In preparation for upcoming coffees for new Middle School parents, I’ve been interviewing fourth graders. I decided to go directly to the source for the best information on what being in Middle School is like. I asked fourth graders three questions: What’s cool about Middle School? What’s different about Middle School? What, if anything, came as a surprise when you started Middle School?
By far the most frequent answer to both “What’s Cool?” AND “What’s different?” was “the freedom.” Fourth graders seem to relish the ability to walk themselves to different classes, and to walk as a clump, rather than in neat, straight lines. Most gratifyingly, children cited at least 10 times the pleasure they get from “being able to go to the library WHENEVER we need a book.” I just loved the joy children seemed to derive from the nearly unfettered access to books.
According this freedom to fourth graders, it must be said, is a deliberate choice on the part of the School. In Lower School, children develop the fortitude to handle such independence, so that they are quite ready for it when they reach fourth grade. In fourth grade, they are stewarded closely for the first weeks of School to identify the eventual freedom of travel as a privilege rather than an entitlement, and once it is given, a logical consequence for abuse of such a privilege is to have it taken away for a short period of time. (This rarely happens, I’m happy to report.)
The students I interviewed also cited the joy they get from choosing their own approach to an art project or research assignment, or selecting the type of recess they’ll enjoy on a given day. As we work to inspire students to develop their own academic passions, we couch it in an atmosphere of freedom so that children will gradually develop the academic and social independence they will critically need in future years.
It was so satisfying to hear the answers from the fourth graders—it made me feel like the faculty was truly doing “something right.” Alas, though, this feeling of freedom is maddeningly temporary. In my Kids’ Council meetings, I hear each week from the nine sixth grade members about the confining nature of Middle School, and how Intermediate Schoolers get to “do so much” that we can’t in Middle School. Oh well … I guess that feeling of confinement is just the readiness to handle more, right?