What Do You Do With 11-to-13-Year-Olds?

A few weeks ago, my school asked me to give a 10-minute speech to our 400 youngest students, a sort of farewell address before I return to my American homeland.

Ten minutes isn’t very long, but it is roughly 297 times their average attention span, and I didn’t want to bore them. So I asked my class of 12-year-olds: What should I talk about?

Here’s how the conversation went:

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Then they sort of yelled indiscriminately for a while, which I suppose was my own fault for riling them up. You might as well feed them sugar right before bedtime.

Seeking greater pliability and innocence, I asked my class of 11-year-olds. This is how that went:

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Then they spent the afternoon giggling, for which, once again, I can only blame myself.

After this, I realized what I wanted to talk to them about: them. After all, it’s not just me who finds that this age-group ping-pongs between “charmingly ungovernable” and “utterly feral.” Everybody seems to share that feeling.

The world isn’t quite sure what to do with 11-to-13-year-olds.

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Here in England, they’re secondary school students, thrown in with the big guys. In June, you’re sharing hallways with 6-year-olds; come September, you’re staring up at passing 17-year-olds. It’s a hell of a transition, and though my school has a wonderful support network for the lil’ guys, it’s not always easy on them.

These 11-to-13-year-olds aren’t prepping for high-stakes tests. They’re not eyeing university admissions. They’re passengers in a school built for a very different clientele.

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At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got schools like the one where my sister teachers: what Americans call “K through 8’s.” Here, my lil’ guys are the big dogs, constituting a primary school’s most senior wing.

Some schools manage this beautifully. But this too is an awkward fit. A 12-year-old needs greater challenges, new horizons, subject specialists. They’re nothing like 6-year-olds, and it’s a strain for a school to serve both needs at once.

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A third option is what I (like most Americans) experienced: a “middle school,” exclusively for ages 11 to 13.

In short: quarantine.

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When I talk to adults, many name middle school as childhood’s unhappiest stage. I’m not sure the “lock ’em in a room and wait until the diseased age has passed” model is to blame, but it sure doesn’t help. When I taught high school in California, I looked upon my middle school colleagues with admiration and pity. Their days were grueling. The kids’ days were just as tough.

I don’t know quite why this age is such a bumpy ride. But one theory I like comes from psychologist Erik Erikson.

Erikson imagines life, from birth to death, as composed of eight stages. Each is defined by a signature struggle, a characteristic crisis. (As you might guess, this theory is more about “novelistic resonance” than “scientific falsifiability,” but hey, so is life.)

In the first stage, as infants, we ask: Can I trust the world? It’s a battle between trust and mistrust.

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In the second stage, as toddlers, we ask: Do I feel at home in this body, in this world? It’s a battle between a sense of autonomy and a plague of shame and doubt.

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In the third stage, as preschoolers, we ask: Do I feel comfortable taking action? The conflict plays out between a sense of initiative and a shadow of guilt for taking initiative.

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Next comes primary school, and a conflict between “industry” and “inferiority.” At this age, we ask: Can I do it? Can I succeed? Or am I doomed to flounder and fail?

I see this struggle in vivid technicolor every time one of my students receives a low test grade. They’re not thinking, “Did I study hard enough?” or “Do I understand these topics?” or “Did Mr. Orlin screw me over by forgetting to teach a whole topic?” They’re thinking, “Am I any good at math?”

It’s the signature struggle, playing out in an instant. The stakes are stratospheric.

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During secondary school, a new stage of life opens up, and the focus shifts. Now we ask: Who am I? What defines me? What is my role in this world?

Questions of ability give way to questions of identity.

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I see this in my 11-to-13-year-old students, too. They’re starting to ask tough questions, to contrast themselves with others, to seek role models, to rebel. They’re beginning the process of identity creation that makes being a teenager so exhilarating and bizarre.

In short, these guys are tackling two fundamental life questions at once: Can I do it? and Who is this “I” who’s doing it, anyway? They’re caught in a moment of transition. It’s painful and confusing and full of possibility. And this helps me to understand the nagging problem of what to do with 11-to-13-year-olds.

It’s a hard age to teach because it’s a hard age to be.

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I said all this, more or less verbatim, to the school’s cohort of 11-to-13-year-olds. They listened patiently, because they’re stars and I love ’em all. And I closed with a story.

In 2013, I was a stubble-chinned California man, living the surfer life, when my wife accepted a three-year job in Birmingham, England. I figured I’d need to do more than sit around feasting on crumpets (especially given that I wasn’t sure what crumpets were), so I started looking for teaching slots.

I was a perfect specimen of American ignorance. I didn’t know an A-Level from an O.W.L., and had no clue what “GCSE” stood for or what dark magic it signified. (Still don’t, frankly.) And when I landed a job, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t just teaching the 16-to-18-year-olds I expected.

I was teaching the little guys, too.

You can imagine my surprise. It is dwarfed only by my surprise, three years later, to look back and find that these little guys have offered the greatest challenges and rewards of my English teaching experience. They’ve made me laugh, scream, apologize for screaming, and smile so wide I forgot that I’d ever screamed to begin with. Thanks to them, I’ve had three years of relentless growth and new experiences. I’ve had to ask Can I do it? and What kind of teacher am I? They’ve helped me frame the questions and find the answers.

I thanked them onstage, and I’ll say it again here: Thanks, guys. I only hope that your three years can be as wonderful and rewarding as mine have been.

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11 thoughts on “What Do You Do With 11-to-13-Year-Olds?

  1. This is just what I needed to read today after homeschool maths with my 12 and 13 year old kids! Well done for surviving 3 years over here and thanks for your fantastic blog. I only discovered it recently when I went looking for a Brit/US math/s dictionary to translate the US terminology in our textbook (The Art of Problem Solving) into GCSE-speak. I’m so glad I did. Please keep up the fantastic work!

  2. I sincerely hope you plan to continue this column, despite leaving your currently motivating position. This is a lovely conclusion to your adventure with your students in England, but there are hoards (if I may use the word) of upcoming 11-13 yo kids here in the US needing the same conscious and deliberate teaching you have demonstrated, especially in math! The US is in the throes of developing a new STEM teaching standard, and you have the kind of insight, perspective, and awareness that process could benefit from. Keep it up. Know that while you are helping them grow, you are keeping yourself young, relevant, and so so valuable.

  3. “charmingly ungovernable” and “utterly feral” …. HAHH! I wish I had thought to use that description on dating sites eons ago (possible chick-magnet material) 😉

  4. Very nice read! What a coincidence. I found your site only recently, and loved it! Who’d guess you were in Birmingham? I am a PhD student of maths at the uni there. It’d be nice to grab a cuppa sometime if you’re available =) Thanks for the posts anyway and best of luck back to the US!

  5. Aww, I love this post! I taught (and lived among) 11-13 year olds for two summers as a camp counselor, and while they absolutely could be a bit feral, I loved them all… I find there is something really magical about getting to watch that process of figuring out “who am I?”. They are old enough to start developing a sense of self-awareness and a realization of how their actions affect others, but young and un-jaded enough to still throw themselves into things whole-heartedly, and the goofier the better… basically, hooray for the little guys!

  6. I somehow prefer the middle school model. I feel that it gives 11yr olds to bloom and grow without feeling threatened by 17olds in every which way.

  7. Another charming story on students, sharing your insights of what makes children tick.
    You’re American and you’ve been in the U.K. I’ve been thinking of how the west is generally performing poorer than many would have expected (PISA). When you head back to the US, it would be wonderful to hear your insights on what’s happening with the academic performance in the five eyes countries (ie. culturally similar countries). Canada is the only nation that’s near the top. As Australia has promoted diversity, its ranking fell sharply (that could be correlation).
    Is PISA meaningless? Are the results luck? Could we learn from observing other countries (just like Mr Orland), is it teacher incomes (eg. Did Australia lower teacher incomes in the last few years, explaining the sudden drop in performance)?
    If we can learn what’s happening and how to support our children better, it makes a better future for our children.
    Because of your experience, you are in a great position to offer some insight that many others aren’t able to offer.

  8. Being a middle school teacher is without a doubt a calling apart from the rest. Middle schoolers are my favorite age, but they are definitely a breed apart and not for everyone! You hit the nail right on the head here!

  9. Pingback: What Do You Do With 11-to-13-Year-Olds? — Math with Bad Drawings | World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum.

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