By Jody Passanisi
If you ask someone casually about middle school, you’re not likely to get a response anywhere near ”yeah, my middle school experience was great.”
Actually, on the whole, the experience can be great, but even with safety nets, even with support, even with everything we can give, it isn’t always easy … for anyone.
So it follows that educators in middle school can anticipate a certain amount of push-back, some shenanigans, and general angst. It’s par for the adolescent course. Sure, the specifics may change- social media, we see you- but the difficulty itself follows this age like a cloud. So much so that adults often project the memory of their own difficulties onto students, compounding an already fraught time.
So what are we, as educators, to do? We expect a certain amount of challenge – we know it is important for the students’ growth. On this point, Braden Bell explains in a Washington Post article, “To raise independent kids, treat middle school like a dress rehearsal for life:”
Meaning well, we jump in and initiate, fix and micromanage, telling ourselves we will stop when the child matures enough to take over. But middle school is supposed to be messy. It’s how kids mature.
It’s supposed to be messy. We know that their maturation depends on struggle. Struggle without reflection though is often just that: struggle. As educators we want to help our students learn how to learn from the messiness as they grow – to struggle and reflect. We want to help them to see the learning opportunities challenges have to offer. How will we do it?
As educators in a Jewish day school we have a certain advantage in this arena – or at least a very clear place from which to cull. In fact, given the myriad of texts we have to choose from, one might find it difficult to narrow the scope of content about character development, interpersonal relationships, and identity.
Ever since I was an undergrad I’ve had Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen attributes on the wall of my office or workspace. What I didn’t realize, despite the fact that I am a Jewish educator, is that Franklin’s particular attributes dovetail with Mussar – a Jewish spiritual movement begun in the 19th century which is experiencing a resurgence. The undergirding of Mussar: that every human, as a created being, is imperfect AND has the capability of real positive change. Now this thesis, I felt, sounded like something a middle schooler would understand.
There are a number of middot (character traits) – the traits that one works on in Mussar practice that one could choose to focus on – especially in adolescence. Winnowing it down was difficult to do: we chose Aravut (responsibility) Kavod (respect), and Anava (humility) to focus on in our middle school at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo, Alto.
And to what end? These are just words if there isn’t regular practice and application. How to collectively get middle schoolers in the throes of their own drama to focus on self-improvement and community?
These concepts, of Aravut, Kavod, and Anavah, we connected to Jewish text and thought:
Aravut: We are all responsible for each other.
Kavod: The honor of your fellow should be as important to you as your own.
Anavah: For my sake the world was created. I am but dust and ashes.
The goal is for these ideas to permeate our middle school, and especially in the realm of behavior management. If middle school is messy, if it’s an educator’s job to help students to learn from that mess, then incidents that arise in middle school should be educational opportunities, not time for punitive measures or punishments for their own sake.
Through the concepts of tochecha and teshuvah, teachers are empowered to course-correct (give tochecha) students if they have missed a mark in terms of Aravut, Kavod, and Anavah, and are supported through the process of teshuvah (repentance).
This process, we hope, will start to become more automatic, habitual – the essence of our middle school culture.
It’s a slow-going process. To bring in a new framework for behavior for middle schoolers and their teachers expectations of them isn’t going to take root overnight. The first week of school we always have an offsite bonding field trip; this year, we took the whole middle school kayaking. The theme of the day: we are responsible for one another. Through reflection and guided discussions, students reflected on what this could mean – when kayaking, at school, or in the community. A side note: we had a group of students who did not want to kayak: those students played the board game “Pandemic,” a collaborative game in which students need to work together to prevent global pandemics from wiping out the population – we wanted all students to be able to engage with the theme “we are all responsible for each other” whether or not they were able to go into the water.
We are putting these messages on our wall — quite literally – so that students see the phrases when they walk the halls – as well as from the reminders of our teachers.
And now, since the flow of school has gotten started, we are seeing some small roots take hold. A teacher coming back from a recess duty recently shared that she asked students to clean up a snack table even though she knew the mess was not theirs and they, in perfect middle school fashion, rolled their eyes and said, “yeah yeah we know, we are all responsible for each other.”
Hey, it’s a start.
 Bell, Braden. “Perspective | To Raise Independent Kids, Treat Middle School like a Dress Rehearsal for Life.” Washington Post, The Washington Post, 7 Sept. 2018.
Jody Passanisi is the Director of Middle School at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. She is the author of History Class Revisited, and the co-host, along with fellow DeLeT alum Shara Peters, of the podcast “Find Yourself a Teacher.”