The Middle Grades Come with Unique Challenges
The middle grades are often maligned as a source of upheaval, drama, consternation, and puberty– culminating in the production of *mostly* proper human beings who will enter high school — likely somewhat scarred from their previous educational experiences.
The concept is fraught with assumption of negativity, liminality, and, most of all, change.
It is this change that can be the most challenging bit of middle grades– students are not quite kids, not quite young adults even. How can we harness the power and opportunity that comes with these changes … for the good?
Students do their best, but schools, parents, and teachers play significant roles at this age. It is our responsibility to provide a space for students to get something out of all of the change they experience during this time.
Leaning into Challenges, Creating Opportunities
This is where Jewish day schools come in. There are many advantages to a TK-8 or K-12 Jewish day school model, but it can be just as impactful to come into Jewish education as a middle schooler. In fact, in many ways, a Jewish day school education taps into the positives of middle schoolers’ capacities, and provides opportunities for reflection and growth as they navigate the more difficult times of adolescence.
Jewish day school in the middle grades (approximately fifth through eighth grade) can be a place where the changes of middle school are embraced and leveraged for increased reflection, growth, autonomy, communal responsibility– all through Jewish values. This helps to nurture students to be active and ethical contributors in the world. Below, I will share five main reasons why Jewish day school education will prepare middle grade students for success.
First things first, it cannot be overstated- having the space to have embedded, targeted, proactive AND reactive conversations about philosophy, ethics, and values can bring the “why” that students of this age are searching for. Students at this age are naturally curious, but with that curiosity comes a hard won and newfound cynicism: platitudes aren’t enough. Students in this age group need a space to debate, to unpack, to share and discover the whys of being, of relationships, of ethical imperatives, and the ability to reflect where one might have missed the mark. For example, at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, where I am director of middle school, the framework in which we view behavioral mistakes is through the lens of teshuvah (repentance). Students look at our Darchei Hausner middot (character traits) and reflect on what they might need to work on in relation to their words and actions. This reflection allows students to learn from their mistakes- and from their experiences- not just cringe through them without taking responsibility. The texts, the community rituals, the reflection on mistakes, all of these are opportunities to better themselves as people, to visualize who they want to be and to take intentional steps closer to that goal.
It doesn’t need to be said that Judaism is a tradition steeped in debate and text. But what a boon for a middle grader- because they really really really want to debate. About everything. All the time. This age group is naturally wary, they are realizing that the world isn’t quite as rosy as they thought when they were younger. They are seeing the fallibility of the adults around them, and they are quickly coming up with new schemas and world views– trying them out, along with new identities. So it goes without saying that some of the dilemmas presented in the Torah and Rabbinic texts are an opportunity for middle schoolers to use their argumentation skills- learning how to state arguments, back them up, and above all, questioning things. For example, debating with another about a text’s meaning and intent– for example an in-depth look into the first lines of the creation story in Bereshit (Genesis), can help students to examine how things can be interpreted on multiple levels, and how these insights can even have bearing on their own day to day life and how they approach the world. Critical thinking has become a buzzword in education and beyond– but it is rarely defined. So to be clear: we can say that a Jewish day school provides students with a connection to tradition, textual competency, and an imperative to read and argue critically- not just for critical thinking’s sake, but because it is steeped in a way of being in the world that is always on the lookout for truth, for opportunities for improvement, and for justice. It is learning for learning’s sake, but the engaged learning of deep analysis of the world around them.
In fifth grade, students begin to see that the world of the self-contained classroom isn’t as impermeable as they thought it was. Because they have engaged in critical reading and textual debates, they are more aware that they have the ability to question what’s happening, and even evaluate it– for better or for worse. Sometimes this evaluation takes the form of self-reflection: for example, a student who is in a math class that perhaps feels too fast or too difficult may reflect on what a better option might be for their learning. The next step: advocating for themselves. In this case, going to teachers and parents– explaining what they are noticing and partnering together to find a solution. This evaluation– and advocacy– is directly related to looking at the world through a critical lens. Self-advocacy- a skill that will serve middle schoolers well in high school and beyond, can only be developed in a space that embraces self-advocacy– somewhere that gives students opportunities to reflect and take responsibility for their own learning and their own needs. And, sometimes even more important than self-advocacy, students learn to advocate for others as well, in the spirit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said: “ in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Our students have started initiatives to aid the homeless, have organized walk-outs for climate change and to end gun violence. Through these individual and group efforts, students practice advocating for others and they internalize that they are responsible for others, too. This responsibility piece taps into the need for middle graders to understand WHY– why they are in school, why they should care, why things might be the way they are- why things might need to change- why they are here on this earth. They are thinking these incredibly deep questions, and feeling these intense feelings– harnessing that potential for agency– for the advocacy of self, community, and the world doesn’t let that power go untapped.
The focus of Jewish day schools on looking outside the self and community to the needs of the world– and the imperative to DO SOMETHING about it, also taps into the middle grader’s need to feel like things matter– and for them to feel like they matter. With the awakening of the students’ critical and observational skills, they will see all of the injustice and need in their communities and the world. If they feel like they can make a difference– even a small difference– that gives middle schoolers a feeling of self-efficacy that will last a lifetime. For example, Hausner has a year-long philanthropy program where students delve deeply into the problems of the world and research the organizations who are helping make a difference in that area. They interview, fundraise and then allocate those funds to these organizations and, in turn, see the ways in which they can engage in the work of the world (Avodah La’Olam), even at a young age: “You are not required to finish your work, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 20:21) If we want to raise students who will drive social justice, tikkun olam (repairing the world), we need to give them opportunities to stretch these skills and grow them into habits. It is easy for the cynical side of students to take over if they are just seeing heartache and need– to engage is to fix one’s own soul (tikkun atzmi)– as well as to repair the world.
Middle grade students are primed to develop the understanding that, in Jewish tradition, we’ve always applied wisdom of ancestors and tradition to face the problems of the day. Middle school in a Jewish day school pushes students beyond superficial problem solving and into a search for solutions based on wisdom, shared experience, and truth– updated for the challenges they see and experience in the world.
Finally, it is not a coincidence that so many Jewish Day School communities feel like large families. Our communities, diverse, homogeneous, religious, secular– Our communities– diverse, homogenous, religious, or secular– can be imprinted on students’ sense of identity and self. Not only that, but the community model of a TK-8 or K-12 school shows students that they too, have a place within the community– they don’t have to separate themselves just because they are in this complicated liminal stage of development– not a kid, not an adult, and barely a teen.
Instead of joining a self-contained 6-8 community where 6th graders are the newbies of the hierarchy, in a TK-8, for example, they have crossed the threshold to be one of the older students in school– which comes with a mantle of responsibility — instead of a cloak of anxiety. The larger community of the school, and the even larger Jewish community, provides space and place at a time where belonging is paramount. Middle schoolers need to feel needed, to feel that they are a part of something. They can be valued as themselves in community in a Jewish Day School– and can see themselves as active contributors to that community as a result.
We’ve all spent more than a year during this pandemic– feeling out of sorts, not knowing what is going on, being in a liminal stage between the before and the unknown after. We know things are changing and for many people, the psychological heaviness of the effects of the pandemic have been as challenging as the virus itself.
I mention this because I think we can more easily get into the mindset of a middle grade student after this experience. We know what it is — more acutely than ever– to need community, to need purpose, to advocate for self and others, to contribute in a meaningful way, and to evaluate the world around us. These are the natural inclinations of middle grade students– their deep interest and awakening of so many parts of themselves can be reflected in the place and space of a Jewish day school. These are the years when students are shaping and solidifying their identities– they come out of middle school strong and confident, but the middle years are not without challenges. I know at Hausner we see those challenges as opportunities for students to engage in the world and to truly join it as the nascent thinkers they are becoming.
Jody Passanisi, M.S., M.A., is director of the middle school, Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, Palo Alto, California.