In the literature class we were studying Lord of the Flies—a novel about a group of pre-adolescent school boys who crash land on a lonely island and fend for themselves in the absence of any adults. Two of the older boys try to organize the others so that they can meet their basic needs and work towards their rescue. Attempts of governance bring out their baser, aggressive instincts and gradually the boys descend to savagery and murder. Finally, they are rescued by a naval officer and one dreads to think what would have happened if he had not arrived at the scene. It is a dystopic novel at the end of which the chief protagonist, Ralph, mourns: '... the end of innocence and darkness of man's heart.' It was a novel which the students were totally engaged with.
The literature group animatedly discussed various characters in the book. It was both interesting and disturbing to note that they were initially tending to make quick judgements. The main protagonists of the novel were classified as being 'good',' evil' or 'saintly'. However, when their attention was drawn to the fact that the oldest among these boys were only twelve to fourteen years old—an age which many of the students had passed through themselves less than two to four years ago—they began to perceive them with a little more understanding. This tendency among us to respond quickly to someone's behaviour, and form instantaneous judgements, is something that has intrigued me, and I wondered how we can guard ourselves against it; more so, since this also occurs with us as teachers and is clearly detrimental to our role as educators.
I have also been closely associated with middle school students for several years now. Endearing as the children of that age group are, they can also be quite trying at times. At such times, as adults we are prone to forget that middle schoolers are still very young, and at a rapidly changing stage.
I distinctly recall the words of an anguished mother, 'They speak of him as though he were a terrorist. He is only in the seventh class.' Well, the boy in question was no saint. He wielded a lot of influence on his classmates, especially boys. Students did not dare to offend him in any manner. In the playground, he had an exalted stature. At one time he even took it upon himself to keep up the 'morals' of the class. Sometimes, in the evenings, he would line up the boys and check their pockets to see if they were carrying any 'love' notes. If they did, he would warn them and sometimes punish them by isolating them. He was not without charm. When he was in charge of class duties, the class would almost sparkle. When he was asked to make paper bags (for the hospital), he would finish his lot in a jiffy and help by supplementing others' quota.
Adults dealing with middle schoolers for the first time are quite often baffled by their behaviour and might find themselves tending to quickly jump to conclusions that so and so is a 'bully', a 'charmer', a 'thoughtless person' or 'very selfish'. But when one observes them year after year, it is quite fascinating to see how their minds work, how they show many sides, and how they change. A closer look at the middle school students shows how this age is the beginning of a transition in the truest sense. They generally outgrow some of the traits they show during these years and yet, this is also the age when some strong personality traits can begin to take root. This is a topic of wide interest to the educators and has been well researched. This article outlines some of the key findings and its implications for teachers and other adults dealing with this age group.
Recently, a few girls from the seventh class were walking past the Arts and Crafts section in the school when they chanced upon a cushion which was left outside to dry because it had a damp patch. Finding this unclaimed object, they picked it up, tore it open and played with the stuffing inside. The first reaction of most adults was, 'How can they be so mindless?W hat is wrong with them?' It is rather difficult to understand such impulses. What adults see as an act of violation could be just instinctive fun for these youngsters. W hen they realized that the cushion actually belonged to somebody they were contrite about their behaviour and spent some precious weekend hours labouring over a beautiful batik piece which they gifted to the cushion owner.
What constitutes 'fun' for these youngsters is something adults find difficult to comprehend. What 'fun' can there be in going on a class walk just before the assembly in pristine clothes and squelching their feet in a marshy dark brown puddle, which caked on their feet and would take at least an hour to scrub off? What 'fun' can there be in stepping by accident on cow dung and instead of warning others, waiting aside and laughing loudly every time some one else stepped on it? Such an idea of 'fun' encompasses what adults may perceive as teasing, bullying, and intimidating. We ask, 'Why did you do it?' Pat comes the reply, '… for fun'. And our stock response is, 'Well, it is not funny!'
Are we living in two different worlds? Do we have different value systems? Perhaps not. Just as a gooey cake mixture smells of flour and raw eggs and yet can fill a room with mouth-watering aroma when baked, these youngsters, who seem so animalistic and instinctive/impulsive in their behaviour, are maturing in ways not so apparent. Many students are also sensitive, unsure of themselves, and have a strong need for support and nurturing from the adult community in this transition stage of their life. It is a phase which moulds them in many important ways. At the risk of repetition it may be said that it is at this age, when they seem to be moving away from adult expectations, that adult understanding and support is most necessary.
Adults dealing with this age group perhaps need to acquaint themselves with the developmental trajectory of these students which may roughly be mapped out in the following manner. Of all the changes that this age group is undergoing, their physical development is the one that is most apparent.
They experience rapid, irregular physical growth. They are acutely aware of awkward, uncoordinated movements. They are concerned with bodily changes that accompany sexual maturation. They do not want to draw attention to themselves. It is thus extremely unbecoming of an adult to make comments such as: 'Is your voice cracking?' or 'You are growing taller.' They are also beginning to be drawn to the opposite sex. One needs to actively provide opportunities such as mixed group activities and games where they can freely mix with one another, without necessarily competing against each other. One should thus opt for a mixed group activity instead of a 'girls' team or a 'boys' team. Another trait distinct in this age group is their need to release energy, often resulting in sudden, apparently meaningless outbursts of activity. This could explain why they indulge in what adults think of as mindless activities, that is, why they jump into a puddle or try to ignite things in the backyard or tear a cushion apart. Drama workshops, social games, nature walks, treks and hikes, apart from the regular sports activities, seem to be an easy outlet for these energies.
Socially, they have a strong need to belong to a group, with peer approval becoming more important even as adult approval decreases in importance. This is the time they begin to think in terms of 'us vs them.' It is all the more important that adults hold the students at this stage, that is, stay in touch with them, draw boundaries where necessary, but also sympathetically engage with their urges and impulses. To get back to the novel, Lord of the Flies, Ralph is initially very happy that there are no adults on the island. But through the rest of the novel he strives to be rescued from the island and yearns for the security that an adult presence would bring.
Recently, I was surprised when a student told me that he thought that I hated him. 'Why would I hate you?' I asked him.
'I've done many things that you don't like.'
Middle school students may not be alone in perceiving things differently from what they really are. However, there seems to be a scientific basis for why it may be especially so in their case. Research suggests that pre-teenagers and adolescents easily misread adult expressions and see 'meanness' or 'anger' where none was intended. This is because their 'emotional brains' are still developing. When they are told something sternly they think they are being scolded (in our school, they would use the term 'bombed'). In one research study, MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans were used to monitor how adults and adolescent brains respond to a series of pictures reflecting emotions. Researchers discovered that adults were able to label the picture representing 'fear' with 100% accuracy. However, fifty per cent of adolescents labelled the picture as 'anger' or 'confusion'. Adults used their frontal lobes during this activity, whereas the adolescents used anterior regions of their brain. It is said that the anterior region relies on 'gut responses' as opposed to reasoned judgement.
In terms of their intellectual development, adolescents are in a transition period from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. So, while they are beginning to enjoy art and poetry more subtly, in the sciences they prefer active, hands-on experience over passive learning experiences. In subjects like English literature, they are beginning to understand the nuances of a character, plot or an image. At the same time, in the sciences, they are beginning to see the concepts beyond the facts. In mathematics, they are beginning to see the connections across concepts and applications. It is a good time for teachers to start questioning them deeply in their subjects. Apart from academics, at this stage they are not only inquisitive about the adult world, but are perceptive too. They can sometimes ask very incisive questions which may range from the trivial to the profound:
'Why is so-and-so teacher not married?'
'Does this person hate us?'
'Why do people speaking a certain kind of English gain more respect than others who may be better persons?'
This inquisitiveness could be tapped in many interesting ways, and brought up in dialogues with students.
The most fascinating but challenging change in their growth trajectory is their moral development. They are now moving from acceptance of adult moral judgments to the development of their own personal values; nevertheless, they tend to embrace values which are close to their own parents' judgements. So quite often when their parents have environmental concerns it becomes important to them too. If their parents use profane language at home, they may find nothing objectionable in using it themselves. Further, it is not a moral failing in them, when they see flaws in others but are slow to acknowledge their own faults (it is very important for adults to understand this fact). They often complain about their fellow students regarding things which they themselves are guilty of. When this is pointed out to them they are frankly astonished. It is interesting to see how as they grow, they are now able to assess moral matters in shades of grey as opposed to viewing them in black-and-white terms characteristic of junior school children. This explains how older students in the literature class, mentioned at the beginning of this article, were eventually able to assess a character in Lord of the Flies with more depth. At this age, they are typically able to perceive two or more sides of an issue. Hence this would be the right time to introduce them to debate clubs and group discussions.
'Strike while the iron is hot' seems to be a traditional dictum handed down to teachers. However, this would be a crude method of dealing with the growing changes in middle school students. Since the molten metal will readily take the impressions on it, one would want to deliberate more and be more thoughtful about the designs one imprints on their minds. This analogy is not to say that we alone are responsible for how our middle school students grow up. It is just about being more aware and thoughtful about the impressions we create on them, as we now know from research that some of our actions may have long-term effects on them as individuals. The relationships that students have with adults at the middle school level are important because they can serve as a buffer to the pressures they may face as they grow into young adults. If our students feel valued and nurtured at this stage, they are more likely to grow up with confidence in themselves. Conversely, if a student feels rejected by the adult community at this stage, the feeling of inadequacy can haunt him or her for a very long time. Similarly, any talent or passion nurtured at this age may become a defining force in their lives. The adults could perhaps see the middle school years as a time to forge a special kind of bond with them, a bond which recognizes their growing independence but also understands the need to be there for them.