Winding down the school year and a skill development rant

8th grade promotion is always one of those defining moments of a group of kids.  No matter what, when you look up at those kids on the stage getting ready for their big moment, or when you watch the class video (if, indeed, your school does such a thing), you realize that sense of potential in a manner entirely different from a high school graduation.  Or an elementary promotion.  The changes that go through a middle school class from sixth grade to eighth grade begin to foreshadow the kind of adults that group may turn out to be.  High school may polish off the edges, but still…those nervous guys guiding the highly dressed girls teetering on their heels are still going to be who and what they are four years later.  As are those nervous but poised girls.

Our little middle school is somewhat traditional in that many of the teachers attend promotion.  The interim principal was pleasantly surprised when she asked how many of us planned to be there, and the entire 7/8 team plus two specialists told her we’d be there.  The much larger school she used to supervise didn’t have anywhere near that degree of turnout.  Oddly enough, I remember some teachers at my son’s middle school promotion.  But even though that was a bigger school in the main city, it was also a middle school with a strong associated community.  Part of that community association means that the teachers are there to help celebrate a landmark in the lives of kids they may have spent anywhere from one to three years supporting and guiding.

The school year winds down.  It’s been a rough, rough year this time, not just personally but throughout the district and state.  Financing coupled with major ideological attacks upon the nature of public education takes a toll not just on staff but on the kids and their families.  The new Common Core standards will require, for example, that eighth grade algebra will become the norm for a regular diploma.  That’s going to be rough on kids who are moving at a slower cognitive developmental pace than others.  Algebra readiness isn’t just about numeracy, it’s the ability to think abstractly and understand that the placement of the variable does not always have to be to the right of the equals sign.  As adults, we think that’s simple.  But as adults, we’ve also acquired at least the rudiments of abstract thought.  Middle school kids are only starting to move into the ability to think abstractly.

Do I think we should be less rigorous?  Oh no, hell no, absolutely not no.  But what worries me about demanding more and more higher level thought from these kids is that we end up spending less time on the fundamental basics underpinning that higher level thought.  Those holes show up later with a desire for quick results (including only wanting to learn only what’s on the test), taking short cuts, and dependance on tools such as calculators and spell checkers.  Automatically practicing skills has the purpose of ingraining the knowledge/skill until you don’t have to think about it consciously.  It’s a lot easier to think about the multi-step processes that go into solving algebraic equations or determining the volume of a cylinder if you don’t bog down on the math that goes into them.  It’s much simpler to write an essay if you know how to construct a sentence and paragraph correctly without having to puzzle it out.  Understanding an assigned reading goes more smoothly if you don’t have to puzzle out the meaning of several words per paragraph.

Why do we think it’s okay to spend the time developing the skill set needed mentally and physically to be a professional football player but turn around and expect high academic performance without sufficient years of practice beforehand?  Yes, there are differing needs and skill levels cognitively, but you also encounter that in athletic performance–and those guys still spend hours in practice and conditioning, no matter what their athletic talent is.

I don’t know what the answer is.  It’s easy to reach back into the past and hold that up to be perfect, when in reality it wasn’t.

But what is encouraging, is that I went to bed last night thinking about ways to make my classes better for next year, and looking forward to sharing that somehow today with the kids I’m planning to have as TAs next fall.  I’ve not had that energy for a long time.

I’m happy to have that back in my life.

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