During her years as a teacher and mother, Ms. Meyers discovered that not all praise was equal and some kinds were even deleterious to kids.
Why Is There a Push-Down Curriculum in Preschool but Not Middle School?
While teaching kindergarten, I became begrudgingly accustomed to the push-down curriculum in early childhood education. We were now expected to do with our students what was once reserved for first and second graders: assigning them to reading groups, drilling them with sight words, performing on-going assessments, having them write paragraphs, and teaching them adding and subtracting. The kindergarten of old when kids painted at easels, played dress-up in the kitchen area, and watched bean seeds sprout in plastic cups on the window sills disappeared before my eyes...making me sad and concerned.
Why Is Middle School So Lax?
So, when my son started middle school and I began volunteering there once a week, I was aghast that the academic rigor 5 and 6-year-olds were enduring in kindergarten was not being felt by sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. On the contrary, things were much more lax (academically and behaviorally) than I had known as a middle school student 40 years prior, and it was truly troubling and perplexing. Why were we pushing little children to learn more and more at earlier and earlier ages but letting 11, 12, and 13-year-olds just coast?
While many moms and dads are gung-ho when their little ones start school (volunteering to be room parents and helping in the classroom), most burn out by the time their kids reach middle school. A lot don't know what goes on during these years and, frankly, don't seem to care. Yet, I wanted to sound the alarm and let parents know that middle school is failing our students in several key and conspicuous areas that should spur moms and dads to take action:
1. Not Enough Academic Rigor
When my son and his friends attended elementary school, they were in the TAG (talented and gifted) program. Their extraordinary teachers had received special training to work with students who were intelligent, eager to learn, and highly motivated. They presented material at a faster pace for these kids, giving them valuable opportunities to work in small groups, with partners, on their own, and with technology.
In middle school, though, there was only one TAG class offered—a combination of language arts and social studies. There was nothing in math and science to challenge bright students. I was shocked by this because we're constantly hearing how the United States lags behind other nations in these two key areas. Other parents and I saw that our kids were bored and asked administrators about more demanding classes for them but were flatly told there were no such options.
Some Parents Took Matters in Their Own Hands
Not satisfied with this answer, some disgruntled moms and dads took matters in their own hands and concocted an educational hybrid for their kids. They sent them to middle school for subjects such as art, drama, band, and physical education but kept them home for online classes in science and math. For working parents like myself, however, this was not an option. My son remained at middle school, earning all A's but never breaking a sweat and never receiving the academic rigor he craved.
While some uninformed parents may not realize how inadequate middle school education is, their kids are all too aware. According to the Center for American Progress, 72 percent of eight-grade students say they are not taught about engineering and technology. Even though those two areas are needed for many high-paying jobs, kids are not learning about them in middle school and are feeling disillusioned by an educational system that's not preparing them for their futures.
2. Too Much Time on Their Phones
What surprised and horrified me the most when I volunteered at my son's middle school was the unfettered access kids had to their cell phones throughout the day. Like most parents, I just assumed their cell phones were kept out-of-sight—hidden away in lockers, backpacks, and pockets—and were not a major distraction. Boy, was I wrong!
This is alarming because kids already spend an exorbitant amount of time on technology at home. According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, youngsters use cell phones, TV, video games, and computers for an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day. Seventy percent of them say their families have no rules about how much time they can spend on such entertainment. Moms and dads are clueless that their youngsters are also on their cell phones throughout the day at middle school. They're surfing the net, listening to music, and playing games while parents assume they're reading, learning, and interacting with peers.
The Nonsensical Thinking of Some Administrators
The principal at my son's middle school believed the kids needed “real world experiences” with their phones like adults have. The problem with her cockeyed thinking is these are not adults; they're 11, 12, and 13-year-olds! Their brains are not fully developed and, therefore, they can't see how the decisions they make today will impact their futures. They need administrators and teachers to be wiser than they are, setting and enforcing rules about cell phones. Otherwise, in their shortsightedness, these kids will always pick the immediate gratification of technology over something more cerebral such as reading, learning, and discussing.
Parents Should Push for a School-Wide Policy on Cell Phones
At my older son's high school, they finally initiated a school-wide policy that bans cell phone usage during classes. Students must keep their phones out of sight and, if they don't, teachers can confiscate them and kids can retrieve them later. Having well-stated rules that apply to everyone simplifies the matter. The rules no longer vary from class to class, causing hassles for teachers and confusion for kids. Parents of middle school students should demand the same clear school-wide policy for their kids. Better yet, why not push the superintendent for a district-wide policy on cell phone use?
3. No Accommodations for Introverts
Even decades after attending middle school, many adults still remember those years as being some of their worst. As a middle-aged woman volunteering there, I can confirm little has changed. For an introvert like me, who likes things calm, quiet, and controlled, it was a real nightmare. I felt bad for the introverted kids around me, who had to stay there all day while I got to escape after just a couple of hours.
Even though we have more information than ever before about introversion, middle schools seem oblivious to it. The loudest and most confident kids still rule the roost, voicing their opinions loudly (and often ignorantly) while the more thoughtful ones are silenced. If you want a quiet place to read, reflect, journal, and re-charge during the day, you're hard-pressed to find one. If you're a sensitive soul, good luck with that as you walk through crammed hallways, get packed like sardines into classrooms, and are mostly anonymous to teachers and administrators.
Middle schools offer no refuge for kids who are struggling with depression and anxiety. A recent report revealed that suicide has now replaced car crashes as the leading cause of death among U.S. middle school students. Yet, nothing going on there reveals that this tragedy is getting addressed.
Parents Need to Speak Up for Introverts
While administrators and counselors are preoccupied with resolving the bathroom issue for the two or three transgendered students at school, the estimated one-third to one-half of the kids who are introverts get largely ignored. One of the easiest ways for introverts to get accommodated at middle school is for teachers to implement “wait time” in all their classes. This simply means that extroverted students can no longer shout out answers as is too often the case now. Instead, the teacher asks a question and then waits three to seven seconds so all kids— introverts and extroverts—can formulate a well-thought out response. She then calls upon someone who has her hand raised. With wait time, all voices get heard, not just the loudest ones!
Every Extroverted Teacher Should Make a Conscious Effort to Learn About Introverts and Their Needs
This Book Will Help Parents Understand Their Introverted Middle School Child
Questions & Answers
Question: I read in France that they banned cell phones in all schools. What do you think of this policy?
Answer: As a general rule, I believe big government should stay out of education, giving individual schools and school districts more autonomy. With that being said, however, I think France's ban on cell phone use in schools is a good move and wholly necessary. After volunteering at my son's middle school for three years, I saw firsthand how out of control the situation had gotten. Kids were using their cell phones during classes, between classes, at lunch time, and even at school socials when nobody was socializing but rather fiddling with their devices. At a time in their lives when they're socially awkward and need practice communicating, listening, and empathizing, their eyes are glued to little screens.
Unfortunately, a nationwide ban on cell phone use at schools in the United States is highly unlikely. The tech companies have too much lobbying power over our government and educational institutions for that to become policy. There's too much money involved. That's why it's critical that superintendents, principals, parents, and teachers insist on bans at the local level.
Officials in France called their ban on cell phone use in schools a “public health issue,” and I can't agree more. They argued that children were sitting around staring at their screens during recess and breaks rather than playing and interacting with one another. This was definitely what I witnessed, and it frightened me to see how little face-to-face contact kids were having. This has long-range implications for them as adults but also for society at large. How can we have empathy for people when we're not even looking into their faces and seeing their sadness, joy, or frustration? How can we hold on to our humanness when technology is so addictive?
We have ample evidence from reputable organizations showing the dangers of too much screen time and that cell phone use in schools should be banned. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, has linked excessive technology use to sleep problems, behavior issues, and obesity. Dr. Peter Gray has done extensive research on how the decline in play and the dramatic increase of screen time corresponds to major health issues in children and teens such as depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide. Results of the “Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking” show a steady decline in creativity among American children over the last two to three decades. Analysis of the test results shows kids are less talkative, less verbally expressive, less imaginative, less passionate, and less likely to think critically and examine arguments from all angles. The lack of these skills will limit young people's performance in their careers but also in their personal lives with romantic relationships, friendships, and parenting.
With all this evidence to back up a ban on cell phone use in schools, parents need to become pro-active. They need to call their school superintendents and express their concerns. Unfortunately, too many moms and dads like the convenience of being able to text their kids throughout the day. They feel a false sense of connection through technology. A recent study showed that this current generation of parents is spending more time with their kids than ever before but is interacting with them less than ever. Family members are in the same room together, but each one is doing their own thing on their own devices. We're heading down a dangerous path but, at least, in France, they're willing to do something about it. Hopefully, it's just the beginning.
© 2018 McKenna Meyers