Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Personal-Academic Studies Engage Urban, Seventh-Grade Students

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Personal-Academic Studies Engage Urban, Seventh-Grade Students

Article excerpt

A successful middle school team of teachers employed effective middle level philosophy to structure a curriculum around themes that were relevant, challenging, integrative, and engaging for their particular students and community.

Realizing that their young adolescents were involved in tough, delicate issues in their out-of-school lives, the seventh-grade cross-subject teachers featured in this article came together in true middle school fashion to respond to students' needs. The teachers opted to increase relevance for students through a curricular focus on the theme of "Perspective" in two classes (one English and one U.S. history), and as a result the teachers chose the subtopics of conflict, change, and inner strength. This conceptual focus seemed especially suited for young adolescents in the throes of significant physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development as conflict is usually a result of differing perspectives, change may lead to the resolution of conflict, and inner strength is needed to pursue change.

Their readings, writing, and discussions of conflict helped them to see they were not alone (Piazza, 2010). When violence is the norm in any location, it can influence persons' perspectives on their lives. The students desired change, and used their study of figures in history, literature, and their own lives as exemplars of possibilities. Inner strength, however, is a difficult, and needed tool if change is to occur, and the students learned about it as the key to their emerging possible identities.

Students' serious writing, thinking, and conversations about their own lives enables their engagement in studies of others' lives. During their studies of conflict, change, and inner strength, these students released themselves, which enabled their engagement (Jones, 2009).

The students attend a 7-8 public school with an enrollment of approximately 580 students. It is the only middle school in a small, southern city with a population of approximately 45,000. More than 50% of the students in the two classes were African Americans, and all belonged to a program for students identified by their sixth-grade teachers as talented and in need of support in order to succeed. No formal measures led to those teachers'judgments; they based their decisions on their overall knowledge of their students. After-school mentors, study periods, a contract system with families, and classroom policies in which the students were addressed as members of a highly capable group, all converged to enable the students to perform well.

As a professor in a nearby university, I study students as writers. In the case of this article, I did so by attending these English and U.S. history classes twice a week for two years; one of those years is featured here. While in the school setting, I observed the students, interacted with them whenever possible, recorded notes, and photocopied their work. Also, I talked with the teachers, in order to ensure that I understood their learning goals-and the students' accomplishments.

Middle school relevance

Conflict exists. Often, in service to classroom management and/or control, our tendency as educators may be to ignore or squash it, but these students recognized it as a concept that begged study. As Meyer (2011) writes, the current, corporate world of education creates an atmosphere of fear and competition, not inquiry or reflection. Teachers and students feel trapped in narrow currículums, but students' lives often beg attention beyond standardized currículums, and unless we address internal and external conflicts in middle school, students may become disillusioned and look forward only to the day they can drop out. Such a radical option is too often in their eyes the only way to give the time they need to the forces that place them in a constant state of conflict.

Conflict in society

I entered English class as teacher Kristina Doubet introduced the topic of conflict. …

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