Why Many Middle School Classrooms Are in Crisis
Teaching the skills they need for the truths they perceive
I know more than one middle school teacher who decided to leave their job this year. And another who says it’s the most challenging year of his life. And a principal who says it’s the 8th grade hall where she’s needed the most. (A bar graph of school’s discipline data shows the 8th grade stats towering over the rest.) And I know a high school teacher who hears warnings about what’s coming — from his middle school colleagues.
And what is coming? Students unwilling to follow the rules. Some students won’t even acknowledge the right of the adults to make them.
Some people think the current trouble is a phase, a transition back to pre-pandemic normal. But we are wrong to think this will soon pass or that it’s a consequence of pandemic interruptions. Yes, the pandemic had an impact — but it merely accelerated our pace down paths we were already traveling.
There are many factors at work. One factor is largely external to schools: the distrust people feel toward our nation’s institutions, including our public schools. Another factor is more internal to schools and it has to do with what and how we teach. Educators can do something about both. (And the core strategy for addressing the trouble is so radically simple I’ve hesitated for months to write this piece, wondering if anyone will take me seriously.)
More Americans are less trustful of their institutions than in the past. This includes many white families who used to think local and national institutions embodied their values and protected their interests.
People of color and the poor of all races have had reason to distrust the country’s ruling class and its institutions for centuries. As I recently learned from Sharif El-Mekki, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said — about a “large percentage” of white teachers: “people with such a low view of the Black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.”
Distrust in our institutions is now even more widespread, a reaction to living under a government that neglects to the needs of the citizenry.
Many parents and grandparents of today’s school children grew up in families that believed in the American Dream. That hopeful story now sounds more like a lie: People born in 1980 are half as likely to out-earn their parents, compared to people born in 1940.
When something you once believed turns out not to be true, it feels like betrayal. And if you betray someone you lose their trust. Local public schools are part of the national network of public institutions that have lost trust in an era when the rich get richer while the rest get poorer.
Distrust of schools is also seeded by agents of political polarization: power brokers and political strategists engaged in what can be described as a “deliberate strategy to alienate communities from their local schools.” These people would rather have neighbor fighting neighbor at a school board meeting than neighbors organizing in solidarity to combat economic injustice. They paint teachers who teach the truth of slavery as drunk-on-woke-social-justice-warriors intent to shame white children. They portray librarians who display books with queer characters as pedophiles or groomers. These tactics create a socially contagious paranoia that easily couples with a legitimate distrust people feel in government institutions that no longer work for them.
Educators have a role in addressing deep societal challenges such as these. But true reform will take broad, multi-racial coalitions of organized working people who marshal their power to compel the creation of a more just society. It’s the biggest of projects and implicates all of us. The day-to-day unrest in our schools exists in this tense and troubled context.
“Don’t talk back to your teacher” (those days are over)
We have laws that compel kids to come to school — but this merely gets them in the door.
Schools generally can’t function unless the majority of kids and families believe in the basic legitimacy of the institution. Today, however, educators can no longer count on their professional standing being respected by families who decades ago would have told their child, “Respect your teacher, do your work and don’t talk back.” Those days seem to be over for many families.
It’s not blind obedience we should desire, but trusting relationships. And it’s not impossible for a school to build or rebuild trust with families, indeed whole communities. In my sixteen years as a school principal in urban, rural and small town settings, I got to know many parents who themselves weren’t served well in school and it was imperative we try to gain their trust.
I recall the dad who told me how he’d been beaten up as a student in the parking lot outside my office. He hated coming to the school. I recall another dad with special needs who trembled to walk down the same 7th grade hallway where he once was called a retard.
I remember the dad who dismissed my attendance calls. While on the phone with me, he would holler to his daughter in her bedroom and insult the school so that I could hear it. She’d eventually come back to school, speaking the same words of derision as her dad. I knew I had to build a more trusting relationship with her father if we were to have any leverage with her. As I got to know him I came to understand that he couldn’t read. He perhaps had reason not to trust how our institutions had treated him over the years.
My time in schools taught me that when families communicate to their kids — directly or indirectly — that the authority of the school is not worthy of respect, a social contract that helps keep order begins to fray. Things can fall apart.
Indeed, it doesn’t take much to unsettle the hierarchy and destabilize classrooms where the kids outnumber a teacher 20 to 1, or a cafeteria where the ratio could be more like 150 to 4 — or a bathroom, staircase or back-of-the-bus where there may be no adult at all.
An educator or school can overcome hostility and suspicion, but it takes special effort and a long time to do it. Most schools in a climate of distrust will struggle to maintain order.
What won’t work
In response to the eroding trust and evolving disorder, many will call for classroom management programs that prescribe doses of punishment and reward to condition students to behave. These systems require strict adherence across the school to be effective controlling behavior, and they often fall apart when there is any inconsistency or when kids get older and reclaim autonomy. Furthermore, such programs are not good for our children’s emotional health or critical thinking. (Educator and author Alex Shevrin Venet has compiled resources on this topic.)
Others, in response to disruption, might call for an increase in staff to monitor and discipline children, including more teachers and para-educators in a classroom, more school resource officers or police in the halls.
But just putting more adults with grade-books, walkie-talkies, tasers or guns on campus won’t fix this particular problem. The solution we seek can only be found in understanding our students’ needs and abilities, including those middle schoolers who are making school life so hard in so many places these days.
From automobiles to AR15s
Most 8th graders are fourteen years old. It is a time of profound awakening and transition. I wrote about this age in my most recent book, Woke is Not Enough:
Fourteen is an age when a young person discovers new powers, becoming more agile physically and intellectually. At fourteen, a young person can suddenly wield with competence adult tools to complete adult tasks — from handling automobiles to handling AR15s; from bass guitars to baseball bats; from tractors to trigonometry; from writing software code to writing suicide notes.
It is also an age when mental illness can emerge, and an age when one can feel despair. At this age, young people become increasingly aware of how the world is defined, how they might shape it, and how it is shaping them.
Fourteen was the age of Christian Piciolini when he joined the American Neo-Nazi movement in search of purpose and belonging. He would go on to be a leader, finding identity and meaningful work in brutality.
Fourteen is an age that captures imagination. It drives narratives in fact and fiction: stories about young adult collisions with adult dangers. “I became, during my fourteenth year…afraid,” writes James Baldwin, “afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without.”
Fourteen is the age when the world opens up and journeys begin. It’s about the age of Huck Finn when he sets out in Mark Twain’s famous story. And Fourteen is the age of Mattie Ross in True Grit, the revered western by Charles Portis. In this story, the girl-of-middle-school-age sets out to kill the man who murdered her father.
Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower opens just as her protagonist leaves her fourteenth year. She goes on to create a religion.
In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, fourteen is the age of “the kid,” a boy who leaves his drunk and destitute father and joins the blood-soaked westward expansion of the United States.
I wonder how close to fourteen is the Black cabin boy, Pip, in Melville’s Moby Dick, a novel about identity, madness, masculinity, violence and whiteness. Young and distressed by what he perceives, Pip throws himself into the cold and endless ocean.
Fourteen is the age of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s son at the writing of Between the World and Me, and it was about the age of James Baldwin’s nephew when he wrote to him in The Fire Next Time. The men both chose this time of life to discuss with the young person the damage that white supremacy perpetrates upon the Black body and mind, an effort to strengthen the child against it. They chose this time because they know the young person can handle the truths they are hearing, truths that the young person already intuits or perceives.
Such fourteen year olds— who can see the truths of the adult world and have the capacity to wield the tools of that world — are the same fourteen year olds we are struggling to control in our schools today.
Maybe the trouble they make isn’t because they’re not ready for the expectations of school — but that expectations of school are not ready for them.
The skills they need for the truths they perceive
Imagine a mountaintop:
A group of fourteen year olds has been taken on an extraordinary field trip. By helicopter they’ve been taken to the top of a mountain. The air is cool, the breeze invigorates and the sky is clear. They can see down each side of the mountain into valleys and villages below and beyond.
The mountain and surrounding lands are magical. All four seasons play at once. Down the north face of the mountain, a trail of deep snow plunges and two girls who love to ski are delighted. A boy sees a rock ledge to the south. He looks about for ropes and gear. He calls over a friend, who also loves to rock climb.
Another 8th grade boy sees the buds on the trees to the east. They seem purple this week, aching to burst green. He loves to paint in watercolor, can see the colors now in his mind. He plans to mix his yellows and blues to see if he can get the color of the budding just right.
Other students are less delighted by what they see. There’s a draught in the western valley below. It’s hot there, and there’s been a drought for years. There is a fire in a forest that borders a village. The students see the danger. They are strong and they’ve grown up working on farms and hunting and working in the woods. One of them has an uncle in the local volunteer fire department. They see the danger clearly and they are ready to help. They look back to the clearing where the helicopter had been.
The helicopter has not yet returned. A group of students sits in the soft grass matted low in the clearing. One of them mentions a social media post that led to an older student’s suspension from school. Another student says it was an “overreaction” and that the school is “too sensitive.” Quickly there is an argument. They exchange insults. “My dad calls people like you MAGA extremists,” says one. “Well at least I don’t support public school groomers and pedophiles,” says another. They argue without listening to each other. One student gets up and walks away. She sits by herself next to a small tree on the mountaintop. Holding her knees, she begins rocking.
Another group of students sees in a southern valley a gathering of families in makeshift tents, destitute and transient. One student says, “This country can’t take care of its own.” Another says, “These people can’t take care of themselves.” And another says, “Yeah, my family doesn’t pay taxes just to pay them not to work.” They begin to argue and insult each other.
The helicopter hovers high above. Adults inside look down. They see children milling about. They see one student push another. One student throws a rock. One child gestures at the adults above, imploring. Other students seem to gesture at the adults in anger with fingers and fists.
This is what’s going on:
The boy who is able to watercolor doesn’t have the paint and paper he needs. The strong, nimble boys who can rock climb have no ropes. The students who are ready to help the village are unable to get there. The students who argue prefer insults to evidence or empathy. Each of these young people is without the tools they need for the work and expression of which they are capable.
The adults in their school lives have not prepared them with the skills, tools, habits or pathways appropriate to the work they can to do, the ideas they have to share, the questions they hold, and the truths — harsh or lovely — that they perceive.
The solitary girl continues rocking.
Two kinds of classrooms
In terms of what are called “core academics” — math, science, social studies and English — there are two kinds of 8th grade classrooms that fourteen year olds typically encounter.
In one classroom they are seated in rows. They look at the back of each other’s heads and the teacher does the majority of the moving about and talking. Students are expected to sit and be quiet unless called upon. With mounting distrust in our institutions and the powers that be, this kind of compliance-based social control is being increasingly rejected by many young people.
In the other classroom, desks are in a circle or U. Sometimes the desks are arranged for group work. The teacher believes that learning through collaboration and dialogue is important. The teacher values debate but expects respectful engagement. This is the classroom I want my children to walk into. But again, it’s not working in many schools these days.
In the discussions that the second teacher tries to conduct, reasonable disagreements are colored by unreasonable disrespect. There is a refusal or inability to follow norms for civil discussion — or there’s reluctance to speak at all, for fear of the climate of derision that comes with the exchange of personal stories or ideas with political implications. It’s not hard to understand why the quality of the exchange is so poor: it’s what young people see on television, on social media, and in the stances they see adults taking with each other. The kids who disengage feel it’s better to be quiet than be insulted.
The first classroom I’ve described disregards the capacity of these middle schoolers to engage in deep learning and critical thinking through dialogue and collaboration. The second type of classroom seeks to honor that capacity, but the students have not been adequately prepared with the skills they need do it.
A simple solution
There’s much more than mature dialogue and debate that the young adults we call middle schoolers are capable of. Artistic expression, athletics, hands-on learning, contemporary problem solving, and work done in collaboration with the wider community are all paths that should be open to them. Some of these modes of learning-by-doing are common, like performances in the arts and athletics, but others are more difficult for schools to pull-off, like project-based learning that engages kids in hands-on problem solving.
As I wrote in my first book, School for the Age of Upheaval, some of the best project-based learning happens in our Career and Technical Education (CTE) Centers, where young people use adult tools to solve problems, fix things, and make what people need. CTE centers are open to students in the upper grades, often at an entirely different location than the traditional school. In the traditional K-12 classrooms, the size of classes, the facilities, the bell schedule, and misalignment with test-prep skills all make applied-learning a challenge.
So, let us return to what should be lower-hanging fruit — an approach to engaging our young people that is nevertheless essential for deeper learning and meaningful investment in school: classroom discussion. It may not sound exciting, but it’s a big part of what’s missing in K-12 education today.
A first year teacher writes —
I’m working with a first year, 9th grade English teacher, as his graduate studies faculty advisor. In the first weeks of school, he struggled to engage his students in small group and whole-class discussions. He decided to focus his learning and research on how to cultivate discussion in the classroom. He wrote the following in late October, after about 8 weeks teaching his mostly white students in small town New England:
One thing that has been impressed upon me in most of the [research] that I’ve read is the necessity to be respectful and intentional in difficult discussions, and the necessity for students to understand both words.
Respect comes in the class contracts and ground rules that we set, as well as the specific language and methods that we use when talking with each other. Discussions, and the things that I choose to bring up in class, must be intentional as well. There has to be [a] reason behind tackling difficult issues and there has to be intention in the manner in which we will navigate them.
This means taking the time to address difficult or uncomfortable topics head-on or taking the time to explain and understand why we make certain changes and choices in the pursuit of respect. This means not just understanding as a class that you won’t use outdated, racist language, but also why that language exists and why you as a class won’t [use] it.
I think that it is a disservice to not address these topics with students directly, as these are some of the first spaces where these conversations can happen with students as active, contributing participants.
I share his reflections for three reasons: First, because he sees this work in a larger societal context. This is important.
Second, because he is able to find resources on how to have respectful and intentional classroom discussions for learning. These resources are not hard to find.
Third, because he says that 9th grade offers “some of the first spaces where these conversations can happen with students as active, contributing participants.” This high school teacher is correctly observing that the first eight years of his students’ schooling included few opportunities to learn what should be a routinely employed skillset: how to have civil and rigorous discussions for learning. And it’s not that most states’ learning standards don’t require it. It’s just that we’re not doing it.
More than a mandate
Students in elementary and high school should be having discussions that touch upon topics that are sometimes personal or political, sometimes mundane, sometimes controversial. These discussions can be about how to write a sentence, why glaciers melt, or how to solve for X. These discussions can be about racism in a story or racism in school hallways. Discussion for learning should be happening in high school history class, elementary school units on butterflies, and even in kindergarten.
Preparing middle and hight school students with the skills they need for the truths they perceive starts with younger kids seated in a circle on the rug. By the time our students get to 8th grade, they should already know how to listen empathically, disagree respectfully, and how to substantiate their arguments with evidence from personal experience as well as from research.
But if you could be a fly on the wall during school district meetings about what skills and knowledge kids need to develop and when, you will not hear talk of discussion skills. You will hear curriculum coordinators and other leaders referring to a wide array of resources, programs, and assessments concerned with math, reading and writing from pre-K through the upper grades. You’ll also hear talk of staffing deployed to support math, reading and writing, including coaches who work with teachers and interventionists who work with students. You will rarely hear any focus on the skills needed for dialogue as a means for learning. One reason for this is that we have high-stakes tests in math, reading and writing that skew what and how we teach.
While there has been little impact on test scores in math and English over the last two decades, districts still dedicate extraordinary resources into skills measured by those tests. This happens to the neglect of many other domains, such as social studies, science, physical education and the arts.
And skills of speaking and listening are also casualties — even though state standards do require them. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts, which have been adopted by most states, spell it out quite clearly. For instance, in first grade students should be able to “participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about grade 1 topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups.” This requires students to:
A. Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions (e.g., listening to others with care, speaking one at a time about the topics and texts under discussion).
B. Build on others’ talk in conversations by responding to the comments of others through multiple exchanges.
C. Ask questions to clear up any confusion
Alas skills such as these are neglected because they’re not directly measured by the tests. And so students arrive at our middle school classrooms, in a polarized world, distrustful of school and each other, without the skills they need to rigorously discuss what’s in the curriculum, what’s on their minds and what is in their hearts. Disruption and withdrawal are bound result.
My focus on middle school is just a point of departure. People develop along a continuum, over years. Younger students are less mature but possess capacities that are similar to their older brothers and sisters. I have a son in fourth grade and I know well that he’s ready to discuss and learn about almost anything. He’s got idealism and a sense of what’s fair. He can type, chop wood and play instruments. He likes to goof around and be silly. He sometimes likes to be serious.
Last fall, he brought home a “Citizenship” check-list and self-assessment. The top indicator on the list was “I follow the rules.” His self-reflection was, “Sometimes.” We discussed that.
Of course I want him to follow reasonable rules in school and society, but I also know he can be taught to respectfully question them, to question his peers, to question his own assumptions, and to learn with other people about the beautiful and terrible world that is theirs.
It is in these younger grades, with attention to careful sequencing along the K-12 continuum, that school districts must begin supporting teachers to teach students the skills of speaking and listening for comprehension and collaboration. I’m using the language of the standards now, so that it’s easy to find the mandate in state law and regulation. But this is about much more than doing what we’ve already been told to do. The skills in focus here are what our society needs people to possess if we are to solve our most pressing problems and build strong communities in a time when so many forces try to push us apart.
Let us start the work in the lower grades. In a few years, our middle school teachers will thank us. And our fourteen year olds, they’ll thank us too, in their own way. And they’ll probably continue to unsettle us — but it will be more their shocking dynamism than the shock of distrust and disdain.