January 19, 2014

The growth that we see in our students between when they graduate from Upper Level and when they deliver their graduation speeches two years later, defies the imagination. Granted, development for any adolescent between the ages of 12 and 14 would be large, no matter what the setting. What defies the imagination when thinking of EAC Middle Schooler’s, however, is less about quantity and more about quality. There is a certain hard to define quality that our adolescents have, a “je ne sais quoi” that I have not seen in other settings.  Our students have a robust combination of enthusiasm, exuberance, passion, excitement, depth, and conviction that lies in sharp contrast with our culture’s more typically disparaging characterizations of the adolescent.

Just as our Primary environments are created to develop a focused, respectful, and independent young child, our Middle School environment is specifically designed to keep young people engaged when they might otherwise tune out.

 “The difficulties that many young adolescents encounter in middle school have been well documented. A central concern is a student’s motivation; a disturbingly consistent finding associated with middle school is a drop in students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. Most researchers now believe that the negative changes that often occur in middle school result from a mismatch between the typical learning environment at school and an adolescent’s developmental needs.”*

Our Middle School offers a curriculum that sounds, in part, like any other middle school. Adolescents at EAC study math, science, foreign languages, history, literature, philosophy and health, for instance. The way these subjects are taught, however, is different. Disciplines are integrated as much as possible. Learning typically has an experiential component. Collaboration among students is fostered. Students are offered choices. Teachers serve as mentors, facilitators and guides. EAC adolescents have additional work that serves as the glue to this core curriculum. They are involved in land stewardship, service work and run a business, all work that gives them the ability to make meaningful contributions to their community and their planet.  There is an ebb and flow to the school year that moves through periods of regular block-like scheduling, interspersed with days devoted to practical life work, and then days and sometimes weeks, when the students travel.

Dr. Thomas Cottle PHD. sociologist, clinical psychologist and Professor of Education at Boston University,describes three different aspects of the human being. First is the biological, which is the sum total of the biology we are born with and have little control over;  the “thrown world”. Second is the world of the interpersonal: the “with world”. Third is the world of the self that looks at itself, the self that uses reflection to make meaning. This capacity for reflection, especially self-reflection, is at the essence of being human. The role of the adolescent is to grapple with the integration of these three aspects. In other words, the role of adolescence is to grapple with reality. (And we thought they were just being lazy…)

Dr. Montessori considered adolescence to be the period “when there should develop the most noble characteristics that would prepare a man to be social, that is to say, a sense of justice and a sense of personal dignity.”** The intense inner development, this grappling with oneself and reality-the hallmark of the middle school years-creates a deep need for the time and space to be mindful and reflect. At best it necessitates an environment that values thoughtful deliberation for itself and builds this valuing into its framework, complete with willing adults with whom to share one’s deliberations.

Because we value this inner journey and make it central to the work of the EAC Middle Schooler, our students blossom and bear fruit like no other. The EAC Middle School graduates know themselves- their strengths as well as their weaknesses. They are articulate young people who know how to advocate for themselves respectfully, how to craft their own path forward. They see adults as allies, trusted mentors and companions, resources to turn to when obstacles arise. We often see the most noticeable growth in the last few months of their final EAC year. It’s as if the looming intensity of having to deliver a very public speech about oneself- a graduation requirement that most have been subtly preparing to tackle since their first Middle School days, forces a consolidation of everything that has been experienced until then, resulting in an astounding leap in maturity.

Research comparing the Montessori middles school experience with traditional middle schools, bears evidence of what we have seen at EAC over the years. “The Montessori students reported a significantly better quality of experience in academic work than the traditional students. There were strong differences suggesting that Montessori students were feeling more active, strong, excited, happy, relaxed, sociable, and proud while engaged in academic work. They were also enjoying themselves more, they were more interested in what they were doing, and they wanted to be doing academic work more than the traditional students. Montessori students reported higher affect, potency (feeling alert and energetic), intrinsic motivation (enjoyment, interest), and flow experience than students from traditional middle schools.”*

I recently met with some teachers from the Montessori School of Syracuse who are interested in starting a middle school program. They asked me what was the most important benefit of having a middle school? My answer was something like this: If the goal of the school is to grow beings who are “optimized”, releasing students after the upper elementary years but before middle school is akin to writing a symphony but leaving out the finale or fourth movement…students are poised on the precipice looking out, but are missing that certain je ne sais quoi- the necessary oomph to soar.