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Understanding Middle School through Fact and Fiction Brian Russell McHenry Seton Hill University

UNDERSTANDING MIDDLE SCHOOL THROUGH FACT AND FCTION Understanding Middle School through Fact and Fiction Its near the end of the sixth grade. She was 12 years old. She was black, beautiful, tall and lanky. However, the kids at school called her names all year long. They called her stupid, sometimes, even called her an oddity, a freak, even ugly. Holly Berry, Holly B for short, was

the typical girl in middle school that was stereotyped daily. She was NERDY; she was in the top of her class, yet was troublesome and could get away with anything. Rumor has it; her parents would lock her up in her room when they were away, so she wouldnt destroy things. The kids at school thought her parents were mean, cruel, that Holly B didnt deserve that kind of treatment, even though they treated her as she lived in the ghetto trash, a low life whatever happened, life went on in the middle school. In todays middle schools, students are stereotyped in every possible fashion. Whether you are the nerdy kid, the dark gothic girl with coal black hair and a pale white face, or, the jock gearing up for every football game, students are being stereotyped daily in our middle schools. These adolescents are being stereotyped, so they can find their click as a middle school student. Throughout the history of middle schools, both of social and historical perspectives are apparent with the correlation of using novels and films regarding the middle school timeframe. With critiquing both novels and movies, one can get an understanding of the fact and fiction relationship with adolescents today. Wonder, written by R. J. Palacio, is a novel about a child named Auggie, with craniofacial differences, who was bullied in middle school because of his facial abnormality. Palacio notes in her book, Wonder, about a time when she and her two sons were at an ice cream shop. Her youngest son saw a child next to them at the ice cream shop, who had a very pronounced craniofacial difference, and started to scream and cry as he became frightened. She thought at that time to remove her son, as quickly as possible, hoping that the

UNDERSTANDING MIDDLE SCHOOL THROUGH FACT AND FCTION child with the craniofacial difference wouldnt notice. What she realized, then, was she missed an opportunity, to allow her son that there was nothing to fear. She realized this was a teaching moment, yet, at that moment, she didnt know how to handle it. As a result of this incident, this

possibly could have allowed her son to stereotype other children with craniofacial differences, as being ugly, freakish, and not normal to the normal kids. Whether its these moments that create the perspectives of creating stereotypes, we must encourage children to accept who others are and recognize who they are on the inside. This same situation occurs in Wonder, a child screaming at Auggies face. The teaching moment in the middle school begins as the students exit his or her elementary school and enters the middle school. As educators, we must believe that all young adolescents will accept responsibly and we must assist them in learning them. With the use of advisory programs, student assistance programs, and exploratory programs, educators will be able to be supportive of their students in hopes of them developing to their fullest potential. In typical middle schools, this is possible. In the film, Freedom Writers, directed by Richard LaGravenese, the students were stereotyped as the unteachable students. These students never had the chance to be successful in the teachers eyes, with the exception of Mrs. Gruwell. Mrs. Gruwell had high hopes for these students and she pushed them to a higher standard. By the end of the year, these students improved because one teacher cared for each and every one of them. Holly B lived moments like this in middle school. She had been stereotyped as the unteachable student. Why? Is it because she is black? Is it because she was troublesome? Hopefully, she, too, will have a teacher like Mrs. Gruwell and find hopes of achieving something for her in her middle school years.

UNDERSTANDING MIDDLE SCHOOL THROUGH FACT AND FCTION Caring teachers, in life or in a fictional setting, should create an environment for their students to feel welcomed. The middle school has changed the focus, from content to be instructed, to the students interactions with self and others, allowing for the students needs to be first and foremost. At this age, these transescent learners have no rationale of what their needs are. We, as educators, must assist them in finding the way, create a secure and stable environment for them, and allow them to find their way as well. As noted earlier, advisory,

student assistance programs, and more importantly, teaming, can aid the middle school student to achieve his or her social and emotional needs. DAmore suggests, in an article published on The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the advisory program transitions from activities focused on self to activities focused on building relationships and communication skills (2013, para. 19). In preparing the middle school student to succeed, Marisa Esposto, a Behavior Support Therapist suggests: Teachers should spend the first part of the year or so teaching and reinforcing the skills necessary for students to have to be successful, by giving them the opportunity to adjust to the new life of middle school. Some of the skills that are needed include: organization, time management, study skills, problem solving, self-advocacy etc. Administration should support and encourage the teaching of these skills and way of teaching. It is also important to create an environment where students feel safe and comfortable to talk to adults. They should feel that they can come for help, advice, or support to any teacher/administrator (Esposto, 2014, para. 2). Transition to the middle school is one of the most difficult transitions an adolescent can perform they experience physical, emotional, and cognitive changes. With caring middle school teachers, this transition can ease both the social and emotional needs of their students. Even though Holly B was troublesome, she, for the most part, was a loner. Her parents didnt have to worry about Holly B partaking in promiscuous activities, yet. As middle school aged children, sexuality becomes an important issue of adolescence. With the media throwing around sexual images, from hugging to kissing, to what some parents would consider soft porn,

UNDERSTANDING MIDDLE SCHOOL THROUGH FACT AND FCTION health and sexuality is a part of the ever-growing middle school population. Karen Weller Swanson summarizes, from The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), that sexuality is natural, families benefit when children are able to discuss sexuality, young people explore sexuality as a process of achieving sexual maturity, and young adolescents need access to more information about health care (Swanson, 2012, p. 2). Swanson continues to suggest teaching sexuality through middle school language art classes and interdisciplinary instruction. Relating language arts to the students lives and incorporating real life situations, as in the film, Freedom Writers creates an invitation to the topic of sexuality. In Freedom Writers, Mrs. Gruwell purchased The Diary of Anne Frank for the students to read. Sexuality was mentioned in the book, as there were issues about breast development and menstruation. In contrast, these topics are about sexuality that both sexes learn about, through

the correlation of sexuality and language arts. However, schools must be careful about choosing literature that is age and topic appropriate. Curriculum throughout the schools must be rigorous for the students to succeed on. The curriculum must be connected to the state standards and teachers must be held accountable. Margaret Campbell, the department chair in the movie Freedom Writers, portrays the role of an ignorant, stuffy, and tenured teacher. She insists on not giving Mrs. Gruwell the needed and necessary literature for the students to learn, to thrive on, to grow and learn. Instead, Mrs. Gruwell purchases her own materials. Again, using language arts, Mrs. Gruwell combines reallife situations with her students lives situations. Comparing the film, Freedom Writers, to todays society, Mrs. Campbell would not be in the school systems. She would be a hindrance on the childs educational learning.


Educators are challenged daily in schools. They are working with a diverse population of students, with many social and emotional needs. Once entering the middle schools, the students are in desperate need of attention and need the nurturing from teachers. Teachers work with the students. As Michele Riley, a Special Education Teacher, states: At arrival, the teacher greets each student individually and assesses mood, physical appearance and verbal responses. Using our structured point sheets, student issues in other classrooms are visible and questioned by the homeroom teacher. Based on student response, staff will decide the next action taken. With colleagues, we meet daily to seek out students needs, grades, etc. In addition, I check in on certain students, to check for emotional problems at home along with collaborating information with other teachers (Riley, 2014, para. 12).

Teaching the middle school students the necessary skills are necessary for them to succeed in middle school. When preparing the students from the self-contained classroom of the elementary buildings, to entering the middle school with new skills of transitioning from room to room, Esposto states, Some of the skills that are needed include: organization, time management, study skills, problem solving, self-advocacy etc. (Esposto, 2014, para. 2). We, as educators, must prepare our students for the upcoming middle school years; furthermore, we must prepare them for the following high school years. It is necessary to ensure that the curriculum is aligned to prepare the middle school students for the challenge of high school work (McHenry, 2014). Strategies used for incorporating practice and theory in the middle school can be implemented by following This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents. [T]he landmark position paper [, This We Believe, is] from the Association for Middle Level Education in which the association's vision for successful schools for 10- to 15-year-olds is delineated in 16 characteristics (AMLE, 2014). Some of the 16 Characteristics can be noted both in the fictional literature, Wonder, and in the film, Freedom Writers. Wonder presents elements from all attributes of This We Believe, such as students and teachers are engaged in

UNDERSTANDING MIDDLE SCHOOL THROUGH FACT AND FCTION active, purposeful learning. However, in Freedom Writers, This We Believe lacks mostly in all attributes. The school was not inviting. The curriculum was not challenging, prior to Mrs. Gruwell purchasing her own materials. In factual settings, we can only strive to reach these characteristics. Middle schools must ensure that the curriculum is challenging, there is leadership and ongoing professional development, and the school environment is inviting and welcoming.

The students, teachers, and administration, are working together to form one community. Auggie and his friends in the novel Wonder portray the typical middle school students. Auggie, with his craniofacial difference, was constantly being bullied. His friends, along with the support of his parents and teachers, intervened and supported Auggie. Mr. Tushman, Auggies principal, pulled Julian from the school due to a zero tolerance policy. Zero tolerance refers to those policies which deal out severe punishment for all offenses, no matter how minor [] (Henault, 2001). Administration and student interactions were met in the defense of one child, who was bullied. In the film, Freedom Writers, the teacher cared about the students. She thought of them as teachable, not unteachable. Teacher and student interactions were met in the defense of many children, who were bullied, by the staff. Michele Riley states [s]afe monitoring throughout the building and teachers being aware of interactions in the building hot spots. In addition, social media allows us to see what students may incur in and out of the school (Riley, 2014, para. 6). The various roles of the middle school are working together. Deciphering between fact and fiction in the middle school has shown many educators the need for improvement in vital areas. Stereotyping students, rather than identifying students first, is one of many issues that are in need of attention. Holly Bs teachers have intervened with her peers and have alleviated the bullying issues. With programs, such as advisory, allowing

UNDERSTANDING MIDDLE SCHOOL THROUGH FACT AND FCTION students to interact with each other, Riley mentions [they] regularly work on social skills and complete activities showing how students are the same and how to celebrate differences. This

helps with student empathy as well (Riley, 2014, para. 15). As educators come and go, whether its due to retirement, or to the teachers who quit within 5 years of being hired, and seeking other sources of employment, the new generation of teachers must engage in students more proactively. They must be persistent. TEACH, a recent film directed towards teachers, directed by Davis Guggenheim, shows how four teachers were eager for their students to succeed. Each teacher had his or her role in the film, each teacher showing perseverance. An educator at Seton Hill University describes how: The filmmakers did an awesome job showing the trials and tribulations of teaching in this film. There are many out there who think teachers do not deserve the pay they receive or summers off and the different perks of the teaching profession. They feel this way because they do not see all the behind the scenes work teachers put into their careers and how some teachers put their hearts and souls into their students. This film shows the lengths that teachers will go to just to improve their students lives and futures (Campbell, 2014, para. 3). Films such as TEACH show a better understanding of what a teacher is faced with in todays economic hardships, both with the instructor and with the students. With these moments, we as educators can learn from the mistakes, understand the needs of these transescent learners, and allow them to succeed in the middle school setting.


AMLE. (n.d.). This we believe. Retrieved from Campbell, B. (2014). Fact and Fiction. Week 2: Self Reflection. Retrieved from D'Amore, E. (2013, August). Making connections with advisory. Retrieved from =297 Esposto, M. (2014, January 6). Interview by Brian McHenry [Monroeville, PA]. Questions derived for the middle school teacher/administration., Retrieved from Henault, C. (2001). Zero tolerance in schools. JL & Educ., 30, 547. McHenry, B. (Designer) (2014). Fact and fiction via showme [Web]. Retrieved from Riley, M. (2014, January 6). Interview by Brian McHenry [Monroeville, PA]. Questions derived for the middle school teacher/administration., Retrieved from