Dear Brandeis community,
I wanted to share with all of you the words I’ll be sharing with our rising middle schoolers tonight at All About Middle School, a celebration of late childhood and early adolescence, still my favorite ages and stages as an educator. Enjoy!
I want to begin by acknowledging that middle school is a vulnerable time. It is a vulnerable time for you as kids, feeling as awkward and uncomfortable in your skin as you ever will. You worry about fitting in, about being too loud or quiet, short or tall, skinny or fat, smart or dumb, too artistic, athletic, capable, or anything else. It is also a vulnerable time for parents, who leave behind the cozy confines of elementary school and suddenly see high school and college looming, waiting to sort the successful from the nearly and the not at all. There is the sudden sense that “now it counts,” that mistakes matter and can have life-altering consequences, and conversations turn from joy in learning to preparedness for tests or “the next level.”
Our children, who it seems yesterday were toddling into our arms all smiles and kisses, push us away, shun us, refuse to listen, pick fights. We worry that we’ve failed as parents, or lost them, or let them down, that we’ll never get them back.
This vulnerable time is made more difficult by the stresses the downward pressure of high school and college admissions add to our family lives. The research that Denise Clark Pope and others at Stanford have done as part of the Challenge Success project has shown that academics are the leading cause of stress for 9-to-13-year-olds, and that these years begin a cycle of working too hard and sleeping too little that has a profound impact on adolescent mental health and drug and alcohol abuse. Thankfully, as Columbia University psychologist Dr. Lisa Miller’s research is showing, an authentic sense of spiritual identity—which we nurture through our tzedek project as much as through the rituals of morning mifgash in advisory—can inoculate adolescents against many of these worrisome outcomes.
But, tonight is not about fear. It is important to also remember what a beautiful and powerful time in life middle school can be, as our children transition from late childhood’s concrete thinking to the broader horizons and ability to engage in moral complexity that come with early adolescence. Middle schoolers grow to see beyond the horizons of their individual experience; to imagine themselves as human beings in history, capable of taking action and making change; to be profoundly and passionately connected to the world.
And that passion is hugely important in crafting a middle school experience that truly does matter. You will hear tonight from the amazing faculty who will share their own love of linear equations or American government or Jewish ethics with you in the years to come, sparking interests that may come to set the course for a meaningful and engaged life. Our mission statement reminds us to always be working to connect learning and purpose, to ground interests and passions in engagement, connection, and meaning. As Tony Wagner writes in Creating Innovators,
Pure passion, by itself, is not enough to sustain the motivation to do difficult things and to persevere—in love or in work! In my research, I observe that young innovators almost invariably develop a passion to learn or do something as adolescents, but their passions evolve through learning and exploration into something far deeper, more sustainable, and trustworthy—purpose. The sense of purpose can take many forms. But the one that emerged most frequently in my interviews… is the desire to somehow “make a difference.” … Jeff Bezos wants to “make history,” Steve Jobs to “put a ding in the universe,” Skype founder Niklas Zennstrom to “be disruptive… in the cause of making the world a better place.”
Future middle schoolers, these are exciting, complex, powerful years ahead of you. Dr. Tarle and the entire team will be working in partnership with you to be sure that all the innovative work we do, in classrooms as much as in creating new clubs, new opportunities to grow and learn, in building our program, helps to ground you in a sense of purpose and authentic spirituality. This community will be here to support you, in making these vulnerable and important years matter.
Wishing you all weekends full of passion and purpose, my friends.