When I tell people that I teach literature to junior high students, the response is nearly universal: an expression of profound sympathy. Teaching junior high is regarded as a martyr’s job, to be taken on only by those with such a selfless commitment to children and education that they are willing to endure the daily torture of a classroom full of obnoxious, disrespectful, hormone-driven, teenagers who have nothing but contempt for learning.
One can see the basis for this view by looking at the state of most junior high schools today. A recent New York Times article about the problem of “chaotic middle schools” describes a scene from a typical New York City classroom:
…paper balls fly and pens are flicked from desk to desk. A girl is caught with a note and quickly tears it up, blushing, as her classmates chant, “Read it!” The teacher, Laura Lowrie, tries to demonstrate simple machines by pulling from a box a hammer, a pencil sharpener and then, to her instant remorse, a nutcracker–the sight of which sends a cluster of boys into a fit of giggles and anatomical jokes.
Is this sort of behavior an inevitable stage of development, the curse of the teenage years? Does puberty cause children to abandon the pursuit of knowledge in favor of spitballs, love notes, and dirty jokes? Must all junior high teachers be candidates for sainthood?
Not in my experience. Here is a scene from the last week in a junior high classroom at VanDamme Academy.
I entered the classroom five minutes before my literature class, the first class of the day, was to begin. The students were milling around and talking, until the first one saw me enter and alerted the others of my arrival. They all bolted for their seats and then sat erect with hands folded, for a deliberately exaggerated message: “We want to finish the last act of Cyrano de Bergerac right now.”
I had been absent the day before, and the class had read act four with another of the VanDamme Academy teachers. Mattingly, age 11, said, in a tone playful but earnest, “I don’t think it’s right that our literature teacher was not with us when Christian died.”
I took a few minutes at the start of class to talk about plans to view the movie, in a discussion that included their protests against the modern, Gerard Depardieu version in favor of the 1947 black-and- white version of which they had watched one act. “If it is not Jose Ferrer, it is not Cyrano,” said Geoffrey, a 12-year-old student.
I assigned parts, and the students read the act aloud, with sincerity, expressiveness, and understanding. As Cyrano lamented the tragic end to his tragic life, the tears streamed down my face. Seeing movement in the desk across from mine, I looked up at Allison, the 12-year-old girl seated there, who was wiping the tears from hers.
This maturity, this reverence for learning, this capacity for enjoyment of art is to be expected in a VanDamme Academy junior high classroom–and it can be replicated anywhere with the right curriculum and teaching methods.