Thoughtful, proactive construction of middle school culture is extremely important, and non-academic programming is integral to that culture building. Given the developmental state of children in the middle years, their obsession with their immediate culture cannot be neglected by any institution that aspires to impart academic learning to them.
Culture resolves itself in a middle school, one way or the other. Legions of distinctively self-absorbed 11-14 year-olds cumulatively result in a palpable culture as their impulsivity and brazen gratification of ascending ids has primacy. Anyone who has spent time in a middle school- especially this time of year- knows well the power of this. While student-centered academics must be in place to help channel these energies in the classroom, good affective programming and realistic adult-student interaction systems (discipline) are the key to making students feel both empowered and secure throughout the school day. Those of us who have stuck around middle schools do so for that inspiring blend of bravery and vulnerability, sincerity and clumsy affectation that the halls and classrooms exude. The best of us know we cannot fully control its sum, rather we actively seek ways to manage it to positive results. We admit the students will create the culture, but we know we can direct it.
The default culture of this age group- when more than a few members of it are together- is not positive; there is entirely too much insecurity and jockeying for position to preclude the accumulation of cruelties that serves to undermine its members’ collaborative and benevolent impulses. Programming that exercises the competitive and independent impulses must be thoughtfully facilitated to ensure the validation of the (often recessive) more benign instincts that we know we want our children to actualize in adulthood. In most settings, organized physical activity has been the ready answer to the question of what to do with adolescent energy, but the facilitators of athletic activities rarely have the degree of pedagogical understanding and discipline to deliver deep learning of the affective skills young people need. Athletics is an effective outlet for energy, but it just one of the building blocks- not the foundation- for some positive and inclusive culture.
The skills we want our students to develop so that they can grapple with their conflicting impulses must be extant in our non-academic programming. If we want students to be collaborative, we must provide them with meaningful projects that only groups can accomplish. If we want them to be creative, we must present them with challenges that they can solve on their own. If we want them to be good communicators, we must facilitate opportunities for them to speak their minds. If we want them to be critical thinkers, we must present them with problems they care about to parse. If we want students to be inclusive, we must create experiences that highlight the value of individuality and difference. And if we want students to develop character, we must model it in our interactions with them and regularly point out examples of it in their actions.
So we must commit time and energy to multiple types of non-academic programming so that our students are most capable of feeling good about themselves and sharing their benign instincts more regularly. The culture they experience in this time will be their guide to the adult world and the palate of the skills needed in it.