Big Choice #1: SKIPPING MIDDLE SCHOOL
The idea to home school our daughter during her middle school years probably originated long before she was born, soon after I had survived my own middle school years (then called junior high school). Somewhere deep inside me, I remember thinking that there had to be a better way to nurture and educate early teens.
Over the years, I’ve read numerous articles on education and what I learned about middle school was interesting, yet puzzling. Research demonstrates that sixth- to eighth-grade students feel safer in K-8 schools compared with separate middle schools. Developmental psychologists know that this age group is emotionally better off and better able to learn in stable situations that resemble elementary schools, with a small core group of teachers and few classroom changes. A 2005 evaluation of 6-8th grade middle schools conducted by Los Angeles Unified determined that students who attended sixth grade at an elementary school did better over two years than those in sixth grade at a middle school. Yet, Los Angeles (where I live) has only eight K-8 schools, compared with 74 middle schools. New York City has about 400 middle schools (59 of them charter schools) and 140 K-8 schools. And by 2014, New York City will have 50 new middle schools (as announced by schools chancellor Dennis M. Walcott in September 2011).
Strange things begin to happen as a child approaches middle school. As our daughter’s sixth grade class began “preparing students for middle school,” the amount of homework increased; dull textbooks were introduced; time for quiet reading disappeared; cubbies for jackets and bags became first come-first serve rather than assigned; and seating arrangements were changed each day. It seemed to me that what was really happening was that the children were being prepared for less stability and more stress. Our unsettled daughter asked me why there was so much emphasis on the next year and not the current year. Good question, but I didn’t have a satisfying answer. She also stopped enjoying her most-loved pursuits: playing the piano, reading, and drawing in her sketchbook. My heart ached as I watched her arrive home from school each day looking as depleted as the most overworked adult I knew. Right before my eyes, I watched as she moved further away from the inquisitive, happy, and adventurous learner she was to a tentative, fearful, and cautious student. I was worried about her and angry that stress, pressure, and joyless learning was such an acceptable condition in our culture, which seems to believe, among other questionable ideas, that stuffing as much as possible into each day means we are accomplishing more. Was it even possible to find balance in such an unbalanced age?
We chose to find out. Ultimately, our decision to “skip middle school” led us to discover a multitude of ways — big and small — in which to find balance all life long.
Home schooling for two years allowed us to create our own creative and integrated curriculum, while satisfying state standards. We delved into subjects, including science, humanities (history and literature combined), math, and also dance, Japanese and French, quilting and cooking. Our daughter’s days often started in the garden or at the piano. She did not have homework, although she read every night for pleasure. Her social circle included kids her own age, and also younger children and adults. With good food and enough rest, she was healthy and happy. Moreover, by the end of 8th grade, she was fully prepared for the high school setting, with its rotating classrooms and teachers.
Isn’t it time for us to offer our 11 to 13-year-olds an opportunity to thrive, not survive? Certainly we can find ways to address their specific developmental needs within the stable setting of K-8 schools, rather than isolating them. Had our daughter’s school been a K-8 school, “preparing” for the next stage would have occurred in 8th grade, when most children turn 13, a far better time to “prepare” them for what should be the next stage: high school.