A lot of people ask me, as a Division Head, what my thoughts are regarding “the middle school learner.” The answer is never really easy because each student has varying needs. What I have found to be true is that the solution on how we address student’s needs is going to be different but the goal for each student is the same:
We work to create independent learners who take ownership of their learning, focus on the process of learning, are willing to take risks, and view failure as an opportunity for success.
I shared a presentation with new incoming parents this month about the expectations of middle school. New and greater challenges will form due to the increased social pressures, additional use of social media, and added academic workloads of middle school. Throw in the hormonal changes caused by puberty and you will see exactly what I mean.
Independent Learners Who Take Ownership of Their Learning
I don’t think one person will disagree with me that students need to become independent learners and take ownership of their learning. I’ve been saying it for years, but it’s hard to train the students and parents in that thought. Far too often students will be forgetful and leave an item like clothes, computer, homework, music or sports equipment at home. A typical response from a parent is to race to campus to bring it. I have no doubt that this parent truly cares for their child and wants to do everything they can to make sure they succeed. Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure” wrote, “I had to stop equating the act of doing things for my children with good parenting.” Think about it: what are we teaching our children if all we do is bring the things they forget to campus for them? Are we getting them to take ownership of their learning? Are we helping them to remember or take the appropriate steps so they avoid forgetting? At what point do we say “no” to them?
Focus on the Process of Learning
I often tell the story of a student whose father wrote a large portion of his paper. The student turned in the work and it clearly did not read like his own writing. When we spoke to the parent and student, the father admitted he wrote it. Our policy at the time was to give the student a zero on the assignment but we felt that in this particular case, the student was not learning anything from the situation. The writing was in serious need of work and we needed to help guide the student. Instead, we made an agreement that the student would get a zero but we would allow the student the opportunity to redo the assignment, and we would average the two grades. When the teacher gave back the paper, the parent called me and asked why we had their child go through the “hassle” of redoing the paper if the result was going to remain an F? This, to me, is the essence of focusing on the process. I replied, “Now your child knows how to write a paper.” The student did very well on the second paper, but even a perfect score averaged with a zero is still an F. It was an “a-ha” moment that, I hope, has a lasting impact on that student and parent.
Willing to Take Risks
One of the most creative and engaging assignments we have on campus is called the “Genius Project” where students pick a topic of their choice to study and make a presentation. In essence, they are becoming a “genius” on that topic. We provide students with the liberty to pick the topic. It could truly be whatever they want: how to skateboard, throw a baseball, provide CPR to dogs--you name it. What we don’t want is for students to feel that they must choose something that teachers or parents are expecting. If they are allowed to take risks, they will certainly put more effort into what they are doing and not feel that they are doing it to appease the adults.
View Failure as an Opportunity For Growth
This is my favorite part: it goes along with focusing on the process. Far too often, students get back a graded assignment, see the grade of the assignment and then stash it away never to be seen again until the end of the term--and then it’s thrown away. Rather than find out what they missed and try to correct it, they push it to the side without any pause. Once students realize the benefits of pausing to reflect and correct their mistakes, the better they will be in the long run. This will provide students with the knowledge of understanding what was incorrect and they will also gain the experience of a multitude of feelings: perseverance, accomplishment, understanding, relief and also creating a study habit technique. I often remind students of Thomas Edison’s quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Middle School is a fun and challenging age. The thought of going through middle school now, to some, is a cringe-worthy event. To me, there is no better time to help students pave their own path that will hopefully propel them through high school and beyond. If they begin to take ownership, focus on the process, take a few risks,and view failure as an opportunity, then they will navigate the challenges a little better than those who don’t. If parents do everything for their kids, then the only thing the students will learn is that their parents will do everything for them.