Math with Bad Drawings

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:

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:

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.

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.

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.

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

In short: quarantine.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.