Having middle school kids in our school can be a bizarre experience. In fact, many teen age high school students dislike having the little ones in our campus. Its not normal, but as time goes by we get more used to their noises and collective mischievousness. Middle school students in our school have to follow the way of project based learning just like the upperclassmen. Lets call the middle school students “the little ones.” The little ones are grouped to conduct research, create a project and then present it to the school. We had the privilege of observing the middle school student’s first presentation. The presentations were quite painful to watch and we soon knew that they had not internalized the information they had gathered over the course of the semester. This is where the fun began for us.
The little ones stumbled upon facts, they stuttered through their own work, and it seemed as if their topic was completely alien to them. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but their performance made me think they were unprepared. Us, the upperclassmen knew the little ones were unprepared from the time they uttered their first word. They knew we would ask them questions but the difficulty of our questions surprised them. They could not answer a question correctly or not at all. They seemed scared, nervous, humiliated by the thought of having failed, so we kept on asking questions. These questions seemed cruel and I felt terrible, but we did it for a reason.
I don’t think middle school students care too much about what they learn, I know this by experience because I didn’t care too much; it was all about getting good grades. The problem in our school and with project based learning is that you need to pay attention, you need to be involved and you must produce a good project to earn a good review and a good grade. You need to care for your project as if it were your little brother. As first timers, the little ones in our school let their little brother down, they let him fall and break a bone. Luckily it was their first time immersed in p.b.l. and there is time for improvement before the next project begins. At first, the middle school students could not recognize their failure. They needed someone to tell them what they did wrong and how they did it. We assembled into a panel of upper class men and proceeded to criticize the little one’s work harshly. We gave them grief. We made them see that they had not absorbed the information they were researching and that it had been apparent in their presentation. We told them that this would get them no where in our school and that they quickly needed to improve. We proceeded to criticize their public speaking performance which for the majority of them was meager. The little ones were disheartened, we could see it in their faces. Yes, we had fun criticizing their performance, but their sad faces signaled redemption. We knew it was time to give them a reason for our harsh comments. We made it clear that their poor performance in their project was not up to standards and that we want them to succeed. Our harsh comments came out of our desire of success both for the little ones and for the school. They are the future for our school. I hope that their experience with us changed their attitude about project based learning and their performance.
It seems as if the little ones in our school look up to upperclassmen as examples and mentors. They are not intimidated by us any longer. This change in nature is impossible when they merely receive a letter grade a few weeks later by an adult they barely know. We encouraged them to do better. We gave them motivation to internalize their project. I hope that this experience materializes into their next project. The next project is coming up shortly!