Thoughts on the Christ-Centered Middle School

Thoughts on the Christ-Centered Middle School

“Outwitted”

“He drew a circle that shut me out –

heretic, rebel, a thing to flout

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in.”

(by E. Markham)

1. CHANGE. Pre- and young adolescents (roughly 10-15 year olds) are experiencing more change more quickly in more areas of their person than at any other time in their lives, excepting perhaps infancy to toddlerhood. At our best, most stable moments, we are mysteries unto ourselves. Imagine their insecurities during this transition, then, especially within a society that is constantly, radically changing as well.

“Middle school students are changing at an astounding rate. Intellectually, they are maturing in their thinking as they move from concrete to more abstract reasoning. Physically, they are overwhelmed by growth so explosive that it can make them appear rather awkward. Spiritually, they are beginning to make faith decisions for themselves and to relate their faith to more real life experiences. Socially and emotionally, they are developing an identity of their own, while also struggling with how to relate to peers.” (Russell Gregg).  “There is a wonderful sense of discovery in these years. Kids are exploring, experimenting, trying on all sorts of behaviors for size. The patterns are not yet cast in concrete, and they can be shaped in healthy ways.” (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development).  “They work hard at defining themselves as they hope to be and at rejecting what they have been. Most of all, they are working out who they were, who they are, and who they may become, all in relationship to self, peers, parents, school and community” (David Hicks)

2. MYSTERY.  The God-designed process of human development remains a mystery, even when we have a general notion of various stages of growth and their needs. God seems to build within each person a unique clock, and each of us grows as He ultimately wills, in His timing, at His pace. Therefore, even though a school environment has much influence on how a student’s gifts are allowed to develop, we realize that we can no more “grow” a student
intellectually than we could physically or emotionally. We do not necessarily want to force the student to fit what ambition or insecurity demand.

“Night and day the seed sprouts and grows, though the farmer knows not how. All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.” (Mark 4:26-29).  “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5-6)

3. RELATIONSHIP.  Largely ignored in the educational controversies surrounding computers and technology is the crucial matter of teacher-student relationship. The profound personal meeting that takes place between souls allows the student to be known, inspired and loved. In many respects, wisdom is simply truth incarnate. So for words to come alive, the word needs to become flesh, mediated through accepting, gracious relationships, in and out of the classroom.

“The greatest thing any person can do for another is to confirm the deepest thing in him or her – to take the time and have the discernment to see what’s most deeply there inside, most fully that person, and then confirm it by recognizing and encouraging it.” (Martin Buber).  “If you ask almost any adult about the impact of (church) school on his or her growth, he or she will not tell you about books or curriculum or Bible stories or anything like that. The central memory is of the teacher… learning is meeting. That poses problems for the characteristically American way of thinking about education for competence even in the church. Meeting never made anybody competent. Surely we need competence, but our business is not competence. It is meeting. We are learning slowly and late that education for competence without education as meeting promises us deadly values and scary options: Our penchant for control and predictability, our commitment to quantity, our pursuit of security.” (Walter Brueggemann)

4. COMMUNITY.  Learning is a communal activity, as is maturation. We all need each other to grow, especially during personal times that contain this much excitement, upheaval, uncertainty, and fear. Regarding spiritual growth, one usually needs to belong in order to believe. And it is the same with a young person’s emotional, intellectual and social life… Membership in order to mature. Intimate social acceptance with a variety of other people strengthens the soul, and everything else.

“Community is a place where everybody feels they belong because they are accepted by the others in the community; where interaction is regular, on-going, and face-to-face; where self-esteem is enhanced; where community members take responsibility for each other.” (J. Vanderhoek). “An authentic communal life provides the one environment in which individuality can flourish. Human life achieves an authentic wholeness only as it is directed outward, away from itself. Healthy communal life will nurture the individuality of its members, and a healthy individuality looks for fulfillment in communal life.”  (S. Fowler)

5. PLAY.  Obviously, growing bodies need physical play to be healthy, strong, coordinated. But, thinking of the whole person, young adoescents also have an intellect that needs to play, in order to develop their imagination and curiosity. They each have a spirit that needs to play, in order to nurture their appetite for wonder and worship. They have emotions that need to play, in order to experience joy and passion. In order to play, pre- and young teens need some unstructured time, opportunities to experiment, stretch out, explore, discover, create, recreate. Within the boundaries of truth and love, of course, middle schoolers will not grow in a balanced, healthy way, the way God made us, without being able to freely play in every aspect of their being.

“Driven by the fear that their children will reach adulthood with some essential piece missing, parents unwittingly squeeze out of childhood the most precious thing it offers: unscheduled time… Providing kids with lots of time – and space – for uninterrupted imaginative play unleashes their creative abilities and keeps them engaged in age-appropriate recreation they genuinely enjoy.” (I. Heckard).  “We have changed our perception of children from one of innocence to one of competence. And that change came about not as a result of any new revolutionary findings in the field of child development… but rather because of changes in society and in the family. We can’t protect them the way we once did. And to maintain our sanity as parents, we have to see children as competent to deal with all the things the world is throwing at them.” (David Elkind)

6. GRACE. As we parents and teachers do our probing and wondering, we run smack into the distinctive irony of middle school young people: We take the student seriously, but then again we don’t take the student seriously. We are in their midst and alongside of them, on the one hand. But on the other hand, we have to be “above” them in perspective and maturity. We offer students unconditional love, stable concern, and personal appreciation for who they are and their uniqueness in God’s scheme of things. We accept them as the tender souls they are. But here’s the ironic part: we can’t possibly take everything they do or say seriously… they are not finished yet, so a lot of what is observable in them doesn’t reflect their inner character, or upbringing, or anything in particular. The things they say and do are temporary lapses in judgment, and are often meager experiments to see our reaction, or try a new personality on, or gain our attention. In our speech, then, be full of grace. Be above their bluster, giddiness, moodiness, surliness, while at the same time holding them accountable. When a situation or conversation calls for us to be dispassionate, then be cool, don’t be fooled by what you see or hear, and wisely look behind the games that middle school kids can play. In our teaching, let us “speak the truth in love,” because the students face the same irony. They desperately want us to take them seriously, and yet they are often thinking, “Gee, I hope they didn’t take me seriously when I said/did that.”

“In 37 years of teaching in America, I have known enough students to conclude that what they lack is a warm and gently cultured family life, friends to talk with and to trust, teachers who probe soul, taste, and knowledge in an inseparable fusion.” (Thomas Molnar)

One Reply to “Thoughts on the Christ-Centered Middle School”

  1. “Therefore, even though a school environment has much influence on how a student’s gifts are allowed to develop, we realize that we can no more “grow” a student intellectually than we could physically or emotionally.” – Words of wisdom.

    As a middle school teacher I see the struggle in my students every day. Demanding standards not only academically, but socially and emotionally. A relationship will do much more to teach a child than a textbook. That is what drives young adolescence. That is what impact them. I would argue it drives most humans, not just the 12-14 year olds!

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