David Elkinds, a professor at Tuffs University and the author of All Grown Up with No Place to Go says “Its important to remember that [early adolescents] are as unfamiliar with their expanded thinking abilities as they are with their reconfigured bodies. Contrary to popular belief, it is actually ‘overthinking’ not thoughtlessness, that characterizes middle school students. Caught up in their own transformations, adolescents assume that everyone else is preoccupied with the same subject which engrosses them, namely themselves.”
Here is what I know about teaching 7th graders.
A couple of years ago I was visiting a synagogue which shall remain nameless to protect me. I got picked up early Sunday morning by a religious school carpool. The father asked me (before my first cup of coffee) what I thought of a 7th grade curriculum made up of a year of Holocaust. I made the mistake of giving honest advice; I told him I wouldn’t do it. (I hadn’t started studying Midot yet). I explained why. At the end of the morning I met with the teachers and got yelled at from the get go by the 7th grade teacher who complained that I had told her parents that she was teaching the wrong thing. I admitted that I was wrong—sort of—and went home a little wiser. My real lesson came a few weeks later when I got into my e-mail correspondences with the teenagers from this synagogue. As we talked, it became clear that this teacher and her 7th grade Holocaust year were the best things in their Jewish lives so far. Here is what I learned. (1) You need not give up on 7th graders; they can be both taught and enjoyed. (2) Teachers work with 7th graders, not curriculum or programs.
The very challenges that drive a lot of teachers out of 7th grade classrooms make it one of the most valuable experiences we have. There is one more simple part to the lesson, and this one I learned from Jim Faye. Education is giving kids a chance to make mistakes and then working on fixing the mistakes with them. We don’t want our kids to behave. The kids who behave only get to learn the curriculum. Those who misbehave get unique and special learning opportunities. Who better to make mistakes than 12 to 14 year olds! What we need to learn is that if teaching is indeed a relationship, then middle school puts the greatest demands on finding relationship specialists. Because, more than anything else, we need people to work on respect, affection, reconciliation, ethical speech, preventing embarrassment and all those good Jewish values which come into play in the seventh and eight grade. If we give up those years, we will only get the survivors back. If we think our program formulae are the answer, then we miss the real action. Better a teacher who teaches a year of Holocaust videos and somehow connects with each and every child, than the perfect program formulations that have been lovingly crafted and shared with us at the TAPBB. It is okay to admit that teachers make the difference, especially here. That is my truth. If you can’t find them, then you just have to look harder. That, too, is God’s work.