Molding maturity

Brain growth is fast and furious during the middle school years


Liz DeCarlo

Middle school is NOT just about the hormones.

Terri Thorkildsen, education and psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wants parents and teachers to be clear on that. She says recent research about brain growth has shown middle school students have new parts of the brain trying to figure out how to talk to each other.

"To call it all hormones, that says it's irrational and it's only emotions and it'll pass," Thorkildsen says. "But that's not true for much of what's going on-this is learning how to think differently, but it gets the emotions going. They have new thinking skills and ways to experience things and they have to work on these, it's not magic."

Couple the new brain developments with the fact that many children move into a middle school environment in sixth grade, and it's easy to see that the average 11-year-old faces many challenges.

With so many physical and mental changes occurring in sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, most will do better in a kindergarten through eighth-grade school environment, where teachers are more connected to the students, but that's not where many of them are. Most Chicago Public Schools are K-8, but many suburban schools follow the middle school concept, with children moving into middle school anywhere from fifth to seventh grade.

The decisions on what grades to place in a middle school are often based more on economics and enrollment than what's best for children or brain research, Thorkildsen says.

"Middle schools get more anonymous and kids have a harder time connecting, especially with changing classes," Thorkildsen says. "But it can work if the kids are assigned a teacher to look after them and connect with them."

Linda Morales said sixth grade was a big change for her son Joey, now an eighth-grader at Hill Middle School in Naperville. His organization skills have improved, "... but now we're in the midst of where popularity is really important."

Children in Gower District 62 in Willowbrook begin middle school in fifth grade, but the district eases them into the transition with limited class changing. The transition into sixth grade is still a challenge, but by seventh and eighth grade the students generally have a handle on middle school and are prepared for the high school environment, says Karen Scheel, a Gower sixth-grade teacher for 15 years.

Biological changes kick in

But whether they're in a K-8 school or a middle school, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are undergoing huge changes and current classrooms may be setting goals the average middle school child can't biologically achieve.

Middle school students have a biological need to move and America's passive learning system is working against that, says Sharon Syc, an assistant professor at Erikson Institute, a teachers training institute in Chicago. "If you let them do things in groups or debate, you can channel their energy. We're not finding enough positive channels for normal behavior."

Traditional classrooms based on drill and practice won't engage the average middle schooler and information learned in these classes generally won't be retained, says Bonnie Benesh, an international teacher of brain-based learning strategies for the classroom. Benesh says children need the opportunity to reflect or to construct models of what they've learned, or they won't store this information long-term.

Cooperative learning is natural for most children and incorporating competitive learning into the classroom can get many boys involved as well, says Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently and The Minds of Boys.

"The debate format works so well if we debate without the meanness. That's something we need to have a lot of in middle school," Gurian says. "These games can get them engaged, especially in areas where we're losing them." Middle school boys' minds are wired for competition and girls will benefit from the experience of learning to be competitive to prepare them for the real world.

Middle school is also a time where children are trying to figure out their place in the world and finding opportunities for them to debate their changing viewpoints can help.

"Middle school kids don't have an entirely developed prefrontal cortex, so middle school is a time where we can have input into what the child is all about," says Pam Goble, a middle school teacher at Stratford Middle School in Bloomingdale.

Goble also teaches courses at Benedictine and Roosevelt universities on the characteristics of the middle school child and curriculum for middle school. She incorporates brain research into her own middle school classroom, as well as the college classes she teaches, to help middle school teachers better understand how their students' brains work.

Our last shot?

"There are two times when we can really inundate the cortex-when children are very little and when they're in middle school. It's a crucial time for development," Goble says. "Middle school is our last best shot to help the kids become the best adults they can."

Some research also shows this is when children's brains hardwire and become more difficult to change. "What goes in at that particular time stays in, so if they're always playing video games they'll be more visual. It's hard to change that," Goble says.

To help teachers better understand middle school brains, Goble tries to put current brain research into teacher-friendly terms.

The majority of children learn through a combination of visuals, movement and hands-on projects, so teachers need to provide opportunities that address the different learning styles. Some schools will allow students to select how they will complete an assignment. For example, in a unit on Martin Luther King Jr., they can write a poem, create a poster, write an essay or perform a skit.

The more pathways we're navigating-for instance, visually by drawing a poster or kinesthetically by performing-we then have any number of experiences stored in our brain to draw back on. So if students have several different experiences after reading a book, then they will retain more in their long-term memory, says Bernadette Herman, professor at National-Louis University and teacher of "Pathways to Learning," a brain-based teaching workshop given throughout the Chicago area.

Making learning meaningful

Because learning has to be meaningful for it to be retained, the more middle school students can create their own learning experience and begin to take responsibility for their learning, the more they will remember. The teachers who are teaching children to learn are preparing them more for the real world than teachers who are focused on their teaching, Herman says.

And when it comes to assessing middle schoolers' learning, Goble teaches teachers to analyze students through these various performances and mediums, not just multiple-choice tests. She emphasizes the need to highlight children's strengths, while addressing their weaknesses and the need to meet the individual student where they're at developmentally. For instance, this is the age when students move from thinking concretely into the abstract, but it's a skill that can take years to develop and that progresses differently in each child.

Figuring out the world

The brain's changes, along with physical and emotional growth, can mean passionate students. Teachers can take advantage of this passion and students' brains' quest to figure out the world.

"Teachers need to allow students the opportunity to explore and reflect," Thorkildsen says.

Teachers can tailor assignments so that controversial topics can be discussed while children are encouraged to express their own opinion and take ownership in what they're learning. This allows them to internalize the curriculum and connect what they've learned with the outside world.

Mary Beth Stoffregen of Orland Park has seen her eighth-grade son flourish in a classroom where the teacher brought the real world into the curriculum. "The one teacher that he's done well with tied a lot of what they learned in social studies into current events," Stoffregen says. "You have to figure out what buttons to push for kids to learn."

Because of the complex nature of middle schooler's brains and the major changes they're undergoing, it's crucial for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade teachers to understand brain research and what students this age need to be successful learners. "Every teacher should have an understanding of brain research because it's extremely helpful background and it helps make the most of the classroom experience," Goble says.


Empowered learning styles

Junior high school focuses on the 'whole child' in its lesson planning

Fast Facts School: Eisenhower Junior High Location: Darien Enrollment: 600 Quick overview: The sixth-grade teachers start the year helping students compile a portfolio of their individual learning styles. Assignments and projects are then differentiated based on students' individual needs.

Donna Pidde's sixth-grade class is studying Mayan civilizations and it's obvious that this late in the day most of the class is in a slump. "All right," Pidde says, "everyone up."

She asks one of the students to give his theory of what happened to the Mayans. Students who agree go to one side of the room, those who don't go to the other. They have to give supporting arguments for their decision and students can change sides based on what they hear. In the end, the answer is that no one knows exactly why the Mayans disappeared, but the exercise served its purpose. The students get back on track, their attention refocused.

Pidde, who has been teaching for almost 20 years, was searching for new ways to reach her sixth-grade students when she took a brain-based learning workshop three years ago. That workshop, and many more that Pidde and fellow sixth-grade teachers Amy Steffgen and Ann Stock also took, have changed the way they teach.

"It has maximized what I can do in the classroom," Pidde says. "I've learned so much about the social and emotional development [of this age group] and what their brains are doing. And because we've decided as a group [at Eisenhower] to use a lot of these strategies, it's been very successful."

The sixth-grade team, comprised of six teachers, begins the school year with questionnaires the students fill out. The questionnaires help the students evaluate their personality, learning style and multiple intelligence (for instance, if they are a visual, auditory or musical learner). Once completed, the students create their own portfolio and write an essay about who they are and how they learn best, grouping their personality into different colors that define their basic learning style.

"I've never seen Matt so excited as when they did the initial assessment and started analyzing themselves and breaking themselves into different color groups," says his mom, Julie Reich. "Matt was surprised that the color was truly him. It helped him express himself with different projects. I see more freedom in Matt to express himself in different ways."

Once each student defined their personal learning styles, the class created graphs of the group. The large graphs hang on the wall and help teachers identify at a glance the kind of learners in each class.

"Their learning style needs to drive their instruction or you go nowhere," Pidde says. "With the graphs, I can see that second period I have a lot of touchy feely blue kids who need to interact with each other. In third period, I have a lot of mastery learners who need more procedure."

The students are given a choice of assignments to take advantage of their learning styles and also to allow them to work on areas of weakness. While studying a language arts lesson, students can complete their project as a book report, write a poem or essay, draw a poster or comic strip, sing a song or create a movie.

"They'll be much more engaged when doing a project that applies to their learning style," says sixth-grade teacher Ann Stock. "They still do all the required learning, but there's definitely a balance. They use things that interest them."

Katie Fujiura, whose daughter Emily is at Eisenhower and whose two older daughters are Eisenhower graduates, has seen firsthand how her daughters' interests and learning styles are engaged.

"Emily's teachers have taken the time to discover how she prefers to learn. For example, when completing a book report she was given the choice of demonstrating her understanding of words through pictures," Fujiura says. "Assignments might include several modalities, so she is required to develop one that is not necessarily her strength while incorporating another that is."

Part of the reason the sixth-grade teachers have been able to implement these strategies is the school's 'whole child' attitude. All students have gym every day; electives like art, applied technology, family and consumer science and drama draw many students each quarter. Hundreds of students are involved in the band and chorus programs. Before and after school activities include sports, chess, guitar, student council, art club, sewing for a cause and the school newspaper.

Emily, who is involved in the band program and student council, has developed close friendships and looks forward to school. "Her involvement enhances her education and reinforces interpersonal skills that she will need throughout her life," Fujiura says.

Realizing they're dealing with young teens who are discovering the world is what Eisenhower is all about.

"There's a book out called The Rollercoaster Years and that's what these are," Pidde says. "Every day is new and many of these experiences, it's the first time and it's so exciting to watch."

College admission exams challenge talented kids

For many of us, just thinking about those three little letters "ACT" or "SAT" is enough to bring on an anxiety attack. While most college-bound hopefuls consider these college admission exams an obligation, others view it as an opportunity-and are sharpening up their No. 2s as early as age 12.

The precocious few

The only state-required testing for most Illinois middle school students is the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT). Depending on the discretion of the school district, other assessments like EXPLORE in the eighth or ninth grades and PLAN in the 10th grade are administered to assess academic ability, predict future college admission exam scores and offer career guidance. High school juniors and seniors then go on to take the ACT or SAT.

But some students head straight for the ACT or SAT-sometimes as soon as the sixth grade. Last year, 3,930 middle school-age students from Illinois registered with the Center for Talent Development to take the ACT or SAT early. The Center for Talent Development, a program at Northwestern University that finds and supports gifted students, reports that students are identified as eligible to take the ACT or SAT early based on their performance on the ISAT (i.e., scoring in the 95th percentile or higher), if they're enrolled in their school's gifted program or if they're nominated by a parent or teacher.

Is it fair?

But does giving a kid a test that surpasses his current curriculum frustrate or discourage him? Not at all, says Ann York, vice president of operations for ACT in Iowa City. Because kids who are recommended to take college entrance exams early are academically talented in the first place, they thrive on the challenge only these exams can provide as opposed to the "easy" tests they take in school. As proof of their positive and eager attitude, York says students frequently sign up for repeated attempts at the ACT to better their previous score (which doesn't jeopardize the scores that are ultimately sent to colleges).

Looking at it from a gifted kid's point of view, then, it might be unfair to not let her take a stab at the ACT or SAT. Julie Karaba was recruited to take the SAT in the sixth grade, and as a result she was placed in an advanced level math class. "I would've been bored in class if it hadn't been for that 'fast track,' " says Karaba, who is now a freshman at Northwestern University.

Assessment bonuses

Not only can taking these exams place kids in advanced courses and prepare them for high school and college, it can also give them a real confidence boost.

An eighth-grader at Herrick Middle School in Downers Grove, Isaac Stevenson took the ACT in the seventh grade and scored an impressive 27. He claims that he wasn't worried at all about taking the test, but instead thought it would be a good preview of what he needed to focus on studying while in high school, including algebra. His mom, Deb Stevenson, admits she was probably more nervous than Isaac was. She didn't want him to take it early, bomb and then freeze on future tests. "As luck would have it, he totally rocked," she laughs. In addition to giving Isaac confidence, she believes that taking the test and becoming familiar with the process and the surroundings was good practice.

Lincolnshire mom Jill Walsh reports that her family also had a positive experience with testing early. Her twin sons Mike and Ryan, now juniors in high school, took both the ACT and SAT in middle school. Walsh and her husband Jim prepared the boys for the test not by reviewing sample questions but by telling them that they wouldn't know much on the test. The parents agreed with each other to keep mum about the scores if the boys didn't score well, but were pleasantly surprised by the high scores from both boys. "It made the boys proud of their academic achievements and confident about their future test-taking ability," she says.

The talent centers that recruit the kids to test often hold ceremonies to honor the best scorers. "A lot of students get recognized for athletic prowess or accomplishments, but it's a wonderful occasion for students who are really bright or who work hard to be recognized for their intellectual achievement," York says. Jill S. Browning


Copyright 2017 Wednesday Journal Inc. All rights reserved. Chicago web development by liQuidprint