Middle school is a critical time in a student’s life, and Heinemann’s bestselling classic What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know is instrumental in helping educators. Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles have updated What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know with more student voices, as well as timely new research, strategies, and models that illuminate the needs of young adolescents. In part 2 of this special blog series, Dr. Brown explains that many middle level students learn more about themselves in these years than anything else. (click here to read part one of the series)
A few years ago the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) required that preservice teachers earn a middle level (fourth through eighth grade) certificate to teach at the middle school level. The requirements laid out for the university programs were subject-specific content area knowledge. My middle school colleagues throughout the state urged flexibility in the design, but PDE personal, many lacking any distinct knowledge of young adolescence and middle level schools, refused to yield.
The courses required in mathematics, English, social sciences, and sciences prepare any Pennsylvania middle level certified teacher to teach undergraduate courses at universities—content far beyond the comprehension of most young adolescents. When PDE collaborated with a national testing agency to design initial certification tests, I expected one required test would be on adolescent development, critical knowledge of which all future middle level educators should be aware—but I was wrong. The middle level certification tests are mere content area tests—according to teachers who have taken them, content primarily associated with high school courses.
When my co-author, Trudy Knowles, suggested to me in 1997 that we write a book on how to teach at the middle level, it sounded like a reasonable idea—but Trudy knew the true significance of providing a book on this topic: the unpredictable and unique behavior of young adolescents, and the possibility that teachers would misunderstand them and treat their students as if they were ready to enter college. Middle level education was firmly established as a viable research field when we wrote that first edition, and the research has continued to support the unique design of middle schools to meet young adolescents’ needs. Despite the knowledge that exists on effective middle school teaching, many middle school teachers arrive there “accidentally.” And after they’ve been there for a year or two, they realize that content is not, nor ever should be, the ultimate goal of middle school.
Yes, our middle school students will learn a great deal of content during those years; but they’ll learn much more about themselves. If educators want to succeed at teaching young adolescents, they must start with the essential knowledge of who their students are at these ages. We’ve all heard the phrase, “You don’t teach math (English, social studies, etc.), you teach students,” and that’s never clearer than when working at the middle level.
For this new edition, Trudy and I spent hours combing through the latest research on the physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and identity development of students between the ages of 10 and 15. In it we provide specific suggestions for handling the challenges of males with increased testosterone (“which triggers surges of anger, aggression, sexual interest, dominance, and territoriality”) and females with increased estrogen (“which has a powerful influence on neurotransmitters . . . all having a big influence on mood”). We delved deeply into the specific challenges of addressing the identity needs of ethnically and linguistically diverse youth, telling the challenging story of researcher Dr. Ellis Hurd’s eighth-grade respondent “Nick,” of French Canadian Honduran American heritage, now living in Iowa, as he tries to fit in with his white European American classmates, far from his and his family’s roots.
There are new conversations on the effects of being inside and outside cliques and crowds, and how social media affect one’s social position within those groups. We explore and provide essential advice on how to assist students following local or national crises that affect everyone or a single student’s struggle to survive her parents’ divorce. The life of a young adolescent has more complexity than most adults could handle. We explain how middle level teachers can help students maintain their homeostasis—a sense of direction—and grow in all areas developmentally.
In our first chapter, seventh-grade teacher Heather explains, “Teaching middle level is all about relationships. The curricula take a back seat to their lives. Whatever’s on their minds is what teachers must respond to at that moment. The task of the middle school teacher is to develop the middle school child.” Set your content aside momentarily, and grab this new edition to discover how to “read” your students’ eyes and to listen to their stories, so that you can see into their hearts and minds—otherwise they’ll never really see you or care about your content.