Mom learns a lesson from middle school: Keep the kids busy


I am on record as not looking forward to the middle-school years.

I have asked every mother I know if there is a way -- short of the institutionalization of my children or me -- that I can get out of being the parent of a middle-school child, and I have been told repeatedly that there is not.

The years 11 to 13 are not pretty, but there is no way to get to blossoming young adulthood except through them.

My dismay deepened the night of the middle-school open house for incoming sixth-graders. I was looking for an educational vision for children who have mastered reading and writing, and what I got was something that looked like parents' day at summer camp.

The classrooms were lined with collage posters and masks and puppets and dioramas. The ceilings were thick with coat-hanger mobiles. The teachers talked about skits and photographic self-portraits and power tools and sewing machines.

"Oh, God," I murmured. "Cool," said my son.

I went to the open house looking for a summer reading list. I left wondering if craft stores have back-to-school sales.

I went looking for Socratic discussion. I left thinking middle school is some kind of three-year science fair.

I wanted to know if notebooks are graded, if class participation counts, how soon before the midterm the study sheet is distributed. And I saw what looks like three years of shop and art. My son is enthralled, and I am horrified.

Middle school, I thought, is where children get down to the business of reading books. But it is clear that if you can't think in three dimensions and handle a glue gun, you will flunk out.

In language class, they cut out French words and make a collage. In math class, they cut out percent signs and make a collage. In science class, they examine human relationships and make a collage. It is clear that middle school requires a variety of magazine subscriptions.

"I know," said my friend Nancy Anselm, in that consoling voice that wiser mothers often use with the first-timers.

"Middle school is 'Read a book and then bake a cake that explains the book.' My daughter didn't have any real homework for three years.

"The goal is to keep their hands busy and hope they learn something about Egypt while they're at it."

Nancy is an educator as well as a veteran middle-school mother, and I listened as she explained that children of that age are awash in hormones and exhausted from the accelerated pace of their growing.

Like poor Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" (which I am certain they will not read in middle school), they wake up one morning with a body they do not recognize and cannot control.

Likewise, their need to be social is acute but their ability to be social is inept, so they flop around like landed fish, trying to find their place.

You can't teach these kids anything by standing in front of them and talking.

Administrators say it is important to use a variety of strategies -- kinesthetic, visual and auditory -- to teach. But my guess is, front-line teachers know that the best way to handle this age is to keep them occupied.

My friend Nancy explained that Maria Montessori, a pioneer in self-directed education, would have agreed.

"Kids are in a fog at that age," Nancy said, paraphrasing Dr. Montessori. "They are out to lunch. It is all going on inside. We can't see it, and we can't force them out of this shell until they are ready. What Maria Montessori said was, while this is going on, we might as well have them doing something practical to prepare them for life. Cooking, child care, the equivalent of shop class.

"It is like occupational therapy. While so much is going on inside of them, keep them busy. And hope they will produce something when they come out of it."

Dr. Montessori would have played to the strengths of this developmental stage, just as middle-school teachers seem to: Kids are so social, they can't shut up. So do plays and skits, work in teams and groups. They are so tactile they can't keep their hands to themselves. So cut, paste, paint, glue and build.

This is cold comfort to the parents who will hear about these projects the night before they are due. But we should have known. These are the children who need seat belts if they are going to finish dinner with us.

What made us think they'd sit still for middle school?

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