‘Akka, what are you scared of?’
‘Why is it important to keep one’s promise, Akka?’
‘I don’t get bored, Akka, I just get tired of doing the same thing!’
‘Why can’t we have a day when we play games all day long?’
I am often struck by the openness and earnestness with which these questions are raised by middle-school children, all of 10-12 years, in a class. It is not always easy to come up with answers, but I have found that these statements and questions have, more often than not, led to meaningful conversations with them. These are children whose minds are curious, observant, imaginative, buzzing with ideas and thoughts, eager to explore, and willing to push boundaries with oneself as well as the others. This is also the time when they are growing up physically as well as emotionally, and that throws up the question of one’s self-worth and perhaps responses to ‘growing up’. There is also the need to belong in a group, of forming identities and making choices. There is so much that is going on in their minds, and as a teacher I find myself watching them fascinated, trying to understand their questions, thoughts and observations through my own.
The different ways of learning and working together, inside and outside of school, and the conversations the middleschool children share with their peers as well as with their teachers, seem to provide a fertile ground for expanding and nurturing their minds. Over the years, as a middle-school teacher, I have found immense value in watching children learn from one another and accept different points of view.
Learning together in the middle-school classroom is built into its structure, and there is the opportunity to understand an idea by oneself, share it with others in a small group, and widen one’s understanding in the large group. I am often asked, ‘Can I teach this to A?’ or told, ‘I think B gets it when I tell her a certain way.’ These are the moments I cherish in the classroom where I can sit in one corner and watch them as they work: teaching each other, admonishing gently when someone does not try, all the while nudging each other to work along. There are also moments of ‘He is not getting it, Akka, can you please help?’ or ‘I don’t want to be in her group.’ At such times, not telling them what to do helps them figure out where their difficulty or dislike is stemming from and allows them to work with it. What creates the situation for such learning to take place? It is perhaps the processes of the middle-school classroom, random seating, working in different groups, working on different ideas around a theme or topic that take away any semblance of comparison between individuals. It assures each child of care and respect, which is at the core of all learning. Where there is freedom and no fear, each person learns differently— learning happens along the way as long as one is truly interested in learning. In this context, the shift to one subject a day in middle school offers an opportunity to look at different ways and styles of learning, creates an occasion for slowing down, and brings in a sense of leisure in learning and deepening of one’s understanding.
Conversations in class, as part of circle time, at the end of the day during the class teacher’s period or the innumerable interactions on the games field and on overnight trips, create a rich context for articulating one’s thoughts, ideas and questions. All that we talk about in school with children, of being responsible, caring for each other and listening to each other come alive in all these situations. Over the years, I have found that much of my understanding of a child comes from these conversations—conversations that are an open sharing of what one thinks or feels. As a teacher, I realize the value of creating a relationship with each child, of just allowing the child to be. This is a great responsibility for me, for such a relationship requires that I closely observe the child in order to understand where he or she is located and to also understand my response to the relationship. It is for me to meet the child where he or she is, with affection and with the intent of understanding and not analysing them. This is also the age when many of their insecurities surface, and I have seen how conversations help them understand and respond to their feelings.
When the school term began this year, I had a ten-year-old who was looking worried and, on many occasions, feeling ‘unwell’ in class. Gentle probing and a conversation about why this was happening brought out her fear that she would have to stay away from her parents on the overnight trip that was coming up at the end of the school year. It did not matter to her that it was just the beginning of the term and that the trip was too far off for her to even think about it. I knew that reasoning would be of no consequence, and so we sat, the two of us, on the stairs, and she talked while I listened. Since that conversation, she has been ‘well’, and I have often wondered how a child sometimes just needs that time and how important it is to listen without being quick to respond to their queries or worries. By merely talking to students, just engaging with the genuine intent of understanding what they are thinking about, or listening to the question they are holding without always giving them answers, it is possible to gain an insight into the growing mind of the middle-school child. When children share their anxieties, their fears or even an account of their dayto- day lives, it helps to forge a relationship based on mutual trust and confidence.
Experiences form an integral part of learning in middle school, and this is reflected in the way children attempt to play around with ideas as they relate to experiences inside and outside the classroom. One can see this while they work on projects, go on field trips, and enjoy campus walks as also overnight trips. I find that these are wonderful opportunities to push them to struggle with something new, to get them outside their comfort zone and see how they work with it, to help them discover facets of themselves they were unaware of, and to look beyond the obvious and relate to it. It is not an easy task, for I find that I have to set aside my own ideas and preconceptions and approach the situation afresh, along with the child. What can be more fulfilling and challenging than struggling with something that extends our horizons?
I have seen different aspects of their personalities emerge on such occasions as they help and support one another even without being asked to by anyone. On one such overnight trip, when a Class 5 child refused to rappel out of fear, the others in the group gave her the freedom to stay with it, and before I could talk to her, another child from Class 7 went and sat next to her and, after a while, started talking to her. I watched them from a distance as they talked to each other. I do not know what transpired between them, but after the others finished their turn, she got up and said that she too would like to give it a try. Somewhere during that time between fear and uncertainty had emerged this moment of clarity. I am not quite sure about how it happened, but later when I asked the boy about what he had said to her to make her change her mind, he said, ‘I just told her that I too had been scared the first time and that it is no big deal.’ As simple as that. An honest acknowledgement and acceptance of his fear had made her examine hers. I am always amazed at this sudden ‘growing up’ that happens at such times when it is just a matter of being together and experiencing something.
I see middle-school years as the ‘magical’ years in school because somewhere there is still the occasion to wonder about things, the leisure to stay with a question, and figure out all the answers, right or wrong, to allow every imaginative thought to take flight, chase dragonflies as one wonders about why some insects have wings and others do not, and not be afraid to ask questions, speak one’s mind, try out new things and learn from them.