Julia Steiny: Puberty, The Elephant in the Middle School Classroom

by Julia Steiny

In 1989, a Carnegie Foundation report dared to boldly go where every man has gone before, but had hoped to forget — puberty.

Turning Points was a rare exploration of those morphing from little kid into budding adult.  Historically, middle-school kids held little interest for researchers.  And lo, over time, Turning Points (TP) also faded from view.  No new seminal work replaced it.  No innovative discussion eclipsed TP’s passionate efforts to focus attention on these kids.  No, the ed industry has reverted to operating as though gawky, spacey, changing adolescents are midway on some unbroken continuum.

Julia Steiny

Of course, everyone knows they’re roiling in a whitewater transition, letting go of childhood and grabbing for adult independence.  They’re betwixt and between.  But we’re not talking about it.

Turning Points begged educators to face the uncomfortable realities of pubescents, between 10 and 15 years old.  They might be bellowing their objections to being “treated like babies,” while secretly playing with old toys.  Most famously, they’re moody, unpredictable and easily distracted by the minutia of social clues.  He looked at me wrong.  She doesn’t like me anymore.  Am I wearing something dorky? 

Their problems are not confined to the onset of sexuality, a mind-blow of its own.  The brain itself changes.  TP says, “Cognitive growth is equally dramatic for many youth, bringing the new capacity to think in more abstract and complex ways than they could as children.  Increased sense of self and enhanced capacity for intimate relationships can also emerge in early adolescence.”

Since 1989, scientists have determined that the brain’s “executive function,” the part making good choices, doesn’t fully mature until about age 25, long after this “middle” period.  Even so, “young people enter a society that at once denounces and glorifies sexual promiscuity and the use of illicit drugs.  They live in urban neighborhoods and even in some rural towns where the stability of close-knit relationships is rare, where the sense of community that shapes their identity has eroded.”

Never mind that the educational requirements of the workforce have changed so radically, poor educations predict dismal economic prospects.

But, “all too often the guidance they needed as children and need no less as adolescents is withdrawn.  Freed from the dependency of childhood, but not yet able to find their own path to adulthood, many young people feel a desperate sense of isolation.  Surrounded only by their equally confused peers, too many make poor decisions with harmful or lethal consequences.”

In other worlds, human puberty is a huge big deal.  We can be there for them and help out.  Or we can stick our fingers in our ears, close our eyes, and sing loudly.

Turning Points strongly recommends “personalization,” a horribly impersonal word that means nurturing kids’ relationships with adults.  TP launched the practice of “advisories,” whereby each school professional takes, say, an hour a week to get to know 12 -15 students personally.  The idea was to avoid replicating fragmented homes and communities with impersonal school experiences.  Sadly, many teachers felt that they already “knew” their students and that the time spent discussing kids’ hopes, dreams, and fears was “a waste.”

Turning Points was influential during the 1990s.  Philanthropic organizations helped systems adopt its “middle-school model.”  Some schools became more pleasant places to be and learn.  For those of us who cared about these kids, it was a hopeful time.

Ironically, the 1990s was also when educational technology exploded.  Suddenly, researchers could collect and crunch data in volumes never previously imagined.  Excited geeks developed powerful diagnostic tools for schools, systems, and even individual kids.  The data collected for Turning Points was intended to monitor and perfect the practices with solid research — a proper use of data.

However.  Congress’s 2001 No Child Left Behind law turned educational technology into a weapon of Mass Criticism.  Researchers were sent like hunting dogs to find data proving educational failure of all kinds.  Cheating scandals erupted nationally because school personnel wanted to avoid getting beaten up by test-score data.  I’m all for assessments and data.  But these days nearly everyone admits that our country’s testing mania is full-on toxic to kids, teachers and education.  No one has any idea how to stop, slow, or better deploy this speeding data train.

So here we are, arguing with one other about teacher evaluations, Common Core, and massive new assessment and curriculum initiatives.  The plan is to put third-graders in front of computers to test the bejesus out of them.

All schools should be held accountable, whatever that means.  But Big Accountability buried Turning Points.  Empathetic values do not jive with heavy breathing about tests.

So once again, my darling, awkward, pimply, smelly, goofy middle schoolers get totally left behind.  “Puberty is one of the most far-reaching biological upheavals in the life span.”  But sorry, kids, we can’t help you with that.  You’re on your own.  Good luck with that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny