This Is Us (with Grade 9, baby)

Middle school is exactly what it sounds like. A mixed-up mess of nothing, and yet everything at the same time.   ~Julia Remillard

I couldn’t help myself. Cue the music…

All That Is Old Is…Still Old

In my twenty-two plus years in British Columbia public education as both teacher and administrator one thing has become abundantly clear to me: a safe and healthy container with which we hold our students is paramount to any learning systems we employ (aka pedagogy of the week). And no age group seems more requiring of a safe space than Grade 9 cohorts. You know, those on-the-cusp-of-puberty twelve and thirteen year old adults-in-the-making. Yeah, they are not everyone’s cup of tea. And many of us have stories (mostly of the horrible) from this transitional and transformative period.

Anyone in public education will probably share that Grade 9 is an important year for many youth as they step through a new threshold and into a entire set of new (and unrehearsed) complexities: fostering both close and fleeting friendships; navigating the push and pull to, and away, from parents; auditioning new personas; sourcing academic accomplishment; balancing school work and extracurricular activities; enduring massive physiological and neurological changes; and the ever present wrestling/searching for an identity (i.e. who am I?).

Some research has shown that Grade 9 may be the most important year in school. and why is it so critical in determining future academic success and graduation. Some jurisdictions even offer its teachers support for this unique group of learners. It is a watershed year that often, and incorrectly, defined as a rite of passage.

In British Columbia, Grade 9 is one step away from the graduation program; it is one step closer to becoming a young adult; and one step further away from leaving childhood behind. Officially, the province defines the secondary years program to encompass Grades 8-12. (Yeah. I know. Confusing, right?) Peers, social orientation, and fitting in are the priorities. And for many young teens these arrangements are often at the expense of losing themselves.

A Conundrum

Why the scuttle-butt over Grade 9, you ask? As educators, we have revisited the middle years countless times. We have agreed that the vast majority of middle school years are fraught with more distress than delight. We all have a personal horror story from our middle school years (see the James Patterson or Jeff Kinney vault of stories on this subject). This is post is not another righteous educator complaining (or defending) this difficult time in the lives of most youth. This is about what is doing right by our learners.

Our district board of education recently voted to restructure the local secondary school back to its previous Grade 10-12 configuration. But in order to do so, nearly 160 Grade 9 students will be moved (back) to the middle school. The board and senior management argue that the rationale is simple: In three years there will not be enough space in the senior secondary facility to house this “bulge” in our local youth population.

Dearest Reader: Please indulge your truly and take step in time a little more than a decade ago. In 2008, the decision to move the Grade 9 cohort from the middle to secondary school building. I was a teaching at the secondary school at the time and the message from the board was that this was not a “space issue” so much as well…a pedagogical one. The rationale went something like this: It’ll get them ready for the rigors of high school. Grade 9 students will get to see what it’s like to ready for the graduation program; it will afford them an entire year to make mistakes; and allow to figure out and plan their way through the next three years of their formal education.

What could possibly go wrong?

In same restructuring proposal, senior administration also proffered benefits for the secondary staff. We heard ideation like: It will give teachers a year to help Grade 9 students to adjust to expectations and rigor. The staff could have a powerful impact and influence on the learners ‘rise to secondary standards’. The rationale was sound and staff rallied (kinda) around this inevitable movement. For the first September with the Grade 9 cohort some welcoming events were loosely planned. Several seasoned teachers also followed the cohort up from the middle school (most believed in support of the Grade 9 learners). Senior students were recruited to support the ‘minor-niners’. Everything looked well-orchestrated from the outside.

Sadly, true district vision was dumped on the lap of school staff and administration. Experienced teachers complained that the freshmen were not responding to the standards in both writing and reading. A few publicly questioned the decision to have Grade 9s in an environment with serious Grade 12 academics. But even worse, most of the experienced educators did not want to teach these students. Personal politicking witnessed colleagues defining why they should only attend to senior students. Not pretty.

Accusations that there was a ‘dumbing down’ of the curriculum went around. As a result, a line of less experienced teachers, most with term contracts, were left to guide the Grade 9 cohort; to hold space and create a safe container. Many rookie teachers put in Herculean amounts of time and energy into their programming only to be left without a contract for the following year. I have spoken with several former colleagues at the school during this decade, and the results of the Grade 9 ‘experiment’ are still mixed.

People always talk about how great it is to get older. All I saw were more rules and more adults telling me what I could and couldn’t do, in the name of what’s ” good for me.” Yeah, well, asparagus is good for me, but it still makes me want to throw up.  ~James Patterson

After three years it became apparent to all of the stakeholder that the 13-14 year-olds were not ready for the grind expectations the rigor of secondary school. A safe container within the secondary milieu was not strongly supported. We now leap 10 years later and the district hierarchy is moving the contingent back into what will become a massive middle school encompassing Grades 9 through Grade 6. Yes, fourteen year olds will be sharing the same building at ten-year old learners.

Old Is The New…New

Two years ago, I was vice-principal at the middle school at the heart of my story.  Here’s a shocker: I think that it can work. (full disclosure: I’m in the minority on this thinking). The Grade 9 cohort could not only survive the reversed direction, but actually thrive in the middle school facility. But (and this is a big but), the container that is designed, held, and supported will be extremely elemental. Unless the group is held in a safe container this decision may be doomed to a repeat failure. And unless we thoughtfully and purposely create a program designed to make learning fun, safe, exploratory, and to large degree, student-directed this restructuring will wind up in another miscarriage. Placing financial and structural constraints ahead of sound pedagogy for our learners is a tight rope to walk.

As stakeholders, we need to be worried. We need to have a plan. We need to think this entire decision through. But we need to have appropriate time and resources. After a list of some (much needed) renovations and organizational restructuring, the board is aiming for September 2021. A dedicated team of Grade 9 educators with massive hearts, tremendous patience, and dedicated focus will be paramount in any plans.

I feel, as an adult, I’m very similar to how I was as a pre-teen. Maybe it’s a case of arrested development, but I feel like it’s easy to slip back into those shoes, and I feel like if we were all magically transported back to our middle school years, we’d all act like we did in middle school.  ~Jeff Kinney

Let’s pause. Let’s breathe. Let’s take more time. And let’s get this as right as we possibly can. While we know that perfection is not an option, we will move forward with our best intentions at the heart of our decision making process. Let’s put together a team of teachers who desire to provide Grade 9 students with rich, deep, and meaningful programming; to help learners to develop the rigors of secondary school including the minutia of writing tests, studying, taking notes; but also advocating for one’s learning journey.

We owe them our time and resources. We need to recognize that this is a decision not made based on bean-counting numbers. We need to know this because it goes against all our values in public education in this province.


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