A writer spent a year with students, and now she tells the tale

Expedition to the middle school mind

February 23, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

After spending a year immersed in the lives of a group of middle school students and writing a book about that experience, Linda Perlstein had some advice for an audience of Howard County educators.

"It is important to understand what it is like to be 12 or 13 now, not what it was like for us to be 12 and 13," she said.

While all middle school students face a time of physical, mental and emotional changes, she said, the culture they face today is different from a few decades ago.

"The line between child and adult has really blurred," she said, noting how much commercialism is aimed at children today, the intensity of competition they feel and the culture's pervasive sexuality.

Perlstein shared her insights Tuesday afternoon with dozens of female teachers, principals, administrators and other listeners at a Clarksville event held by the Women's Giving Circle of Howard County.

The philanthropy group has been focusing for a couple of years on projects that help adolescent girls. This was the second year it was host for a tea for educators.

"Women educators are most likely to be the influence on young girls, and we want to celebrate that fact," said Jean Moon, a Women's Giving Circle board member.

The group also uses the tea as an opportunity to gain insight into its target population.

Perlstein's book, Not Much Just Chillin: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers, was an expansion of a project she did in 2000 as an education reporter for The Washington Post. She spent a year observing middle school students going about their daily lives -- riding the school bus, attending class, eating lunch, going to sports practices and hanging out on weekends.

She also examined scientific research and talked to teachers and parents to build a picture of what middle school students are like today.

"Middle school is the time of a human being's greatest changes, except infancy," she said. "It is such a strange and cool time of life. I think adults in middle schoolers' lives can do a much better job ... if they understand who they are."

Perlstein said the adolescents have rapidly growing bodies and have trouble sitting still. Their brains have a frontal lobe -- responsible for organization, reason and judgment -- that still is developing.

"Middle schoolers have grand ambitions, but follow-though isn't a strength," she said.

She also said middle school is a time when young people are asked to plan for the future, but it is also a time when they are inclined to follow different interests and attitudes to see if they fit. It is also an excellent time to learn a skill, Perlstein said, and have it stick in the brain for the long run.

In her research, Perlstein said, she found that relationships between young people and parents can be difficult. Some parents are so open about their lives that children become aware of burdens and feel as if they must keep their problems to themselves.

Some parents also try to make life too smooth for their children and don't let them learn by making mistakes, she said.

"Children need responsibility and respect and some degree of independence," Perlstein said.

Natalie Kelly is a gifted-and-talented resource teacher at Atholton High School and the parent of a middle-schooler. She said it was her role as a mother that drew her to the Perlstein event.

"I like that she immersed herself in the lives of the middle-schoolers," Kelly said. "I think she was able to gain more insight and was able to weed out what might have been said just because she is a reporter."

Kelly was also glad to hear that while sexuality is prevalent in the culture, many middle school students are not sexually active.

"I felt more comfortable after speaking with her," Kelly said.

Perlstein, who left the newspaper two years ago and lives in Baltimore, also talked about her next book: Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade.

She spent a year in an Anne Arundel County elementary school that has a large population of low-income students to see how standardized testing is changing day-to-day activities. "Academic preparing for the MSA is the only thing that happens in that school," she said.

Largely left out are opportunities to write about subjects the children like, read for enjoyment, learn social studies, engage in creative thinking and figure things out, she said, and those things are important for becoming lifelong learners, citizens and explorers.

"Teachers are in a weird place," she said, noting the requirements they face from state and federal authorities. But, she said, "they have to find some way to not stop teaching what matters."

After the talk, Diane Mikulis, chairman of the Howard County Board of Education, said that balance is difficult to achieve.

"It is something we wrestle with," she said. "There is so much more that goes into a good education, so much more that kids learn that doesn't get tested. ... We have to do both."

The afternoon concluded with a presentation about a weeklong residential camp for girls that the Women's Giving Circle started last summer. The program brought together 25 young women to learn about self-esteem, media messages, teamwork, leadership and othertopics.

That project, Moon said, is an example of how the group is using what it learns from speakers such as Perlstein to reach out to adolescent girls.

"We are trying to be a philanthropy that has a real understanding of the issues," Moon said. "It is also our mission to increase empathy because that empathy leads to philanthropy."


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