The Voice: Spring 2001
Middle school endorsement draws many students
By Sally Jongsma
The middle school years are a time of contrast and often tension. A student may play with dolls
one day and pore over Teen magazine the next. Another student may unexpectedly move from
average height to tallest in the class in the space of a few months. The pressures that such
changes place on children can greatly affect how able they are to learn, say Dordt education
professors Dennis Vander Plaats and Barb Hoekstra.
There probably isn't another time-except maybe when a woman is pregnant-that a person
remembers going through such dramatic physical changes, says Hoekstra. A five-foot-ten eighth
grade girl may walk stoop-shouldered, smarting under the taunts of a four-foot-ten eighth grade
boy intent on building his own self-image. A coordinated seventh grader can have his dreams of
being a high school basketball player dashed because his teammates grow before he does and he
loses a year of playing time.
Physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual growth lunge ahead in these years-but at
different speeds and at different times for different students. Many feel vulnerable and uncertain
about themselves, often making it difficult for them to concentrate on school work.
Teachers need to be able to detect what individual students are facing, not just from one day to
the next but often from one minute to the next, if they are to provide a good environment for
learning, says Hoekstra. If a teacher treats a student like an child, the student may be offended;
if she treats him like an adult, the student may feel overwhelmed. Hoekstra would not say that a
teacher has to spend all of her time trying to determine what mood her students are in, but that
she should understand the changes taking place and be ready to deal with their impact on
In fact, Hoekstra asks her college students in Education 216, The Middle Level Child, to examine
their feelings about those years. In many cases, she says, they are still smarting from
uncomfortable events and situations. If they can't deal with it in their past, they won't be able to
deal with it well as teachers, she says.
Sarah Vriend, who did her student teaching in Holland, Michigan, this spring, described some of
the situations she dealt with. In one day one of my middle school students asked me if I
commute from Dordt to Holland each day. Another asked me what physical limits an eighth
grader should have while dating. Another cried because he got a B on a quiz. She adds, You
hear people reminisce about college days or working days, but interestingly you never hear
someone say they'd like to go back to puberty or middle school. For all of these reasons, it is
crucial for schools to offer a developmentally appropriate educational program, says Vander
Plaats. Vander Plaats and the rest of Dordt's education department believe that a middle school
model does the best job of helping middle school children learn in the midst of so much change.
The middle school should not prepare students for the next level of school by giving them that
level, he says. Unlike the traditional junior high in which students move from room to room,
with a different teacher for each subject-following more of a high school model-middle school
students often keep the same teacher or small team of teachers throughout the day. Their study is
less discipline oriented and more topical, with many hands-on and exploratory learning
opportunities. In addition, competition is downplayed.
Good middle schools are friendly and safe, yet academically challenging, says Vander Plaats.
Teachers and adults in the school are advocates and mentors as well as encouragers and leaders.
A good middle school creates a flexible environment in which students with varying interests and
abilities can explore topics and discover things about the world around them. It encourages
students to get involved in a variety of activities-usually in a non-competitive way. It encourages
students to treat each other with dignity and to be responsible for their own behavior. The middle
school also works closely with families and communities.
The ideal middle school takes an integrated approach to life and learning, which fits very well
with a Christian understanding of the world and how we are to live in it, says Vander Plaats. The
artificial segmentation that occurs in the traditional curriculum can lead to a misunderstanding of
the interrelatedness of God's handiwork. An integrated/interdisciplinary approach, Vander Plaats
believes, will not only help students understand that the whole creation is interrelated, but will
spur them to service as they learn about the impact one aspect of life has on another.
To help students see the connections between subjects or between different areas of study, most
middle school teachers work in teams. They share their expertise as they teach integrated units
centered around particular topics, incorporating social studies, language arts, mathematics,
science, and other academic areas.
Vander Plaats believes that this more integrated approach, in which students work with teachers
who know them well and with a group of students who form bonds with each other, is a
wonderful way to move from the more holistic elementary school classroom to the more
specialized study that often occurs in the high school setting.
That is not to say that once students get out of middle school it's okay to leave integration of
learning experiences behind and depend more on specialization, Vander Plaats quickly points
out. In fact, he and others in Dordt's education department have recently written a document for
Calvin Christian School in Minneapolis that lays out a vision for a developmentally responsive
high school that promotes a more integrated approach as well. Even in college we shouldn't be
so specialized that we lose sight of interrelations between fields of study, he says. But it is
particularly important at the developmental stage of middle school students to shape learning
through integrated units that help them make sense of all of the parts when so much is changing
The team work required for such an integrated approach requires that teachers have time to work
together. Middle schools often schedule planning times for teacher teams into the regular daily
schedule so that teachers can both discover the connections between their areas of emphasis and
find ways to present them effectively. They need to have time to write interdisciplinary units
Some schools schedule time for teachers to spend one afternoon a week in planning, while
people from the community come in to teach mini courses or exploratories that allow students
to explore special gifts or interests they may have, Vander Plaats says.
It sounds like a lot of work and it is. It's easier to close the classroom door and do your own
thing, says Vander Plaats, who taught middle school for twenty-four years. But he believes that
using our gifts to build the body of Christ means working together to provide the best education
we can for middle school students. Teachers need to draw connections and, to some extent, let
students suggest topics to study so that they take ownership for what they are learning.
Teachers not only need to know specific subjects well, they must also be generalists, says
Hoekstra. Dordt's education program gives students a background in both, requiring a broad
range of subject area courses to help future middle school teachers acquire the depth of
knowledge they need to offer an academically challenging education across the curriculum. In
addition to the fourteen general education courses all Dordt students take, education majors with
a middle school endorsement take courses in adolescent development and middle school
curriculum and instruction as well as adolescent reading, geography, American history,
mathematics, and science. Dordt has done a good job of training their middle school teachers to
understand the middle school student-socially, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and
intellectually, says Vriend.
Both Vander Plaats and Hoekstra are enthusiastic about their experiences teaching in middle
school. They enjoy the students' spontaneity and motivation, their energy and their
genuineness-all of which outweigh the challenges of dealing with developmental changes.
That enthusiasm has spilled over to students. Last year, Dordt had its first student graduate with
this endorsement; this year eight will graduate with a middle school endorsement, and many
more are currently in the program.
Most students come to teaching wanting to teach elementary school because they love young
children or wanting to teach high school because they love a specific discipline. Relatively few
come into education programs wanting to teach middle school. Too often teachers end up in
middle school because they couldn't find a job in elementary or high school, says Vander Plaats.
That can give them a negative attitude, but it can also mean that teachers are not really prepared
to teach in the middle school. Once students understand the need for excellent teachers in those
grades, however, many decide to focus on that level.
Karen Netz, a senior from Pella, Iowa, says, I was strictly elementary. But after Dr. Vander
Plaats talked to our class about the need for middle school teachers, I became more interested.
My experiences in the schools have confirmed my decision to seek the middle school
endorsement. The more I'm around middle school students, the more I enjoy them; the more I'm
around elementary students, the more I'm reminded that I have gifts that better suit teaching
Vander Plaats knows that not all of the many students currently seeking the middle school
endorsement will find positions in middle schools rather than in traditional junior highs. In
general, he says, Christian schools have been slower to adopt the middle school model than most
state schools. He cites several reasons why this might be the case. In general, Christian school
teachers are already overworked. Committing to change means adding work. Also, Christian
school students generally perform well on standardized achievement tests, often at or above the
It's hard to get people excited about a vision for what could be when they are satisfied with
what they have, says Vander Plaats.
Regardless of whether their students teach in a middle school or a junior high, Vander Plaats and
Hoekstra hope their students will be innovative teachers who will provide a challenging but
developmentally responsive education for their mid-level students.