Middle school is one of life's great forks in the road. As the time when puberty begins and thus incredible neurological changes are taking place, middle school has an outsized impact on child development. For some students, it's the time they begin to find their voice, their social identity, their sense of self in a bigger world. For most, unfortunately, it's the opposite of that - the time when students lose engagement in school, forgot their authentic sense of self for the "false self" of whatever passes for cool in school, and begin orienting themselves to do whatever it takes to win social status. It is the time that most Americans describe as the worst part of their education, yet educators, psychologists and neuroscientists would agree that it is one of the most formative and important times of our childhood. What is going on with middle school?
This paradox led my co-founder and I to start Millennium School, a "lab school" in San Francisco. Our premise is that middle school is so often painful (for both the students and adults around them) because it's designed without a basis in developmental science. It's not aligned with the core drives middle schoolers feel, the drives that are wired into their psyches and biology. As a result, we usually miss what could be a beautiful phase in which giant leaps are taken toward adulthood, in which kids discover the first real signs of adult potential within themselves,
We spent three years researching the underlying developmental science of this age before we started Millennium, visiting schools, professors, thinkers, kids, parents, teachers, etc, and we've now spent two years running our "lab" school to put the resulting practices into action. It's far too early to say anything comprehensively about our insights, but recently as I've spoken with other school founders creating middle schools, I realized that we do have a few early suggestions from our adventure so far. What I've seen already has given me great confidence that middle school can be a consistently positive, inspiring, highly engaging experience for young people, one in which they greatly develop their minds, their sense of self, and a wide range of capacities and intelligences. So while we have so so much more to learn, here are 10 practices that have the potential, from our experience, to make middle school awesome:
1. Start the year outside. Kids are profoundly different in nature. Unlike walking into a classroom, entering a beautiful natural area tends to put kids at ease (for some it can be intimidating at first, but in my experience this passes quickly), to draw out their desire to play and explore, and to find shared wonder and awe, all of which also help them make new friends easily. It's not hard to see why research has demonstrated decreases in anxiety and increases in ability to learn when kids have time in nature. For all these reasons, we've begun each school year with a full week-long camping trip (led by our colleagues at Back to Earth). Kids start this week a little or a lot nervous about finding friends and being accepted; they leave the week as a tribe, with stories and legends to tell and new friends made. The essential piece is to feel a sense of belonging before they begin the more structured, classroom-based part of their middle school journey.
2. Start the day with morning meeting. Just as starting the year outside helps kids feel calm and connected, so too a brief morning meeting starts the day with connection, a comforting ritual, and a focus on the priorities of the day. At the start of each school day, from 8:30 - 8:45am, all the students in our school sit in a circle in the gym (feasible because we're a small school - see below - but could be done in sub-groups of students if the school is larger). We begin with music, played live (this may sound crazy but it's not too difficult to play a guitar, harmonium or other instrument for a few minutes). Students enter the gym in silence as the music is played, helping them to settle and relax. Once they're seated, the music ends and each day a different student moderator (going in alphabetical order so all participate) leads a 2-3 minute meditation to start, again in silence, and then calls on both students and teachers who have announcements about the day. We end the meeting with a "clap out" in which every student tries clap once at exactly the same time, helping to get the whole school "in sync" as the day begins.
3. Intersperse mindfulness practice throughout the day: Meditation has a powerful effect on adolescents, in ways that are both very practical (helping them focus better and improve executive function, meaning they're more able to manage attention, time and goals) and more abstract (helping them calm the continual inner chatter and feel more connected to themselves, their bodies, and those around them). Throughout the day, beginning with morning meeting and then often at transitions between classes, we invite students to do a brief moment of mindfulness. From as little as 30 seconds to as much as 5 minutes, these brief interludes regularly re-center and focus students. Without them, transitions can be tricky at this age - shifting from one class to another, from one teacher's style and atmosphere to another, from running around in PE to a more seated mode in a class, etc, all can lead to anxiety and thus less focus and more behavioral challenges. Mindfulness is a simple ritual that creates comfort and helps students feel centered and present, ready for a new experience.
4. Create spaces for belonging, vulnerability, and honest conversation: We devote a large amount of time to our advisory program, called Forum. Middle schoolers are changing almost faster than we can imagine, are becoming intensely social, and want to understand their evolving identity and their social environment more than anything else. If you create space for these interests, students will engage and feel that school is more relevant and worthy of their attention. They'll bring more of their real self and their real questions into school and so are more committed to it. They'll form deeper bonds with their advisors and will trust them and work hard for them, on the strength of that relationship. At the heart of our school, each student is in a Forum (advisory group) of 8-10 same-age peers, mixed gender, with one adult advisor (a teacher or administrator) with them for all three years of middle school. We make time every day for advisors to check in with their advisees, and they spend Wednesday morning each week going deep, learning new tools for social and emotional intelligence, resolving conflicts, processing issues that are emerging for a student or in the group. This is our safest "circle" in the school, the home base for students to develop safety, belonging and trust in the broader school community.
5. Do the same for the adults: I believe this is the single most important practice in our school: all the staff regularly connect in our own "Forum" or advisory group. We do it because we want to practice what we preach (and middle schoolers are truly expert in sniffing out inauthenticity in adults). We do it because our ability to model these skills is the primary way to teach them. And most of all, we do it because we need it. Without these intentional spaces for honest, vulnerable conversation, adults are just as likely as students to lack this essential human experience. We dedicate a half-day every 4-6 weeks for the staff - faculty and administrators together - to gather and practice the same advisory curriculum our students use. We reveal what's happening in our personal and professional lives, where our fears and hopes are; we support each other, first and foremost by practicing active listening; and we practice tools to manage emotions, conflict, and the psychological dynamics on our team. Everything else our team does follows from here.
6. Learn in Bursts & Projects. We aspire to model our classes on how learning and meaningful work happen in "real life" - which is to say, academic disciplines are mixed together, emotions are involved, and we work in bursts. Science, humanities, English, and history / social studies are blended into cross-disciplinary projects focused around a real-world situation or problem. Rather than year-long sequences, we focus the learning in "bursts" of 6 weeks, which keep learning fresh and topics regularly changing. These six-week bursts follow the emotional pattern of learning, in which students get intrigued by a new puzzle or challenge, dive in with gusto, hit walls and find themselves struggling, seek help and new knowledge, and ultimately conclude with new insights or abilities that can be demonstrated to others. Our six-week terms conclude with public demonstrations, and then we go into either a vacation or an Intersession (a week of special focus or travel) to refresh before the next burst of learning begins.
7. Respond positively to student voice and to student problems. It's a good thing when students begin to give feedback to the adults at school on how things are going - a sign they're engaged and feel ownership over their education. Whether the feedback is given gracefully or not, how we respond matters hugely. Similarly, it's natural that as early adolescents, middle schoolers will continually test limits with both school rules and social rules, as they experiment with new identities and feelings, new friends and new desires. Here too, the adult response sets the culture. Adults first need time to respond - to feel that it's acceptable to take precious minutes from the school day to hear student feedback, to pause and consider a social issue coming up and help facilitate a response or resolution. When a student raises an issue like how to help a friend who is depressed, or wants to give feedback around a school policy, you can bet that they are tuned in and will learn a great deal from how adults respond. Every bit of feedback, every social issue raised is a golden teaching opportunity for adults who can lean in, listen a layer below the issue, apply a developmental lens, and give wise counsel.
And now three harder ones, more difficult to implement in existing schools but no less powerful:
8. Make middle schools smaller. Big schools have a harder time making the culture safe, supportive, and inclusive - all essential characteristics for early adolescents who are "raw" socially. There are numerous studies about optimal community size, indicating that most humans are wired for communities of up to 100-150 people. Beyond this size, adults and kids alike feel less responsible to and visible within their community, and so are more likely to "game" the system or act against the community's shared interest. Above 100-150 students, kids are more likely to perceive peers as strangers, and around strangers, they are more likely to pursue defensive behavior, like joining cliques, bullying, or simply staying quiet and not expressing themselves. Below this size, one student will know every other student they see all day, and thus has the opportunity, if the culture is set up well, to feel comfortable experimenting with their identity and interests, making unexpected friends across social groups, and speaking out if bad behavior is harming the greater whole. Of course, it's possible to be too small, but anecdotally a minimum size of 40-50 and a maximum of 100-150 seem like reasonable parameters for this age.
9. Hire and develop faculty for inner skill. Middle schoolers, like most other ages but perhaps with extra intensity, look at teachers as potential models of adulthood. They can be severely disappointed when they pick up inauthenticity, but at the same time, they can be inspired and deeply impacted by authentic, thoughtful, adventure-creating adults. To explain the relative importance of this we sometimes use the metaphor of ships on the ocean. Kids pick up an ocean of subtle signals from adults - how they respond to conflict, how they manage emotions, what gets them excited, whether they really care about what they're doing or who they're speaking with. On top of that ocean, the adults are also trying to get across some particular academic content and skills - those are the boats. While the boats are important, and in some ways have become the commonly accepted purpose of school, the ocean is infinitely more vast. Simply put, hire teachers for their ability to model this ocean of adult capabilities - engagement, authenticity, empathy, curiosity, loving kindness - just as much as their ability to send boats of knowledge across.
10. Get out of school often. Early adolescents are intensely curious about the adult world, which they sense they're moving rapidly toward. They want to be treated very differently from elementary school kids; they want their evolving skill and capacity to be recognized by adults. One powerful way to do this is to get out of school often, to connect what's happening in classes and projects with what goes on in real life, with real businesses, real-world problems, and interesting adults. We go on field trips almost every week with students to do this, making Wednesday afternoon our "expedition" time. Once per year, we create week-long apprenticeships for kids to try out different professions. And often we culminate a 6-week "Quest" project with a public presentation to an expert audience, for example when students concluded a project on genetics by creating a symposium on new genetic technologies and inviting professional bioethicists to hear their pro or con arguments. Turns out it's more fun for us as teachers this way as well!