boxed in and bored

Boxed in and bored: How middle schools continue to fail young adolescents–and what good middle schools do right, by peter scales.

This search institute report, released in 1996, is now out of print. I got a used copy through amazon for about forty bucks, if I remember correctly. But the cheapest used one on amazon right now is $100! (total crack up, since my copy has a price sticker on the back from a goodwill store, pricing it at 49-cents!) it’s not worth $100. And since it’s out of print, I won’t worry about liberally copying paragraphs that caught my attention (it’s a shame: search institute has a downloadable bookstore on their site, but they don’t offer this title).

the book starts by tracing a bit of the history of the middle school movement, which sprung up as a corrective measure to junior high schools. The middle school movement was an attempt to bring a shift to some of the less-than-effective practices of junior high schools. Problem is – as the book states over and over again – very few middle schools actually apply the best practices and values that originated the movement, even if they have “middle school” in their name, and have a 6th – 8th grade format. Next is a section with definitions and an overview of early adolescent development. Finally, a section on what schools can do to help young teens succeed.

Those best practices (of middle schools), again stated several times throughout the short book, are:
– students are challenged and empowered to use their newly emerging cognitive skills to really think, and not just to parrot back facts.
– Students are exposed to thematic, team-taught interdisciplinary curricula that help them meaningfully connect content that has relevance in the real world beyond school.
– Students have families and teachers who set (and model) high expectations for achievement and personal behavior from them; have opportunities to serve and help others, offering their time and talents to make their communities better places in which to live.
– Students go to schools that strengthen their motivation to learn, not for the end of getting good grades, but for the end of experiencing joy, growth in capacity, and increased understanding of their worlds through learning (ironically, those youth will probably end up with better grades too).

Here are a handful of paragraphs that caught my attention:

More and more educators, parents, policy makers, and researchers have concluded that early adolescence is the “last best chance” (Carnegie council on adolescent development 1989) to significantly influence in a positive way the paths that adolescents take in their development.

for a variety of reasons, the structure and curriculum of many – perhaps most – middle schools continues to be out of synch with young adolscents’ developmental needs.

the net result of this [failure of middle schools] is that too many middle school students too often feel boxed in and bored. Too many young adolescents are lectured to just when they need to explore and interact in small groups. Too many are left without effective guidance and connections with caring adults just at the time when their physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and cognitive selves are undergoing great change. Too many are given curriculum that is less challenging and rules that are more strict than they experienced in elementary school, just when they need more academic challenge and a greater sense of participation in developing and enforcing the rules that regulate their behavior.

young adolescents might be said to be asking themselves three psychological questions that correspond to erickson’s crises of establishing a sense of industry, identity, and intimacy (Erickson 1968). Am I competent? Am I normal? Am I loveable and loving? (scales 1991). Some days the answers to these questions are reassuring and some days they are not, and young adolescents’ emotional response can vary commensurably. Whether at home, in school, or in community settings, the job of adults is to ensure that all young adolescents can answer “yes” to these questions.

young adolescents share with people in other age groups a number of basic human needs; they also have some needs that are especially crucial in their particular developmental stage. All people need to feel safe and have a sense of structure and coherence in their lives. All people need to belong to a group, or several groups. All people need to feel self-worth, a sense of control over their own lives, a closeness in at least one sustained relationship, and a sense of competence. Young adolescents especially need to have varied opportunities to explore themselves and their environments. They need a lot of physical activity, a balance between supervision and clear limits, and increasing opportunities to participate meaningfully in their schools, families, and communities (dorman 1985; pittman and wright 1991; scales 1991).

good middle schools build intimacy and connection and give all students a sense that they are cared for. They have a smallness of scale, through arranging schools with hundreds of teachers and students into much smaller teams. They use team teaching and block scheduling to reduce the number of class changes and teacher changes young adolescents have to make each day. Such structural stability is important to middle school youth, whose socioemotional and cognitive capacities are in flux. Young adolescents whose teachers are in teams typically mention how teams improve teacher-student relationships even more than they mention the activities they do in their teams (Kramer 1992).

Good middle schools have teacher-based guidance and advisory programs, and they extensively use various cooperative learning strategies that allow teachers to act as coaches to small groups of students – instead of as classroom lecturers to thirty youth who are discouraged from talking with one another. Good middle schools understand that nurturance is not incompatible with high academic performance and that, for many youth, it is a prerequisite.

researchers have found that youth are best supported by people with five characteristics:
– they see genuine potential in youth.
– They put youth at the center of their programs.
– They believe they can make a difference with youth.
– They feel they are contributing to the community something they owe.
– They are “unyieldingly authentic.”
[teachers and other adults] who truly enjoy and have been specially prepared to teach young adolescents will describe them not as loud, nosy, naïve, undiplomatic, stubborn, or unrealistic, but instead as energetic, curious, idealistic, honest, confident, and optimistic.

So… just a few implications for middle school ministry in churches? Uh, yeah.

6 thoughts on “boxed in and bored”

  1. thanks for posting this mark, i really enjoyed your seminar today (and the conference all together).

    i’ve done high school ministry for almost ten years now and jr high for only the last 2… i really appreciate the insight, i need all the help i can get.

  2. Marko – our friends at Rancho Bernardo Baptist Church who are the conference just told me that their house burned down and that some of their students lost their homes. Please be praying.

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