Why I Love Teaching Middle School
by Sarah Cooper
It's Tuesday, seventh period. I walk into my 8th grade US history class a minute before the bell, coming from a meeting, and suddenly I forget everything from the meeting.
On the board are scribbly and bubbly “words of the day” in French, Latin and English that students have just put up. One is French for “hat,” another Latin for “myself.”
One boy catches me three feet into Room 21 and says, “Ms. Cooper, did you hear about the Australian guy who hacked into his own microwave?” and proceeds to tell me all about it. One girl tries to get my attention because she has forgotten her binder in her locker. “Yes, go fast!” I say.
Everyone else is talking about the project due tomorrow in Spanish, pulling binders out of their backpacks, milking these last seconds of the four-minute passing period.
We start class finally. Today we’re preparing for a debate on whether the US should have dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
We watch 15 minutes of a documentary about the Manhattan Project, including a clip of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The students who just yesterday were glad to be assigned the pro side of the debate are now feeling a little less certain, and those on the con side are taking lots of notes.
A giddy seventh period class has shifted, halfway through, into something deeper.
Those of us who teach middle school at Prep adore this sweep of 43 minutes that can turn from zany to heartfelt in a heartbeat.
“How do you manage it?” colleagues and parents often ask. “These kids seem so young and squirrelly.”
Yes. They are unjaded. They ask questions that older kids don’t voice. They want to discover how we know what is true. They want to find out who they are and what they can contribute. They are desperate to grow up and aching to stay young.
In these contradictions come epiphanies, insights that we are lucky enough to watch.
English builds slowly until everything connects. The poster in my office of the original cover of To Kill a Mockingbird is a reminder of the power of the long payoff. The first 11 chapters of Harper Lee’s novel can seem like vignettes without a theme—until the end of the book, when Scout stands on Boo Radley’s porch and realizes that he had protected her and Jem all along, that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”
History leaps like fireworks. Its explosions of curiosity, its “gee whiz” moments, arrive by the minute. Can you believe how grumpy John Brown looks in that portrait? Alice Paul ate what when she was force-fed in prison while fighting for women’s suffrage? What do you think the UN is going to do about Iraq? Discussions of current events every Friday capitalize on 8th graders’ abiding fascination with the shocking, gruesome and new.
English explores the emotions of the individual. One year a girl became so incensed by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, as the pigs gained more and more power, that she started writing her reading journal in all capital letters and with dozens of exclamation points.
History embraces the emotions of a community, a nation. Students do research on reformers in century-old newspapers so they can emulate Jane Addams’ community building or raise their eyebrows at Carry Nation’s “hatchetation” of bar stools—an intemperate path to temperance.
English is true in the heart; history is true in the world. As American history and literature professor Jill Lepore says, literature has “the truth of the universal” while history has “the truth of the particular.”
What English and history share in Prep’s middle school curriculum is that they both rely on deep discussion, reflection, debate and writing. In English, students lead Socratic seminars based on their own questions and do a mock trial to practice the art of persuasion. In history, they debate the merits of urban Wrigley Field versus suburban Dodger Stadium and discuss whether affirmative action, as argued in the 1978 Bakke decision, is still needed today.
I usually give new middle school teachers at Prep one caveat above all: Never underestimate our students’ desire to be intellectually challenged. Don’t talk down to them, even accidentally. They see everything and, through their many questions, they remind us what they need to grow up.
In 2013, Dean of Studies Sarah Cooper returned to teaching 8th grade US history after a decade away, mostly in 8th grade English. She is the author of Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9 (Stenhouse, 2009).