Welcome to Centered in the Middle, a blog I’ll be writing monthly to share with our parent community some musings from and about Wildwood middle school. The idea for this blog came about in part from parents, who over and over again during the summer requested that we create a medium through which to share best practices and current research on raising middle school kids. If you have ideas you like to hear about, or questions you’d like me to address in this space, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For our first post I am going to begin, appropriately enough, with beginnings.
Walking up to Wildwood bright and early Tuesday morning, I was treated to the sight of a beautiful sunrise—the clouds pinking the horizon, promising a warm day. For all that it remains hot, that felt like a very fall moment to me; there was something in the air that whispered of crisper days to come. That hint of change is part of why I love September, and autumn in general—even to a native Californian, where the seasons only exist in vague traces of temperature shifts and fog patterns, the onset of a new school year always brought with it for me a heightened awareness of the world around me as it reshaped. My love for that transitional time is part of why I was drawn to working in schools.
Last week I had the opportunity to welcome new families to Wildwood middle school. In my remarks to them I focused on transitions, sharing with them my older daughter Sonia’s impulse to call everything “stupid” for the couple weeks following our move to Los Angeles. (During that orientation our school counselor Jill Valle also shared this fascinating Ted Talk by Sarah Jayne Blakemore on the Adolescent Brain, and how it is growing and reforming—it is well worth sitting and watching the whole thing.) Among the middle school administrators, we spent a good chunk of our planning time discussing how to begin that orientation. Where we landed was in asking the gathered parents to introduce their child to a group of other parents—so that everyone there would start the year (and their child’s career at Wildwood middle school) knowing another family, and feeling known. The process of allowing ourselves to be known is a vulnerable one (I wrote about Brene Brown’s Ted Talk on vulnerability in Our Wildwood this summer), and never more so than in the middle school years. We wanted to begin there—just as we begin the school day in advisory—so that we have a foundation of connection and trust on which to build.
Thanks to Landis, who dropped a copy of the book on my desk last week, I had the chance over the holiday weekend to start reading Square Peg: My Story and What it Means for Raising Innovators, Visionaries, and Out of the Box Thinkers, by L. Todd Rose. In the book Rose shares his journey from being a troubled adolescent with ADHD and high school dropout to joining the faculty of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. There is a lot to like about the book, and I suspect it will become part of future conversations here at Wildwood, but what I’ve found most valuable about it in the early going is its focus on life as a process of becoming, rather than arriving at a fixed goal. (In the world of poetry a similar point was made by Lyn Hejinian, in her wild and difficult and brilliant book My Life.)
This feels important to me during this time of transition. While it was a summer of new beginnings for my family, as we moved from the Bay Area and got to know our new neighborhood and schools, it was also a season that gave us opportunity to reflect on endings. This happened most powerfully for me when my dad’s cousin’s partner died, rather suddenly. In the wake of her passing, an email went around among my family members, where people shared memories of Sandi and their grief at her loss. In these exchanges, the word people kept returning to was wit—because Sandi truly was a droll woman, with a sparkling sense of humor. Her obituary, when it was eventually written, used the same language to describe her.
What I found myself thinking about, as I read these emails and took part in my family’s grief while also preparing to start a new year of middle school, was how we become the adults who we are—and how we appear to the adolescents in our lives. The fear for middle schoolers is that they will be stuck forever in their awkwardness—and looking around them they see adults who are confident, articulate, and fully formed. They read obituaries like the one for Sandi, and worry that she must have always been so witty, and that therefore they never will be. What they do not see is Sandi’s no-doubt awkward adolescence (that likely informed her humor), or mine, or yours as their parents. They look around them and see completeness, even among their peers, and feel all the more incomplete for it.
During that new-family orientation last week I mentioned the work of Carol Dweck of Stanford University, whose research looks at the impact of what she calls “mindset” on achievement. Specifically, she studies how students’ expectations for themselves—whether they see themselves as good or bad at math, for example—affect their performance. What she has found is that believing you are bad at something will make you worse at it; and conversely, if you believe you can get better at something, you will. What she argues for is the importance of a “growth mindset,” which assumes that abilities are not fixed but can grow and strengthen, just like a muscle, with practice and work.
I like to keep Dr. Dweck’s work in mind every September, as a new school year rolls around and I can feel (or perhaps just imagine) the tang of autumn in the air. It reminds me that we are all at our best when we see ourselves as in the process of growing and changing, and it reminds me how much our middle schoolers need reminding of that every day. So in that spirit I’d encourage all of you to share some stories with your children this month of your own awkward moments—to let them in on the secret that you were not always as polished and accomplished as you are today.
Until next month,