“What’s the biggest difference between Middle School and High School?”
This question has come my way a lot in the past two weeks. A lot.
I made the switch this school year from teaching high school, where I’ve been for a decade as an educator, to 8th grade. I’m teaching U.S. History for the first time to four sections of students who come from 14 different countries. Fewer than ten of them are American.
If you haven’t been following along, I work in a school in India, where the majority of my students are Korean. The words “American” and “International” are in the name of my school. It doesn’t take a lot of contemplation to recognize that teaching American history to 13 year olds, the majority of whom have never studied or particularly cared about the history of the U.S. before could be rough.
The central challenge in all teaching, regardless of age group or subject, is communicating the relevance of your topic to a group of people who have not-yet-developed brains, who don’t really have a solid ability to reason, and who are easily distracted by a myriad of alternatives just a touch screen away.
These challenges are the same, as far as I can tell, in high school and middle school. The students in high school, especially juniors and seniors, are more pragmatic and cynical. They often can’t be bothered to do anything that doesn’t have a strong connection to helping them get into college. 9th graders are curious, but they’re also shell-shocked as the transition they so looked forward to in the year before now is real, and it includes sharing space with people who are tall, who can drive, and whom often are shaving. And sophomores are just solipsistic fools, thinking they’ve got the world figured out.
Eighth graders are bean poles of humanity. They are wet clay. They are kings of their heap, and they know it, but they lack the abject fear that 12th graders possess – a fear that comes incidentally from all those “rest of your life” conversations which are part of trying to figure out the college application process. Those little 8th graders want to dig into highly complex morality plays and unpack propositions about human nature. They’re admirable for this unknowing confidence.
They are also a bunch of weirdos. Most aren’t through their growth spurts, so they walk around in various states of physical awkwardness so sharp that I find myself muttering under my breath “stay with it buddy, you’re almost through this phase.” The girls have begun to show signs of sophistication. The advanced ones have better hair than their peers. The advanced boys are now wearing adult-sized t-shirts, instead of the junior sizes of the kids in the younger grades, and they strut around like the proud peacocks I’ve seen in rural parts India.
The biggest difference between middle school and high school is that middle school students still like drawing pictures of their teachers. I’ve been in high school for ten years and I never saw one of my students sketch anything that was supposed to be me. In less than two weeks of teaching 8th grade, there are two student-made posters in my classroom with my likeness on them. They giggle at it with a hint of attitude indicating to me that drawing pictures of your teacher is just what you do. Duh, Mr. Ranson.
So there you go: in high school students take tests; in middle school, they draw pictures of their teachers on posters. I think I’ve got this year figured out.