For the first two years that I worked in the Middle School, we were grades 5 through 8. The 5th graders were held in a sort of protective custody which gave them an opportunity to observe the freedom that older children enjoyed, while still functioning in a cocoon. The next year, as 6th graders, they were mostly ready for the responsibility of lockers and coming to class with the right materials, having learned the ropes through observation. The system functioned fairly well, though even with limited freedom, 5th graders are prone to poor decision-making, the sort that always seemed surprising in kids not yet in the throes of adolescence.
Last year, 5th grade returned to the Lower School and we became a more traditional three-grade Middle School. 6th graders joined athletic teams to make them 6th, 7th, and 8th and our music classes also featured all three grades. Last year’s 6th graders had been in the Middle School for a year and the transition was fairly seamless. This year, with 6th graders who are new to us, has been an interesting reminder about the developmental changes of tweens.
The good news is that 6th graders are eager to embrace the independence that we offer. That eager excitement helps to blunt their anxiety. We have a gentle transition at the start of the year, where we remind them of expectations and also offer ready assistance. As we move into the third week of school, most of the 6th students have eased into the expectations, though there are moments when they hope to retreat to childhood. There is still plenty of support, but now it comes with a more direct reminder of our expectations.
This week, my 6th grade group had 10 minutes to sum up answers to questions about the failure of the Roman Empire. We’ve been working with this material since school began and they were ready to answer two questions in 10 minutes. Most of the students got after it but a few answered the first question and then stalled. My reminder to get to it was met with sweet smiles and more stalling; one student told me, “I’m thinking.” I smiled and said, “think faster” but I could tell he wasn’t persuaded. A few minutes later, class ended and I collected the answers. The two boys with half-empty pages panicked a bit, each telling me that they would take it home to finish. When I said no and took the papers, they were stunned.