2001

The Voice: Spring 2001

The Voice

Middle school endorsement draws many students


By Sally Jongsma

Kara Plooster did her student teaching this spring under Marilyn Hielkema, a Dordt alum who teaches at Calvin Christian School in Minneapolis.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 learning.

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 around them.

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 together.

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 upper grades.”

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 ninetieth percentile.

“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.

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