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Turn Middle School Into ‘Boot Camp for Life'

Publication Date: 2009-09-03

Washington Post, Sept. 2, 2009
E-mail Valerie Strauss: theanswersheet@washpost.com

As a longtime middle school teacher, I applaud much of this article. Strauss gives a wonderful argument against Race to the Stop and National Standards.

You heard about Matthew Crawford here and here and here. And Mike Rose commented on it here.

As a longtime education reporter I have visited many middle and junior high schools--and I often wonder if we are subjecting the kids trapped inside to cruel and unusual punishment.

The developmental profile of these students--from age 11 to 14--is well established, and it doesnât lend itself to great academic achievement.

So I propose blowing up middle school as we know it and turning at least some of it into a âboot camp for life."

I have been influenced by Matthew Crawford, a philosopher-motorcycle mechanic whose book Shop Class as Soulcraft makes a powerful argument that the education system fails to respect the value of manual labor and turns too many people into "knowledge workers," dooming them to boring office lives.

Hereâs why middle school is a good time to shake up the status quo.

Kids in this age group are known to be egocentric, argumentative, and, with their hormones kicking in, preoccupied with social concerns rather than academic goals. They also enjoy solving real life problems with skills. And it is a time when they can make decisions that have lifelong repercussions but donât have the judgment to always choose wisely.

One expert in child development, Chip Wood, put it this way in his important book, Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14:
"Twelves (and thirteens and fourteens for that matter) probably do not belong in formal school environments at all, but in some kind of cross between summer camp and the Civilian Conservation Corps camps of the Great Depression--plenty of physical activity, structured groups and time with peers, with a little formal education thrown in."

In fact, puzzled educators have experimented for decades by putting these kids in junior highs, middle schools, back in elementary schools and sometimes in high schools. Nothing seems quite right.

So let's consider a different kind of education, one that would allow kids to learn skills in unconventional ways and that would give them far more time to engage in physical activity outside the classroom. Maybe we can get them stop obsessing for a little while on the size of their body parts.

Enough with "academic rigor." No more projects on the Chesapeake Bay (or whatever body of water you happen to live near.) Stop testing them into submission.

How about teaching nutrition and health through cooking classes? Nobody can argue that kid donât need to learn more, not with the obesity epidemic among young people in this country. An added bonus: cooking can be a great way to teach chemical reactions and other scientific principles.

Give kids things to take apart and to rebuild. Yes, bring back shop class. This sparks a curiosity that will drive them to want to learn the math and science necessary to take their tinkering to the next level.

Let them learn about financial literacy by running small businesses. Knowing how to solve a geometric proof doesnât help them balance a checkbook.

Let them learn the kind of music they like, with the instruments they want to play.

Let kids spend more class time reading and talking about books--books that they select themselves (some schools are doing this now). Give kids who need basic skills the time and support they need--and let kids who want to memorize "Hamlet" have at it. With more than 40 percent of American adults practically illiterate, our current approach seems rather flawed.

Let's turn community service into a real lesson that includes real, daily responsibility.
Today this country demands little of its citizens in regard to national service. Community service programs are mandatory in most schools, but what constitutes community service can be a one-time cleanup at a ball park. Really; I know someone who did that.

What if kids went to work at a homeless shelter every day for several months? Or had to own the responsibility for keeping clean a neighborhood park, for months, picking up the litter every day as it reappears.

Such experience teaches commitment and the challenges and pleasures of making a difference. If kids are old enough to watch garbage on television, they are certainly old enough to pick up garbage and get a closer look at the real human condition.

I will not, of course, hold my breath for these kind of "reforms." But a girl can dream.

The larger point is for us to think about what we want our kids to know when they get out of school. Are we giving them the proper tools for adulthood?

I'd like middle school educators to email me and tell me why I am wrong (or why I am right.)

Iâd also like parents to email me with what they you think their kids should learn in school but aren't.

And I'd love to hear from any kids out there--if there are any--about middle school life.

I'll put together your comments in another post so we can continue the discussion.

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