Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Middle school curriculum, reinvented

on 1999 January 31

Junior High kids are often blamed for being the hardest age to teach, but my observation is that it depends on how boring the stuff is you are trying to teach them. With the appropriate kind of structure, the age group can be a joy, but if it is structured without regard to the special needs of that age group, they find it boring, and they get out of the teacher’s control.

In elementary school, life is pretty stable, and kids want to learn everything about everything (unless they have been turned off to learning by bad experiences in school). They have a great capacity to extend themselves, incorporate new skills, and learn external things that do not involve themselves. They could get very interested in the history of foreign countries, for example, even though they may have no personal experience with the subject.

Then, at ages 12 and 13, kids are energetically seeking their identity through friends and group membership. History and other abstract outside subjects no longer have as much meaning, and only things that have to do with ME mean something. The child will try on different values and ways of being, and see what works best. The choices the child has are of course whatever there is in his or her environment, and the child has no other way of distinguishing what kind of person it is best to be, other than to try out different ways. Therefore a teacher and a curriculum can have a very deep and permanent impact, if the whole affair seems attractive enough to pay attention to. On the other hand, if it is boring, the kids will look to and find meaning in other options, like whatever the older kids are doing, what’s on TV, etc.

After Junior High, some kids figure out who they are and can get back to the business of formal education. If the child becomes a stable adolescent with a group of friends and has developed ways to deal with problems, then I think there will be room again for learning about things outside of oneself. High School is a time when people can be at their intellectual peak, and learn new abstract concepts, foreign languages, artistic skills, and so on, all very quickly.

But if High School kids are still fighting unresolved battles from early adolescence, then they can not move on to the intellectual phase. Such kids do not pay attention in High School either, and become social and academic failures.

We need a whole new concept of education for the Junior High age group. Primarily, we have to let up on the pressure to learn abstract academic things like math and history. If we cut way down on the formal academics and have them spend a lot more time on discovering who they are, they will be more successful discovering who they are, then they will be done with that phase in life, and will want to move on to other things.

You may think that I disagree with “back to basics” or the “three Rs.” To the contrary, I think that learning to read and write ought to be a basic goal of formal schooling. A great many items should be crossed off the federal and state governments’ list of obligations, and we should re-focus on basics. I think pulic school attendance ought to be optional and schools should be controlled and funded at a town and neighborhood level. The larger government should get out of the business of education after we have fulfilled a basic obligation to our children. The basic obligation is to ensure the continuance and growth of a peaceful and democratic society in the future. To this end, children must learn how to read and write effectively, and they must know the laws and the process of lawmaking.

I should probably clarify why I think schools should be funded locally. Many people who see that poor neighborhoods get less school funding than rich neighborhoods believe that the way to fix this problem is to equalize funding on a per-child basis at the state level. There are two reasons I don’t agree with this fix. One is that it makes the state the absolute authority and removes local control (the authority comes from the funding source, generally speaking). In order to empower poor people, they need local power over local affairs; consequently they need to fund their local affairs. The second reason state equalization doesn’t fix the problem is that money itself isn’t the problem in the first place. Even though schooling is a huge public expense today, we still fail to teach reading and writing adequately. If we double school funding under the current system, I don’t think we would see much change in students’ ability to read. They would probably end up with more expensive sports and computer equipment. Back in the one-room schoolhouses with very limited supplies, many children did learn to read and write. My wish for poor neighborhoods today is that the state would simply leave them alone, and they would organize and fund schooling to suit their needs. Having local control would be the key to make it work, even if there were few supplies and they didn’t have a separate school building.

Here is an outline of my idealized vision for the different age levels:

  • At the primary school age (roughly ages 6-11) the local government would arrange for teaching the basics – reading, writing, and citizenship. Other institutions would handle other childhood activities like music, sports, outings, science, etc. There would be no graduation date: a child would stay in this age group as long as it stays fun, and until he or she is very ready for the next level.
  • In eary adolescence (roughly 12-13) the kids would take a break from the classroom to go on trips and practice drama and art and other intensely social things. The idea would be to know oneself through relationships with others, and to find ones home by going other places. This might last one or two years, until the young person finds the motivation to pursue things more formally.
  • In later adolescence (roughly 14-16) the local government would complete its task of teaching the basics, and other institutions would fulfill other needs as before. Young people would ideally be given an opportunity to study subjects just for the love of learning, as well as to practice job-related skills. (I would like to show all kids both kinds of learning, rather than to divide kids into working class and college-bound class tracks, as we do now.)

The curricula presented here are meant to fit into our current system of schooling, and help take the boredom out of school for Junior High kids, while it also aims to fulfil the basic obligations that we have as a society to our next generation.

As curricula for reading and writing are not explicitly part of this book, I should briefly tell you what I think is a good way to learn to read and write: A child should read what is worth reading, and learn to write what is worth writing. We spend a great deal of energy breaking down curricula into little meaningless pieces, like “learn how to write the letter M” and “every paragraph needs a topic sentence and three supporting ideas.” We need to move away from these kinds of separated rules and instead involve the students’ natural love of learning as the motivating factor for improvement.

Topics in this curriculum

This paper presents four curriculum segments that can fit into the structure of Middle School/Junior High. These are meant to inspire and empower young people to tackle the problems that will challenge their generation. Here in the 1990s, sustainability has slowly become an accepted goal, but the work of re-engineering our economy to meet the goal has barely started. This curriculum is meant to show the next generation a way to actually accomplish the goal of sustainability.

Here is an introduction to the four segments:

1. Sustainable design: In this course, students learn what makes something sustainable, they map product and services to basic human needs and invent new ways to meet our needs sustainably – i.e. without compromising the needs of future generations, and without lowering our quality of life.

It may sound like Junior High kids are too young for this, but I don’t think so. Young people will often come up with impractical solutions, but it is the creative exercise that counts. One fifth grade student in my first test class on this curriculum said, paraphrased: “I have an idea. For newspapers, each town should have its own little forest, and we can make paper using solar energy, and deliver papers by walking (since you can’t use trucks because they use oil), and then take the papers back to that factory to recycle them.” His idea may not be entirely practical, but on the other hand it makes more sense than the way we do it now! As he gets older, if he remembers this lesson, he will be able to carry the values of sustainable design into many other situations.

2. Contracting: This segment is done in the form of a game. Its aim is to give kids the knowledge of how to get things done in the real world. It provides a basic understanding of how the government and businesses get things done, and gives insight into starting a business. School in general teaches kids how to work for others, and is weak when it comes to teaching independence. In the Contracting Game, students compete for government contracts, which are awarded by the teacher acting as the government’s contracting officer. They get paid real money (token amounts) for accomplishing projects that could have real benefits. In order to get the money, they have to write an acceptable proposal, organize their expenses, and write a report of their work.

3. Creative writing: This segment is good old fashioned creative writing, except I strongly urge the teacher to avoid grades and negative evaluations. Having an abstact standard that the students are supposed to meet may help them with learning spelling and other mechanics, but at the same time it drowns out creativity, experimentation, and self expression. This creative writing class is meant to be a place where students can find their own voices. This is done with deep positive feedback, by which I mean a concentrated effort by the teacher to find something he or she genuinely likes about a student’s work, and expressing that back to the child. The teacher can pick a few papers from each day to respond to, and make sure to respond to each student at least once for every five classes. For example, you could write: “I can see that you have a very hard relationship with your mother. Your anger about her controlling you is very clear, and reminds me of my own experience when I was your age. Are you still looking for a way out of this situation, or is the ending of your story something that really happened?”

4. Democracy: The independence and responsibility learned from contracting, plus the private voice strengthened by creative writing leads into a study and experience of democracy. The purpose of this segment is to experience being part of making a group decision about something that means something. Students will talk about jurisdiction, public versus private, sovereignty, and forms of decision making, and will experience how certain kinds of decisions are more democratic than others. Students will also practice visioning their preferred future and will experience making decisions in the context of distrubuted power and diversity. Hopefully the class can be charged with real authority over some aspect of their school or social environment.

While kids do get some experience in school government, that only reinforces the notion of the winner-takes-all electoral system, and that power is centralized; it does not teach how to make decisions together, or how to make decisions in a diversity context. Kids left to themselves may create a strict social ladder with power centralized at the top, so the teacher has to give a lot of input of the values of distributed power.

Major troubles of the world today – wars, starvation, environmental destruction – seem to me to all be related to huge concentrations of power and wealth, whether in private or public hands. The more resources and authority a group has, the more damage it can cause. When the wishes of a small group are sought without broad consensus, it is often at the expense of the rest of us.

It is our obligation to teach the next generation to protect democracy, not just as a symbolic patriotic gesture, but critically and in detail – the US is not a perfect democracy. A broadened concept of democracy may be necessary to heal our troubles, and each person’s voice is necessary in a full democracy. Creative writing is used as a way to find the voice in this curriculum.


The four segments can be held on a two-year cycle. Some students will hit the cycle in 6-7th grade and others in 7-8th grade, depending on when you start. There is a rationale for the ordering and timing of the segments. Sustainable design and Creative writing involve more sitting at a desk and thinking, and these are held in the Fall, when students are more able to do that. Contracting should not be held after 7th grade because it will seem silly and not worth their time if the student is too old. Democracy is last because it requires the most maturity: the activities require that students who hold a minority opinion, voice that opinion, which is hard for 6th and 7th graders to do.


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