attend school.
For elementary school, she went to St. Catherine's, another all-girls school. "She thrived there," Carstensen says, and her daughter is doing the same at Orchard House. "It helped her to focus more on finding herself and not worrying about what other people were doing. Audrey doesn't care too much about how other people are viewing her. One of the things I wanted to do for my children was to let them develop self-confidence and self-esteem. So far that is true."
Carstensen notes that her daughter, a sports enthusiast, is "more grounded" than she was at that age. "She came into the world that way," she says, laughing. "I've been really lucky in that she hasn't gone through the typical problems in middle school. She blossomed there, which is opposite of what I anticipated."
Audrey's experiences have been far different from those of many middle-school students. During workshops, Commonwealth Parenting child-development specialist Susan M. Brown often asks parents to raise their hands if they would choose to go back to their middle-school days. No one does.
The years between elementary school and high school are often fraught with a wide range of emotions. "Once kids approach puberty, the brain is flooded with hormones that govern areas of the brain that include impulsive behavior, risk taking and trying new things," Brown explains. "You also have popular culture, which drives that behavior. Internally, there's a lot of chaos going on."
David Dorsey, head of the all-boys Seven Hills School, describes this age group as "middlers" living in a "world of in-between." "Gone are the years of complete and abiding trust in their parents and teachers," he says. "And yet, the independence middlers so desperately seek is beyond their grasp."
At school, it's all about fitting in. "These kids don't want to stand out or call attention to themselves," says Brown. "They're easily embarrassed. Girls have it tough at that age. They are in a perpetual state of self-doubt and low self-esteem. Boys tend to shut down and be less communicative."
Working with 11- to 14-year-olds on a daily basis can be both exciting and tumultuous for teachers. "Middlers are not ready to navigate alone the emotional roller coaster that goes with adolescence," Dorsey says. "They need teachers and parents walking alongside them in new and different ways. In the middle years, the teacher must learn many more classroom approaches."
Many school systems are re-examining their teaching methods for this group of students. "The middle-school years present a unique challenge in the way you supervise students," says Scott Baker, director of curriculum and instruction at Hanover County Public Schools. "They begin to question what they are doing and what their future is going to look like. In Hanover, we had to make sure that our teaching had relevance and meaning. Teachers still have the opportunity to make a significant difference at that age."
Middle-school students are usually faced with a different teaching environment than they were accustomed to in elementary school, simply in the number of different classrooms. In Hanover, for instance, students follow a block schedule of four 90-minute classes each day. They also attend elective classes that help them explore their interests, as well as programs that develop character and create awareness of bullying and other social issues.
"One of the key concepts is the idea of teaming," Baker says. Instead of having one teacher, as in elementary school, students now have interdisciplinary teams of teachers. "That provides the opportunity for teachers to have a dialogue about the students. It gives them the opportunity to problem-solve."
Block scheduling is also used in Chesterfield middle schools. "Within the block schedule, there is a lot of flexibility and autonomy for schools," says Robert Wingfield, the system's director of middle-school education. The goal is to get middle schoolers more engaged in their learning. "When kids are excited about what they are doing, learning is fun," Wingfield says.
Because bullying is a big issue, Chesterfield addresses it in two programs. This month, the school system will start "Let's Talk About It," a program in which kids can communicate with teachers, guidance counselors and administrators via the Internet and text messaging.
St. Catherine's uses brain-based teaching methods in all of its grade levels, which has helped the school take advantage of a tremendous spurt in brain growth in girls between the ages of 10 and 12, says Sue Baldwin, director of the middle school. "They are at the height of their learning opportunity," she says. "They're like birds in the nest. You need to feed them."
To tackle the social side of education, St. Catherine's schedules personal-growth classes at each grade level, taught by guidance counselors. "Friendship is at the top of the list of subjects," Baldwin says. "We also talk about conflict resolution. We want to give them the tools to iron out their differences and move on."
Nancy Davies, head of the 80-student Orchard House, enjoys helping her girls navigate the relationship maze. "If we see something going on with a social relationship, the faculty helps the student get through it," she explains. "We teach them to manage relationships in a healthy way."
Middle-school girls are apt to explore new identities as a way of finding their true selves. "We don't want them to get stuck in one that doesn't suit them," Davies says. "We try to create an environment where girls feel safe and can work through it. Our mission talks about authentic development. At the heart of that concept is respect."
Single-sex middle schools like Orchard House and Seven Hills often give students the chance to focus on themselves, instead of boy-girl relationships. "They come out with a lot of confidence," Davies says. "They have a strong sense of self."
"One of the things we know about students at this age is that they focus heavily on any negative feedback they receive," explains Seven Hills' Dorsey. "If they receive one negative message alongside five positive messages, often they focus on the one negative message. Our teachers work hard to provide descriptive feedback." Students receive green cards at the end of the day highlighting the moments of great achievement, as witnessed by teachers.
Middle-school students need to see and be seen, Dorsey adds. "Becoming invisible is the greatest threat to academic and social success. By design, our students know each other and every teacher."
Immediacy is paramount to middle schoolers. What they believe they want and need, they want now. "The middler brings abundant energy and investment in the lesson of the day," Dorsey says. "They manage with just enough trust and just enough suspicion to test even the best in classroom research and study. For the teacher who is all about co-creating and learning side by side with the student, these are the best of years."