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“To be great is to be misunderstood.”  (Emerson)  Great; how often is that term associated with middle school students?  Not very often.  In fact, when others state that they teach at the middle school level, the most common response is, “Bless you!”  Elementary and secondary educators take it even further in responding, “….better you than me!” Most people, parents, teachers, and other adults, find this age especially challenging as the students are seemingly out of control.  The truth is that they are greatly misunderstood.  At this age, students have a uniquely specific set of needs that left untended to, ultimately lead to the out of control behavior and academic challenges. Another common misconception is that junior high is synonymous with middle school.  However this could not be farther from the truth.  It is imperative that one looks at what defines a true middle school and how it addresses the specific needs of the middle school student, what needs to be done in order to ensure the success of every student, and ending with a plan of best practices to be implemented in the classroom.

One must first define what a true middle school is as there is often a misconception; middle school is synonymous with junior high.  It is true that both middle school and junior high refer to the same grade levels, typically fifth through eighth.  However, the middle school movement that originated in the early 1960s as many realized that there was need for reform. (Romano and Georgiady)  “A volatile mismatch exists between the organization and curriculum of middle grade schools and the intellectual and emotional needs of the young adolescents.” (Carnegie Corporation of New York)  Prior to this, there educational framework had moved from and 8-4 (8 years elementary followed by 4 years secondary education) to a 6-3-3 pattern.  This meant that students in grades 7-9 were grouped together in what was considered a junior high.  While this seemed to be a success for some time, it ultimately led to a model of a scaled down high school environment in which students found themselves lost. (Romano and Georgiady)

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A true middle school focuses on the needs of the students, thus making it student centered.  This is a multifaceted concept as there are many key elements that must be in place for it to be successful.  Though these key elements share common themes and goals, they are ever changing as the needs of the students evolve.  The following is a list of criteria used for evaluation a middle school as provided by Romano and Georgiady.  Middle schools should:

•           Provide for continuous progress

•           Have flexible class schedules

•           Implement team teaching

•           Practice a multimedia approach

•           Provide basic skill repair and extension

•           Provide for creative exploratory and enrichment studies

•           Provide opportunity for independent study

•           Facilitate evaluation of student growth

•           Provide guidance in a program of planned gradualism

•           Provide an appropriate program of physical experiences and intramural activities

The Carnegie Foundation simplifies many of these by listing four essential attributes of a successful middle level school.  These attributes suggest that a middle school must be developmentally responsive, challenging, empowering, and equitable.  These characteristics will later be addressed as the focus is turned to the needs of the middle school students and how the school becomes an enriching environment in which they can thrive and achieve success. 

Middle school students find themselves in a very precarious position as they are no longer considered as children and yet they are not old enough to be considered young adults.  In defining who the middle school student is Donald Eichhorn developed a term to describe children of this age.  As these students are found in a state of transition between adolescence and childhood, they are said to be transescents.  Because individuals mature at different rates, this term is not based on a chronological age, but rather it is based on the level of development.  The stage of transescence beings with puberty and carries on through the on the early stages of adolescence.  During this time, children are undergoing a tremendous amount of change both physically and emotionally and thus have a very specific set of needs.  These needs are traditionally categorized in four areas; physical, intellectual, emotional, and social, informally known as PIES.  It is crucial that teachers and the school administration work as a team with parents and students to ensure that these needs are met.  At the same time, it is equally important that students receive guidance in the development of character, another specific need that encompasses all of the P.I.E.S.

Middle school students are undergoing a tremendous amount of physical growth at this stage of their life.  Other than early childhood, it is the period of greatest development.  Thus it is critical that the middle school environment addresses to the increased physical needs of students.  This physical aspect can be further broken down into three different components: body growth, sexual development and puberty, and finally, health and body management. (Romano and Georgiady) 

The first is the need for education and support in regards to the bodily changes that they are undergoing.  Students at this stage are typically considered to be awkward.  This is true as the bones as muscles are typically growing at such a rate that it is difficult for the student finds it difficult to adjust and adapt.  To help students in this transitional stage, teachers must allow for physical movement in the curriculum.  This not only aids in the transescents’ physical demands, but it will also enhance the learning experience as aid in maintaining focus.   Teachers and counselors may also help by providing educational experiences and guidance that help students to understand what is going on with their bodies.  

In terms of physical education and activities, students must all be allowed to participate at the level that is comfortable for them and they should not be told that they are not allowed or not adequate.  This point concept is two-fold.  Students are growing at such a rapid rate making their bodies are more susceptible to injury.  Therefore they should never be pushed to their physical limits.  They also need the free opportunity to participate in different physical activities as this is an age of discovery. They are just learning what they like and what they might excel at.  If they are not given this opportunity, then they might never uncover an otherwise hidden talent or hobby.  The need for physical activity is also crucial so that they may develop healthy lifestyle habits.

The second part of the transescents’ physical growth is the onset of puberty.  For most, this is an incredibly confusing time.  Their bodies are changing causing different chemical and hormonal changes that they don’t understand if not given the proper guidance and education.  It is even hard for the adults to understand as every transescent’s reactions to puberty are different.  Making sure that students understand that what they are experiencing is normal and that they realize that their peers are sharing similar experiences is crucial.  They must not feel that they are the only ones or be singled out for issues such as hygiene and body image.  It is vital that the teacher works with the school counselor to provide a safe environment in which students can discuss this very challenging time.

Finally, students need to be education on health and body management as they move through this stage.  The rapid growth that they experience provides for insatiable appetites making it difficult for students to provide their bodies with an adequate caloric intake that is healthful.  Schools must provide meals that are healthful and well-balanced.  It is also crucial that students receive information and training in health and nutrition so that they are able to make the right nutritional choices when they are away from school.  This becomes even more important in today’s society that is full of fast-food and other unhealthy options.

Making healthy choices in terms of food is helpful ensuring students’ transition through the immense intellectual growth they are undergoing.  Food is considered to be one the basic needs as defined by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  If this need is not met, it is very difficult for students to achieve beyond this level.  This is of vital importance as transescents are developing intense intellectual characteristics that will define who they become as they become young adults.

At this stage, students begin to think at a more abstract level and develop higher level thinking skills.  Teachers and other adults need to provide students with an opportunity to express themselves in a more sophisticated manner.  With this, teachers must allow students to be active participants in the planning of curriculum including what to teach, how to teach it, and how to assess what learning has taken place.  Curriculum must also be varied so to reach every student at their independent levels of ability and interest.  Many students may present temporary cognitive difficulties as they are prone to a plateau in brain growth.  It is therefore important to reinforce existing cognitive skills and focus on other areas of growth such as psychomotor and self-concept. (Romano and Georgiady)  A multidisciplinary approach will play a critical role in addressing these needs.  This may include the collaboration of several teachers in creating a unit that is cross-curricular in two or more subjects and develops a project that fosters concrete connections of the theories and lessons presented.  This will also provide students with an opportunity of authentic assessment in which they will take ownership of assignments and further, of their own learning experiences.

Students should also be given the opportunity to participate in exploratory courses to further develop this sophisticated independence.  This in turn will also provide an opportunity to stimulate critical thinking and leadership skills.  Service learning is a prime example of such a course.  It is a program in which students are given a choice of projects that will not only further their intellectual growth, but will also benefit their peer and the community around them.  Brookmore Middle School in Pekin, IL provides an example of such a program.  A group of students is selected by teachers and other school personnel to take part in this exploratory course.  They are supervised and guided by the school counselor as they work together to develop projects from the beginning stages of planning to recruitment and finally to the successful completio.  In soliciting help from their peers, the students are expected to develop an informative presentation that sparks a passion to become involved in the project.  These students are not chosen according to academic ability.  Instead, they are the students who are thought to benefit most from the course.

At a visit to the school, every student in the class showed great enthusiasm and appreciation for the opportunity to take the course.  These were also seemingly more mature than many of their peer, showing an astonishing level of sophistication in their thoughts and ability to share them. They were very eager to share what they had accomplished and what they were hoping to accomplish by the end of the school year.  They all unanimously stated that this was not something that would end with the conclusion of their middle school career, but something that they intend to carry on through high school and beyond.  (Culver-Stockton College Middle School Philosophy Class)  Aside from meeting the intellectual needs of the middle school student, this model also addresses some of the emotional and social needs as well as the development of character.  A similar study found that “students who participated in service-learning activities demonstrated measurable increases in personal/social development, civic responsibility, academic learning and career development.”  (Jackson and Stott)

It is here that a practice known as wayside teaching comes into play as well.  Educators play many roles in the education of the middle school student.  As the principal at Brookmoor Middle School states, “A teacher wears multiple hats at once.  It’s not like you take one hat off to put on another.  At any given moment you are the educator, the counselor, the social worker, the parent, etc.”  (Culver-Stockton College Middle School Philosophy Class)  This makes it imperative that teachers lead by example and take advantage of every teachable moment. 

The practice of wayside teaching is a very personal approach to developing the character of transescents while addressing the intellectual, emotional, and social needs of students.  There are eight key practices of teachers that are followed with wayside teaching:

·         Practicing little gestures that matter

·         Revealing one’s personal self

·         Creating and maintain an inviting classroom

·         Promoting a culture of acceptance and compassion

·         Helping students to find their voices

·         Learning to truly listen (versus just hearing what is being said)

·         Speaking carefully

·         Helping students to become autonomous, not anonymous

What it comes down to is that some of the most teachable moments are not embedded into the curriculum, but rather into the everyday common actions.  Teachers must lead by example, breaking the mold of ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’   Something as simple as greeting students as they move between classes or telling relative stories about personal a personal experience can make a big difference in how students engage in their own learning environment.  (Powell)

            Engaging a student while addressing his or her intellectual needs can also be accomplished by providing an artistic or creative outlet of expression.  This can be in the form of an art project, encouraging artistic creativity in the assessment of other subjects, or even something as simple as a journal.  These become very personal experiences for the students.  As such, they should not be evaluated and critically judged.  Instead, the teacher must focus on the aesthetic message that is presented through the medium of choice and celebrate the success.  Aesthetic experiences such as these provide every student an opportunity of accomplishment and success. (Romano and Georgiady)

            This is equally important in addressing the very specific emotional and social needs of the transescent students.  Transescents are emotionally unstable which is understandable as they are undergoing so many dramatic changes.  Parents of middle school students will be the first to say that their chilren can fluctuate between the proverbial Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hide in the span of a single day; one minute they are happy, cooperative, and excited about the world around them, then almost instantaneously they become angry, sullen, or withdrawn.  Teachers must not only be aware of this, but they must be proactive in handling these types of scenarios.  Creating an inviting classroom environment and a strong, trusting relationship is crucial as students need to know that they are safe and that they will not be unnecessarily judged.

            Students must also have the opportunity to express some of the emotions that they are experiencing in a healthy productive manner.  Again, they can do this via art and other creative projects such as drama, music, and creative writing.  With this, the teacher and other school faculty members must remember to recognize and celebrate even the smallest of accomplishments.  A little positive reinforcement is far more effective than a lot of negative attention and response on the part of the teachers.  This not only allows the student to feel validated, but they learn that life is about the greater picture; it is alright if they stumble at times so long as they learn from their mistakes and remember to treat others in the same manner.

            This experience is also relevant as they struggle with self-esteem and gaining acceptance from their peers.  They must first realize that their peers are going through many of the same experiences and deserve the same respect and acceptance that they expect.  Two ways to assist them in this is through organized social groups such as peer counseling or on a more personal basis such as an advisor-advisee program.  A peer counseling program not only gives students an outlet to express their concerns and emotions, but provides on opportunity for the leadership and character development alike. 

            The advisor-advisee program remains student centered, however the educators and other school personnel are the only ones found in the role of advisor.  Georgiady and Romano define advisory programs such as this as, an organized preplanned period during the school day, in which “school staff members develop special relationships with their students as they help them understand self and others and learn to cope with and be happy in the world in which they live.” (Romano and Georgiady)  Typically, there is a planned class period during which the advisors are available to the advisees for guidance and support.  They may also engage in service-learning type activities.  The topics included in the scope and sequence of and advisor-advisee are self-concept, family life, substance abuse, prejudice, school survival, coping strategies, and responsibility.  (Romano and Georgiady)  While this may be used as a guideline for such a program, it should be adapted as necessary to maximize its effectiveness according to the needs of the students.

Finally, perhaps the most important characteristic of a true and successful middle school is to teach the student as a whole person.  This encompasses the application of all strategies and characteristics previously discussed in order to achieve maximum success in reaching all of the P.I.ES.  Too often the focus at any level is set at the scores of high-stakes standardized testing.  What is forgotten is the student as a person.  A prolific model of example is found at Benjamin Franklin Middle school where they have set their focus on character development.  Through their approach in addressing the needs of the students, test scores have continued to rise as they also see a rise in emotional intelligence.  Principal Tony Bencivenga is quoted in saying, “turning out good kids who are confident, know how to work well together, treat people with respect, and possess a sense of self-worth is as much a part of his job as pointing towards the Ivy League.”  As a result, his students have continually performed in the 95th percentile on state standardized tests.  (Curtis)

Everything found within this study is critical in developing a successful middle school environment.  A successful middle school provides students with “an education that will enhance their healthy growth as lifelong learners, ethical and democratic citizens, and increasingly competent, self-sufficient individuals who are optimistic about the future and prepared to succeed in our ever-changing world.”  (Carnegie Corporation of New York)  It begins with finding highly qualified individuals whom are familiar with the specific needs and demands that are associated with the middle school student.  These educators must then work as a team to design a curriculum that is student centered and flexible so that it may adapt with the evolving needs of the students.  The school must also work as a whole to obtain parental involvement as they are a key component in continuing the successful educational experience of their student.  Finally, perhaps what is most important is to remember that every student has the ability to be successful and must be given the opportunity and support to do so.



Works Cited


·         Carnegie Corporation of New York. “Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century.” The Report of the Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents. 1989.

·         Curtis, Diane. “Where Character Development Is Key.” 22 February 2001. Edutopia. 25 August 2011 .

·         Jackson, Aaron P. and Kathryn A. Stott. “Using Service Learning to Achieve Middle School Comprehensive Guidance Program Goals.” Professional School Counseling (2005): 156-159.

·         Levy, Tedd, et al. “Social Studies in the Middle School.” n.d. NCSS. .

·         Mission: Middle School. Dir. Ann Hammer. Culver-Stockton College Middle School Philosophy Class. 2011.

·         Powell, Sara Davis. “Relationships Matter: Transformation Through Wayside Teaching.” Middle Ground The Magazine of Middle Level Education (2011): 10-12.

·         Romano, Louis G and Nicholas P Georgiady. Building An Effective Middle School. Dubuque: Brown & Benchmark, 1994.