Friday, February 1

Middle School Muddle: Anxiety starts early--perhaps too early?

A 5th-grade boy raised his hand on our last middle school tour and posed a question that took everyone aback. It reminded grown-ups in the room what it must feel like to be 10 or 11 years old, contemplating your educational future.

“Is it easy to make friends at this middle school?’’ the boy wondered.

Kelly McGuire, the energetic principal of Greenwich Village Middle School had already distributed a glossy brochure, articulated his educational philosophy and answered predictable questions about class sizes and whether 6th graders can go out to lunch.

He’d spoken about literacy and math scores. He’d described a small, caring and nurturing community with a commitment to social justice and a “really rigorous approach to academics."

(Every school we’ve toured has a “really rigorous approach.")

The 8th-grade students had answered questions about where they want to go to high school and how much homework they have. They complained about what they least like about their school – all those stairs they must climb to get to it

(Every middle school we’ve toured has also been on the top floor of an old building with no elevator.)

No one really knew how to answer the little boy’s question about making friends, although it laid bare a top priority of 5th graders as they prepare to rank their top five middle choices by Feb. 6.

Hint: It’s not a “content-rich program,” an “integrated theme-based curriculum,’’ a “peer mediation/conflict resolution program," or “collaborative team teaching,’’ to mention a few of the phrases we’ve heard on tours.

For 5th graders, middle school means splitting up from classmates they’ve known for years and finding themselves in an unfamiliar environment.

How, they wonder, will they make new friends?

No principal, parent or student can answer that question for them. No tour guide has the answer.

I’m grateful we have a choice of middle schools, but I strongly wish that 6th graders could remain one more year in their elementary school – the old K-6 configuration that I grew up with and one that is being considered again, as are pre-K-8 schools, like the new one being proposed for Battery Park City. I love the idea.

I’m not sure what is gained by hurtling them into the adolescent world of cell phones, instant messaging, traveling alone and school dances where grinding (if you don’t know what it is, ask any middle schooler) rules. They will face those social pressures far sooner than many parents -- and I suspect educators -- would like.

My 5th-grade son looked weary but relieved after our last tour, which was probably number 7 or 8 -- we slept through one and lost count. Mostly, he wants to go to school with his best buddy or least some of the classmates he’s known since kindergarten. And he'd like to get back to enjoying the rest of elementary school.

That, he told me, was what he was thinking about when the little boy asked his heartfelt question about making friends.

Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle

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