Recent conversations about changes at the middle schools and the value of a program like the Middle Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate (MYB/IB) have raised lots of questions about reading levels, challenge, and “rigor.” This has led me to reflect on my own education — and teaching — and that of my children in the MSO school district.
With degrees in philosophy and comparative literature, I am a dyed-in-the-wool humanist, with a deep appreciation for the Western tradition. When I was in 7th grade, at a “rigorous” private school, we slogged through Romantic poets, Greek drama, and Henry James. It bored me. Outside of school I read copiously from both the science fiction and the classics sections of my local bookstore. Honestly, if I were making the book list for our middle schools, it would look a little different. But if I’d had the middle school readings my kids do, I’d have loved it. I navigate this ambivalence by helpfully dropping challenging “great books” on my kids’ pillows, especially at the start of summer vacation. I usually lose out to re-readings of the Harry Potter series — not, after all, a bad way to spend a hot August afternoon.
My children get a lot of me and my opinions. I am thrilled that they also get the different perspectives of their excellent language arts teachers. And it’s a two-way street, as when my then third grader brought home a book after reading it in class, and insisted we read it aloud as a family. It was a children’s classic I’d never read (All of a Kind Family). We did, and it was wonderful. Their teachers have exposed them to a wide range of literature and ideas, including books that hadn’t been written when I was their age, and a few they’d ignored on their pillows (like A Wrinkle in Time and The Golden Compass, both good, thinky books). They are developing into strong, open minded readers, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I am frankly amazed at the writing instruction my children are receiving. And I say this not just as a former student, but also as a former college writing instructor. When I was in middle school, we regularly wrote formal and formulaic essays, for an audience of one — the teacher grading us. We dreaded the “split grade”: A for content/C for form; or probably worse, A for form/C for content. I wrote this way through college, working late into the night with gallons of white out and Diet Coke. Some years later, teaching freshman composition, I was glad when my department adopted an early writing rubric and required us to use it. It helped me unpack terms like “form” and “content” and added essential concepts like audience, purpose and voice that were as foreign to my college students in the 1990s as they had been to me.
By the end of elementary school, my children are already better self-editors, and more audience-aware than many of the college students I’ve taught. They are also more versatile presenters. I have no love for PowerPoint, but it has its place. I was several years into grad school, working part-time in the Information Technology Division of my university, when an undergrad called me out (correctly) on a memo (two pages of dense text) I’d prepared for our team to take to a larger meeting.
“Can’t you give me a little white space?’ he asked plaintively.
It hadn’t occurred to me. I could have learned something from making the occasional poster or PowerPoint along the way. My kids are already learning to distill their thinking to its essential ideas, and that more is not always better.
I am not sure what “rigor” is. I am told my education had it. I think my kids are getting it too. My school’s motto was “not for school, but for our lives we learn.” Now, the South Orange-Maplewood Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Osborne wants our students to be “lifelong learners.” I think we are on the same page here. But since the world continues to change rapidly and none of us knows how the future will play out, even that broad goal is fuzzier than we might like.
When I was in middle school, our head of school, Dr. H., had just invested in a mainframe computer, and BASIC programming was a required 7th grade class. A dozen other schools tapped into our powerful system with remote terminals. By my senior year, PCs were emerging, and that expensive machine was rapidly becoming a dinosaur in the basement. Today it could probably fit into a laptop. Dr. H. was right about computers and the future; he just couldn’t anticipate the particulars. Technology is still one of our buzz words, along with globalization, and preparing our children for the future is still a game of educated guesses.
We’re always going to be making changes—and choices—in education. Today’s college writing instructors are weighing the formal essay and the research paper against the blog, and our district has replaced Home Economics with Technology. My child would rather have kept Home Economics since she’s already soaking in technology. Is one better than the other? Not really.
What our kids need—and what they are getting in our schools—is a rich understanding of the traditions, history, and workings of our shrinking planet and the skills and attitudes that will allow them to navigate the unknowable future they will inherit.
Julia Burch is a parent of a 5th and a 7th grader in SOMSD schools.
She has a BA in Philosophy and a PhD in Comparative Literature and has
taught writing and literature at the University of Michigan and
Southeastern Louisiana University.