Book Review: Not Much Just Chillin’

NMJCQuoting myself from Goodreads and expounding on what may be an essential read for both middle level educators and certainly parents of rising and current middle schoolers:

Linda Perlstein did something most superheroes would tremble at the thought of. She spent a year in middle school and documented the things she saw. In Not Much Just Chillin’ she reveals her findings, including the dynamics that exist between middle schoolers and their peers, teachers, and parents. She discusses the sexually overt behavior of some middle schoolers, the blind disdain some of them have for adults, and the seeming lack of concern for their own well-being and academic achievement. She also discusses what little scientific discoveries there were available in the early 2000s (book published in 2003) as well as the changes educational entities have made since the 1960s to try to better reach and teach the strange mixture of hormones, emotions, and thought that is the middle school child.

My dear friend, colleague, and personal life coach gave me this book to try to help me cope with the fact my daughter will begin middle school in the fall. Although I have been a school librarian in middle schools for 12 of my 18 years in education, there is something different about living with a middle schooler. Being the teacher of this strange and often unruly beast is different from living with one on many levels, but I have to admit that as both an educator and parent I learned a great deal I did not know about the middle school years, brain development and temperament during that time, and how parents and teachers can perhaps try to ease this transition. While the references to bullying, the budding romance, the sexuality and impropriety, the cursing and dependence on peers gave me an anxiety attack, there was enough reassurance that most people leave middle school nearly unscathed to provide me with the comfort I need to send my daughter into the melee that is middle school. One message Perlstein sends anyone willing to listen is that while children in the middle years seem to be deaf to their parents’ influence and seem to be pushing their parents away with deft and brutal force, the truth is that these children really want and need their parents to be involved in their lives and their education. They want us to care, to question, to show support and concern, even if it is met with eye-rolling and grunting. They may not outwardly respond to a parent’s affection and concern, but inwardly they embrace what they see and hear, crave our time and attention, and actually do listen to what we have to say about morality and expectations.

I highly recommend this book for parents of those approaching the middle years and teachers working with these students. The social references may be a bit dated, but the information and encounters Perlstein shares all ring true today.

What I didn’t say in Goodreads

Linda Perlstein became interested in a subject that few others wanted to bother with in the early part of this century. Middle schoolers are not exactly the warm, fuzzy sweethearts that we so enjoy in elementary school. Nor are they the mature, thoughtful, semi-responsible young adults we often see in our high schools. (I’m intentionally leaving out the rebels without causes in this scenario. Perhaps they didn’t make it out of middle school as unscathed as most?) Sometimes middle schoolers seem to be “normal” citizens. They seem rational, focused, and determined. At other times, like right before school dismissed for summer, you’ll find them dragging each other across the floor in the library’s rolling chairs, wallowing over each other like puppies while squealing everyone is “gay”, and trying to convince you they turned in that book you last saw in August. Their mental, social, and physical development is probably more akin to jumping in the ball pit at Chuck E Cheese than any sort of linear development we as both teachers and parents might hope and pray for.

I admit, when my instructional coach (and life coach) handed me this book, I looked at her with utmost appreciation and admiration. I think she may have developed a halo, but it could have been my overwrought emotions… She said something about giving the book to me not because I teach in middle school but because I am raising a soon-to-be middle schooler. It was her attempt to preserve my sanity since I have become sure of late that either myself or my daughter needed to spend some time exploring mental health options. Reading this book sometimes frightened me but it also made me feel better about what I see happening at home. Like I said, it is very different when you live with a middle schooler. You can’t just walk away, pray for the dismissal bell, or send the child to the guidance counselor. You’ve got to get through the moment and hopefully come out unscathed and with a child who feels that, even if you didn’t necessarily do a great job seeing her through, at least you did your very best.

Points to Ponder

Perlstein’s book gave me a great deal of comfort as I’ve said but it also helped me both understand and question why we as educators make some of the choices we have made over the last ten or so years. Some of the things I particularly noted include:

  • Your child loving a food and you then stocking up on that food will immediately result in your child never wanting to eat that food again. Don’t bother trying to please a middle schooler. It simply cannot be done.
  • Bullying and targeting peers because of clothing choices is at its height in middle school. This is reiterated frequently throughout the book. Of course, this is also a time when preteens want to experiment with their look and try new things. New things, of course, must fall within what their peers find acceptable. The middle schools in our school district all require students to wear uniforms, which cuts down on a great deal of this drama and bullying. I can appreciate that both as a teacher and parent. I look forward to not having to wait while my daughter changes clothes for the fifth time in ten minutes each morning, a phenomenon that began occurring in the middle of her fifth grade year. While some parents feel this limits a child’s ability to express himself, I find that students find ways to do that just fine. Students express themselves through the belts they wear with their khakis and with their choice of shoes, which run the gambit from $200 tennis shoes (a two hour debate with my daughter deems this the wrong word, but we’ll go with it) to flats from the local discount store. Does this “mark” a child’s socio-economic status? Perhaps. Does it cut down on some of the verbal and physical abuse students are subjected to because of socio-economic status? I think it does.
  • The middle school model emerged in the 1960s (p. 114). I found this surprising since I went to a Junior High with grades 7 through 9 in the early ’80s, where we had a smoking area for the ninth graders. This new model was in response to overcrowding at the elementary school level and students moving toward adolescents at a faster rate, which we are still seeing plenty of today.
  • By middle school age, the brain is nearly full-sized, but the brain cells become almost super-charged, creating an overabundance of extra connections the brain cannot possibly use. “This growth in the frontal cortex peaks at age eleven for girls and twelve for boys; the cells then fight it out for survival. The ones that are being used prevail. The rest will be shed.” (p.114)
  • Because the brain is growing and changing so much during the middle years, we as educators and parents need to be careful of which of those connections we are cultivating. Are we spending time on moral development, social engagement, and authentic learning? How is too much time online or playing violent video games affecting this growth? These are questions that concern me and I think they should be addressed both at home and in school.
  • Preteens are beginning to think in the abstract. They begin seeing relationships between self and society, and they want to know more than just facts. They want to know why they need to know them. (p.114-115) Perlstein goes on to outline some learning scenarios that might appeal to this new brain development and new capacity for learning, yet as an educator I wonder if we are up to par in teaching these new minds. I still see many teachers struggling with letting these students be participants in their learning. I still see worksheets and rote memorization. I’ll be interested in seeing how much this changes and what learning may look like in my school next year as we move to a 1:1 digital learning model. I’ll be interested in seeing which teachers embrace this new opportunity and which teachers have the students turn off their iPads when they enter the door. As Perlstein points out, “it takes an unusual amount of determination and creativity to be able to turn the academic research…into connections strong enough to engage all students.” (p.117)
  • Regarding video gaming, Perlstein questions the number of hours spent in front of a screen instead of using the body to actually play football, baseball, or whatever. Could this delay development of the cerebellum, the area of the brain responsible for movement, coordination, balance, equilibrium and muscle tone? Does video gaming trigger irrational fear responses, an overreaction to real-world events, as one study Perlstein found suggests? (p.163) I am not a video gamer, but many of my colleagues are, and they make good cases for video gaming at home and school, but I am reserved on the matter and do not permit my daughter to play video games above an E rating or for long periods of time. New studies have shown that video gaming changes the way the brain develops, but are these changes ultimately good for children whose brains are still developing? A quick Google search will reveal millions of results for “video games change your brain” – some are positive, but many are frightening, especially those linking violent video games to violent tendencies in boys.
  • Closer to home for me was what Perlstein reveals about middle school relationships, particularly romantic intentions. My daughter would be deemed “boy crazy” but actually knows little about the mechanics of boy/girl relationships. She knows the biology is different, but doesn’t know how it works. I am fortunate that so far she discusses her questions, concerns, and beliefs about this area with me and that we can talk about “sex” without too much concern. Of course, at this point, sex for her is two people removing their shirts and kissing while dating is talking to someone, holding their hand, and sitting together at lunch. For now, this is fine by me. However, some of the sexual situations Perlstein witnessed during her year in the trenches is much more extreme and nerve wracking. That year, students were exposing themselves in the classroom, arranging sexual encounters in the rest rooms, and debating whether or not oral sex was actually sex. This is the frightening part of middle school life. There are those students who are much more mature sexually, much more “in the know”, and who may be sexually active attending school right along with students like my daughter, who’s mother is often referred to [lovingly?] as “the helicopter warden” by both daughter and husband. As one might conclude and studies support, “kids who initiate dating earlier are more likely to become sexually active sooner and have more partners; those with lots of sexual partners misbehave more in other ways, too.” (p.213) In other words, if you exhibit high-risk behaviors in one area, you are most likely going to exhibit high risk behaviors in other areas. Fortunately, studies also show that those children with stable relationships with parents tend to have stable romantic relationships in adolescents.

Don’t Give Up, They’ll Grow Up

Throughout Perlstein’s book, the running theme was one of involvement and concern. We as parents and educators need to be careful to allow these children the degree of freedom they need to become more responsible, to grow and develop. However, we need to be careful not to allow them to completely shove us out of their lives. Yes, it is easier to accept their noncommittal, semi-human grunts and lack of attention, and simply move on. It is easier to allow them to push you away when you ask about homework, school, friends, and more. It is easier to let them shut themselves up in their smelly rooms, wreaking of hormones and 10-day-old gym socks, but the truth is as much as they push us away, they want us to pull them back. They want our love and acceptance. They want to hear our opinions and our stupid stories. They want to know that we are paying attention to them and their accomplishments, fears, and concerns even if they don’t acknowledge our attention. This is hard for me and my husband, and it is equally hard for teachers. We, too, want to be acknowledge. We want to know our children in the home and classroom appreciate our efforts as well. The truth is that we may just have to wait for that gratification. We are the adults and we can’t let our feelings be hurt by these little balls of hormone and emotion. Later, when they reach adulthood, they’ll remember what we did for them and some of them will actually thank us for it. How many times have we heard the stories of teachers getting letters from former students, bumping into them and their families in grocery stories to be showered with hugs and positive comments; how many times have we gone to see our own parents and been ever so thankful they stuck by us through those difficult years? A symbiotic relationship exists between middle school children and the adults in their lives. We may feel they are parasites most of the time, but based on personal experience and Perlstein’s book, the feeling is probably mutual. We can’t understand why we don’t get what we need from them in feedback and appreciation and they can’t understand why we can’t put up and shut up and be the grown-up. They really NEED for us to be the grown up.

Future Promises

The very first principal I worked for summed up the middle school years by declaring you could lock a child in a closet on day one of sixth grade and let them out on day one of ninth grade, and get no better or worse results. Middle school is often called a “wasteland” because of this kind of thinking from both educators and parents. The truth, it seems, is somewhere in between. These are trying years for parents and educators, but it is nothing compared to what the middle schooler himself is experiencing. With all the social, emotional, and physical changes taking place in the middle schooler’s life, paired with whatever may be happening in the home or society, it is no wonder these years are difficult. These are also important and hopeful years for children, though. These are the years that will shape their future and guide them into adulthood. Middle school teachers and the parents of middle schoolers have to hold on to this time and use it to direct and guide these children so they come out on the other side as confident, independent, socially responsible adults. It is a lot of work, but as with anything, you get out of it what you are willing to put into it. Linda Perstein’s book gives a real-world look into the lives of middle schoolers but also offers hope for their future and ours. It is a book well worth reading and sharing.

Related Reading

Teenage Brains – National Geographic – I found this in my father-in-law’s house last summer and found it interesting. It is about older students, but still reveals a great deal about how the brain develops and how that dictates much of the behaviors we, as adults, find distressing.

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3 Comments

Filed under School Library

3 responses to “Book Review: Not Much Just Chillin’

  1. Here is why those of us who stay in middle school (teaching – not because we are on the multi-year plan) love it: these kids are the neediest, funniest, coolest kids ever. They are in such confusion all of the time, because they are essentially giant toddlers. They know they want independence but they are scared of it. They know they want attention from the opposite sex, but that is scary. They want their friends to think they are cool, but they also know that some of the choices their friends are making are not good. Being the adult in the room means something to these kids – we get to model emotional stability, acceptance of ourselves and others and decision-making. It’s the time when we as parents and teachers really have to up our game….but it’s so worth it to get those letters, hugs and anecdotes down a few years later.

  2. Great post!! (Also glad to see some of my advice in use–>breaking up longer posts into sections with teaser titles.)

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