Friday, March 24, 2006

Are we forcing childhood's end too soon?

It has been a problem all across America.

Students who do well in elementary school, as soon as they get to middle school or junior high school (whether that be in the sixth or the seventh grade) often experience sudden drops in academic performance.

And although we could debate the relative merits of different types of schools or in different places, that isn't the point of this post. The decline in performance exists across America, in public and in private schools, in large cities and in small towns.

Of course, some of the problems are predictable and impossible to do much about. Puberty starts at around this age, and children change physically and mentally. They are also suddenly around older kids, many of whom may be experiencing other (non-academic) life difficulties, such as gang involvement, drug use, pregnancy or juvenile justice problems, that will inevitably rub off on the younger kids (who still have a natural tendency to look up to their older peers).

My thinking though is that some of the problems that students face in a junior high environment is a product of the fact that they are structured so much like high schools. Instead of a transition from elementary school to full high school, we are suddenly in the sixth or seventh grade placing them into an environment that is less of a transition than a complete restructuring. Further, with junior high schools often drawing from multiple elementary schools, the chances are that suddenly students will be surrounded, even in small junior high schools, by a majority of students whom they don't know, and that this will in turn change every hour. This certainly contributes to the cliquishness for which junior high schools are well known, and possibly also to gang activity. Also, recess has been replaced by short 'passing periods,' which other than for lunch, don't allow students to get out any of the natural energy which they still have (and in fact which is especially a problem for students with ADD or ADHD.) Recent proposals to eliminate recess in elementary schools have quite correctly been shot down by people who point out that it is necessary for children to be able to focus and concentrate during the rest of the day.

My proposals would be these:

1) restructure junior high schools, so that the same group of kids goes through the day as a block. They may come from elementary schools (that is a good thing, as long as they are together enough to develop some connection to each other), but have the same group of say 20 kids go through each day together as a group, having the same classes in the same order. This will promote a sense of familiarity and perhaps even develop new friendships, much as exists in elementary schools. The need for more specialized teaching may still require that aspect of the high school schedule to be followed, but even here there is some room for a more relaxed schedule-- instead of 'homeroom' to be in name only, maybe bundle a couple of similar subjects together (i.e. reading and grammar, or math and science, and double the length of the first morning class (maybe even a class where students would have a break in the middle), and this would the the classroom in which students would keep their stuff, possibly returning for the last half hour of the day. In between they could go as scheduled to the classrooms of teachers who taught their other subjects. I mean, who needs lockers in sixth grade anyway? Electives would not be a problem since at this level kids generally only get about one elective class anyway, and the nature of the elective could be used to determine which group of twenty goes together (or alternatively, let the elective class be the one class during the day in which that group is broken up).

2) Even if it means lengthening the day by about half an hour, include a morning recess (see the 'break' above). It's great if kids eat breakfast, but let them get some of that pure sugar energy out sometime during the morning, it will help them focus better during the rest of the day. Even adults work better if they take a few breaks, why do we ask junior high kids to limit the breaks to the time it takes to walk from one classroom to the other? In fact, we homeschooled one of our daughters for two years when we lived in really poor school districts (luckily not the case now) and I can say that the ability to schedule break time was a big plus.


Anonymous said...

Those are some okay ideas. Seems like they would only work in a big school, though. For instance, my wife teaches in a Jr High/Sr High that only has 50 students per grade level. There are three different levels of 7th grade math, three different levels of 7th grade English, etc. If a student excels in math, but is weak in English, they can adjust their schedule accordingly. How would that work under your system?

I like the idea of extending the day by 30 minutes. Even more, I think we need to move to year-round schooling and a 200 day school year. In my area (Southern Indiana) we are still on a 180 day school year and we get an 11 week summer break.

Eli Blake said...


Actually, my own school district has even fewer students than yours, there are only about thirty per grade level. Of course in that case you don't have the problems of a lot of students being thrown together from 'feeder' elementary schools then so most of them probably already do know each other.

But you could still have a homeroom, say involving history (which everyone pretty much gets the same thing in seventh grade)/study hall in the morning, then go to the more specialized classes later in the day. Or, you could break them according to their skills in math (highest skill level, get homeroom with the math/science teacher in the morning) with others getting the history/study hall homeroom, then later the math/science teacher(s) could teach the lower skill students while the students who had math/science first would among their later classes include history and study hall. English could similarly be combined with, say, literature or even a foreign language as a third 'homeroom.'

In fact, I've thought a lot about how we teach foreign languages lately (maybe I will do a blog post on what I've encountered trying to get my nine year olds into a Spanish class), and I'm convinced that we really do our kids a disservice by not teaching foreign languages until high school. The theory is that until they know enough grammar in English to be able to structure a sentence and conjugate all the verbs, they can't learn it in another language. But why not teach a foreign language as most kids learn it when they first learn to speak? Nouns first, then how to make simple sentences and then maybe read? Of course the teacher should always use the correct grammar, but let kids learn the way they naturally learn, and at the age they naturally learn. Most kids in Europe can speak two or three languages by the time they enter high school, while we don't even LET them learn another language until high school.

Anonymous said...

Good idea's Eli. What about going back to one room school with multiple age groups. Our younger students would mature faster and our older students would have more responsibility.

Eli Blake said...


Could work in some cases. I teach some classes in a college that are very much like that, where the enrollment in certain classes is too low to sustain a lecture. In some cases, it even works. In others, students need the lecture.

Of course that probably wouldn't work as well in a junior high or high school setting because of the specialization needed to teach certain subjects (all of the classes I teach are at least math classes) but I could see it working in an elementary setting where teachers are expected to be generalists. On the other hand, the academic problems that are dropping American schoolkids behind the rest of the world don't seem to be developing for the most part until junior high school (except in individual circumstances where there is often a factor outside of school that is responsible) so in general my answer to elementary school is 'if it's not broke, don't fix it.' We should monitor elementary schools or course, and perhaps individual school districts, especially those with problems, might want to consider such a solution, but in general I believe we should be focused more on reforming junior high school, where the big problems seem to hit.