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The Growing Years

Revisiting Middle School
with Linda Perlstein

June 15, 2000
2 p.m. EST

Linda Perlstein
Linda Perlstein
During their middle school years, children experience a degree of emotional growth unrivaled by any period other than infancy. This series explored that complex journey through their eyes.

Washington Post reporter Linda Perlstein spent a year observing and interviewing students, teachers and parents of Elkridge Landing Middle School in Howard County.

She answered questions in a Live Online Discussion on June 15, 2000.

Read the series:

    Monday: Fixating on boys, who don't much care
    Tuesday: Choosing when to act out and when to behave
    Wednesday: Deciding what homework to finish and what to ignore
    Thursday: Growing apart from parents while still holding tight  

washingtonpost.com: Welcome to washingtonpost.com's Live Online discussion area. Today we welcome Post reporter Linda Perlstein who just completed a 4-part series on life in middle school.

Linda Perlstein: Hi, all. Thanks for reading the middle school stories (if you did). I'd love to hear what you thought and am happy to answer whatever questions you have about what I learned in my nine months at school. Let's go...

Madison, Wisconsin: Ms. Perlstein,
Your series has been simply superb.

My question is how did you get so close to these people? How did you meet them, and how did you actually observe them? How long did you work on this? This seems to be the kind of project that would require a lot of patience, and legwork.

It seems like these kids, and their parents, really trusted you.

Jeff Gillan

Linda Perlstein: Hi Mr. Gillan -- I started hanging out at the school in September. Yes, patience -- sitting in lots of 80-minute classes, and yes, legwork. Primarily, I got to know the kids by sitting in the back of classes and eating lunch with them. Once I had specific characters I wanted to write about, I spent several days (all day) with them, in addition to having known them from afar for a while.

They did trust me -- thank goodness!

Columbia, Md: Linda, I was quite surprised at how these kids opened up and shared so much of themselves with you. How did you get them to talk to you about their lives?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Columbia (in the neighborhood!) -- Kids love to talk, if you seem to really care about what they have to say. Plus, I'm not their mother or their teacher. That helps.

Elkridge, MD: I'm an 8th grader at ELMS, and my friends and I care about school, do high quality work, behave in class, and are not boy crazy. Why didn't you mention anything about the students like us at ELMS in your articles?

Linda Perlstein: Hi ELMS student! (That's Elkridge Landing Middle School, for the rest of you.) I wanted to write about the average kids -- act out sometimes, not all the time. Do work sometimes, not all the time. I had no idea Kaleb would get suspended on my watch or that Connie would choose not to read any of "Romeo and Juliet" on my watch. Their teachers told me they were typical kids.

And I think they are. Lindsay, admittedly, is on the extreme end of boy-craziness.

Fairfax: I recall a story the Post did several years ago on middle school, from the point of view of a guidance counselor, I believe. These recent stories echo some of the themes I remember, and seem as relevant as ever.
It seems as though middle school is a key point in the development of our kids: this is where they become scholars or slackers, responsible or reckless. As much as we want to leave our kids alone at this point, as they develop their independence, they seem to need a maximum of parental involvement--or at least of parental awareness. How can parents best get involved without trampling on their evolving independence?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Fairfax -- If I noticed one thing in my year at middle school, it is this: Parents should stay involved! Don't indulge children's urge to ignore you. I could pick out which kids had very involved parents and which didn't. But if the closeness hasn't been established in elementary school, it's a little hard to catch up in middle school.

Tenafly, NJ: I just wanted to say thank you for such an eye-opening series of articles. My son will be entering middle school next year and your insights really helped me to prepare (if you can ever REALLY be prepared) for what our family will be facing.
Did you come across any drug or alcohol abuse or concerns about middle school violence?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Tenafly -- I heard occasional stories about fights or about alcohol use (not at school), but didn't see anything for myself. Elkridge Landing seemed largely free from such problems.

Chicago, IL: Hi Linda. Your reporting on the 8th graders in the schools series was excellent. The areas you chose to focus on really drew me in to the stories -- I read each of them, start to finish (and I rarely take the time read an entire feature in The Post anymore).

I'm curious about your perception of how times have changed and how they have stayed the same from the time you were in 8th grade. (I'm 27, and I felt that so much of the kids' behavior was exactly the same as when I was in junior high.)

Thanks again for a great series.

Linda Perlstein: Hi Chicago -- Middle school seemed different to me the second time around, but that may have had more to do with me. I have always felt like I went to the best middle school in the universe, Maple Dale Middle in suburban Milwaukee. Looking back, though, the peace and attentiveness and industriousness there was probably a direct result of the wealth of the community. I didn't go to school with many two-parent-working-if-there-are-two-parents kids, and I think that changes the school environment.

McLean, VA: In today's article you focused on a late middle school student. How is the school experience different for an early middle school student? Do you think that beginning middle school in 5th or 6th grade brings on adolescent behavior faster?

Linda Perlstein: One more thing in reference to the last question: I was boy crazy too. Lindsay breaking up with Brian over a squirted ketchup packet was a complete parallel to me breaking up with Jon D. (shall remain anonymous!) for belching the alphabet at Felicia S.'s bat mitzvah.

McLean -- Behavior is totally different in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Sixth graders are far more industrious and attentive, I noticed -- at least toward the end of the year. Given that, I don't think adding grades to middle school speeds up adolescent behavior, if the grades are separated, as they are at ELMS.

washingtonpost.com: Linda, in your series you seemed to focus on students, teachers and parents. Why did you choose not to talk to various "parenting experts?"

Linda Perlstein: I talked to lots of parenting experts, and what I learned from them informed my stories greatly. I just didn't want to muck up my stories with "Saul Schlepson of Harvard University says..." Often, the teachers and parents and students I talked to said the same things the experts did -- in a far more interesting way.

Columbia, Md.: Have you encountered any cases of children shouldering too much academic responsibility in your year of reporting? My child, a seventh grader, is enrolled in "GT" courses and is swamped with excessive homework, sometimes staying up into the wee hours of the morning. He has as much homework in middle school as I did in my last years of high school. In many classrooms in Howard County the academic demands seem unrealistically overwhelming, as though accelerated course material was confused with truly burdensome homework demands. I fear some of our brightest children will be burned out long before they reach college. Any comments?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Columbia -- I didn't spend much time with GT students, so I can't answer your specific question. I think on the regular track, the amount of homework is not excessive. (Sorry, kids.)

Herndon, VA: I have a 13-year-old daughter. She gets frequent phone calls from boys. They are just friends in her eyes but when the same one calls several times a day I am concerned. I can't tell her no boys because I know she should have friends that are boys. I am trying to squash anything that seems more than just a friend. Are there any guidelines the schools use to advise parents on middle school boy-girl relationships?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Herndon -- Well, I am not a psychologist, but I think I too would be concerned with several-times-daily phone calls from the same boy. I haven't heard what the schools advise parents on this topic, if anything, but I certainly saw a huge range of parenting strategies along these lines. My impression is that your daughter can still have boys who are friends even if they don't go out alone or talk on the phone 60 minutes a night.

Woodbridge, Va.: So how difficult was this series? Did it take you a long time to do it? Was it a stressful project?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Woodbridge -- Sometimes it was easy: sitting around on the playground watching kids. Sometimes it was quite difficult: long days, and fattening school lunches. It was stressful, but the staff and students were so wonderful to me -- really, WAY beyond the call of duty -- that I always liked being in school.

Fairfax, VA: I have enjoyed your series of articles very much. But one of the things I remember most vividly from high school is the incredibly exclusionary nature of middle school cliques for girls and the difficulty for good students (and sorry to say, often poor dressers) to fit in. I noticed that you mentioned some of these issues in your second article, but you didn't seem to focus on them. I wonder if these pressures on the not so average kid still exist or if due to the improved status of the adult geek, have been toned down a bit.

Linda Perlstein: Hi Fairfax -- Glad you asked that. I really wanted to write about a sixth-grade girl trying to fit in, but I started to think that all the girls I was getting to know were either way on the excluded end, or far too confident and popular to have any such issues. There was one girl especially I wanted to write about but deemed too popular. Then, the last month of school, when it was too late, I saw her eating with a far less popular crowd. Her old friends had shunned her, for no reason.

Cliques are still a problem -- not hugely so, but some things never change. Geeks are not exalted yet, notwithstanding Bill Gates.

Washington, DC: How did the parents of the kids in the articles react after the articles came out?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Washington -- The mother of the boy-crazy girl I wrote about called to say the family loved the article. Haven't heard from the others.

Silver Spring, MD: I was very dismayed to read about the boy's behavior in Tuesday's article. Why do teachers put up with that kind of behavior - the disruptive kind that makes the whole class suffer? And why do parents send their kids to school undisciplined? Of course, I don't mean the authoritarian, rigid type, but kids should have at least a basic level of cooperation and an attention span. Is it any wonder the more we spend and the more we make things easier for these kids, the worse the results? Did you meet anyone who was willing to improve on this - for the sake of all the students?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Silver Spring -- I too was surprised with the low-level restlessness (even obnoxiousness) I saw in some classes. In the classes that were particularly hands-on or where the teachers were particularly strict, this was not the case.

In the situation of Matt, whom I wrote about, I don't have anything bad to say about his parents. They only know what they find out from the school -- and news of this kind of low-level naughtiness rarely makes it home. When his mom found out, she had something done about it.

Arlington, VA: How do you think parents should deal with boy-crazy girls like the ones you dealt with?
With today's young girls growing up so fast and the terrible sexual media out there what should parents do?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Arlington -- Don't let your daughter out alone with the bad boy she is so obsessed with. If you think the media is terrible, control what she watches.

Middletown, Conn.: An excellent series. I'm not surprised. You have been doing fine work for years. My question is this, what were you like during the years you wrote about?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Middletown -- In middle school, I was perfect, of course.

Severna Park, Md.: I am thrilled to know that as a parent I am not alone in my "middle school struggles". However where can I go for help to see my child through these tough years? It's as new to me as it is for them.

Linda Perlstein: Hi Severna Park -- Talk to the principal or guidance counselors at the school. Talk to other parents. Talk to a psychologist if you want. Go to the library and read one of the many great books on adolescent sociology and psychology. But most important, talk to your kid.

washingtonpost.com: How accurately do you think the movie "Welcome to the Dollhouse" portrayed life in middle school? Was it harsher than what you experienced at Elkridge Landing?

Linda Perlstein: OOOOOOOH! Nothing like "Welcome to the Dollhouse." The kids at ELMS seemed pretty darned happy, for the most part.

Reston Va: Thanks for your series, does this mean there is hope for the parents come high school, or does it get worse?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Reston -- From what I hear and see, some kids outgrow middle school antics in high school, and some kids don't. Sorry I can't answer that one any more definitively.

Arlington, VA: Did your experience change your outlook on parenting?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Arlington -- No, I've always had pretty consistent and strong views about how I'll parent. It has changed my view of teaching, a profession I've always considered switching to. It's HARD! The teachers I met this year have far more endurance and patience and optimism than I could ever muster.

Suitland, MD: What can a parent when a talented and gifted student (male) believes he is smarter than his parents, without breaking his confidence?

Linda Perlstein: Double teachers' salaries!!

OK, next question. Suitland: A kid who believes he is smarter than his parents -- whether he's right or not -- could use his confidence broken.

Bloomington, Indiana: My daughter has a circle of friends she talks to via aol.com all evening long! They have their own language and I've notice they talk more intimate. Do you believe this is another stage of growth?

It seems it is easier to be more forward. The reality of what they are saying isn't there.

While I intend to limit her time, I was just wondering what would be considered acceptable time per night. I think 1 to 2 hours is more than enough.

Linda Perlstein: Hi Bloomington -- Like I said in Day One, girls attach themselves to others as a test of what they think womanhood is. Don't worry about that. But two hours on AOL? I might worry about repetitive stress injury, at the least. Regulate it however you regulate her phone use. It's the same thing.

Washington, DC: Hi Linda,
I was very interested in the series. I wonder if you saw any teaching techniques that you thought were particularly helpful to engage children in the material. Did you see any disciplinary techniques that worked well at this age?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Washington -- Here's what went on when teachers were most able to engage the students and keep them behaving:
(1) The students felt like the teachers really cared about them; therefore, they wanted to please the teachers by doing their work.
(2) The work was hands-on, done in groups, or of the children's creation (as when they wrote, designed, assembled and publicized their own books).
(3) They were firm with the kids.
(4) They expected a lot from them.

Cleveland, Ohio: Awesome series! Your boss should give you a fat raise and a promotion! I'll subscribe to the Post if you do another one. Any other big projects in the pipeline?

Signed, Ykcir

Linda Perlstein: Cleveland: Thanks to my loving brother for his enthusiasm.

Arlington, VA: What grades/ages are considered middle school? Many of us grew up in small towns that had only elementary and high schools, so can you give us an idea of what we're talking about?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Arlington -- In Maryland, middle school tends to be grades 6-8. D.C., I think, is 7-8 (and called junior high).

Washington, DC: My son is going to the fourth grade. He stays in trouble at school for being disruptive. The teacher and counselor want him tested to be in the special ed program. They told me that if I did not sign the form for him to be tested he would be retained to the third grade, because according to them he has not done his work in class. But, he passed the test to go to the fourth grade. I don't think that they are challenging him enough. What should I do (sign the form)?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Washington -- I can't tell you what to do, but I know many parents are reluctant to believe what educators tell them about their children. (That said, there are, too, perhaps worthy charges that African-American boys are disproportionately sent into special ed when they act up.) Talk in depth with folks at the school, and realize that your child probably operates quite differently than the way he does at home. Also realize that special ed is not supposed to be a place to send kids with discipline problems. Talk to a professional outside the school too.

AU Park, DC: Great series. Do you think the teachers and administrators who approved you going into their school expected this intimate a set of stories? And what are kids at school saying about the series?

Linda Perlstein: Hi AU Park -- I know that the kids are talking about whose pictures are in the paper, but that's all I've heard so far. I don't know exactly what the teachers expected, but as I went along I had conversations with all of those involved to get their insights. So what I wrote shouldn't come as a surprise to them.

Arlington, VA: Thanks for the series--I've found it very revealing, reminding me of some of my patterns when I was younger (I'm now in my 50's). I'm interested in knowing something about an aspect I don't believe you mentioned: Did you sense a pattern in the attitude of these kids towards the world at large? Are they disillusioned or optimistic?
Are they idealistic or resigned and focussed on personal goals? Do you get a sense of what kind of people this generation will be as they mature?

Linda Perlstein: Arlington -- World at large? For middle schoolers, it's only a world at small. They have broad ideas of goals but haven't sat down to figure out how to get there. Which is fine, isn't it? They're only 13. One thing I noticed about many of the kids is that they really have large streaks of charity and care about others. That was nice to see.

Columbia, Md.: What's next for you? High School? Elementary school? A book deal?

Linda Perlstein: Simon and Schuster, are you reading?

Washington, DC: Great series. When I was in middle school, we hung out in "gangs", which were actually just little cliques. However, we had both boys and girls in our group. Some of the boys and girls "dated" (and I remember my friend's "boyfriend" broke up with her because she wanted to hold hands in school), but more often we just all went places in a big group (or a subset of the group). Did you find that there were coed groups of friends at ELMS? Also, I remember that middle school was where I was introduced to spin the bottle....we played it at a party...I remember not being very comfortable at all, but I felt I had to go along...looking back, I imagine other kids weren't comfortable either. Did you feel like any of the kids at ELMS were feeling pressured to speed along relationships between boys and girls at a faster rate than they were really comfortable with?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Washington -- At lunch, and for the most part on the playground, the kids separate by gender. They dance together at dances -- sometimes. They tend to hang out in single-sex groups and then meet up with other single-sex groups at various events. Except the parties. By eighth grade, there's a good amount of boy-girl parties. Though I didn't attend any.

Springfield, VA: I have enjoyed reading your articles. I have a seventh grader who is nothing like those you mention in your articles. I do see my son's friends, though, that are good students but have become disruptive in class, hanging around with the wrong kids and very girl crazy. I also see these young girls and wonder why their parents let them out the way they look. I am appalled to see these kids hugging and kissing openly at such a young age. I am even more appalled to see some parents who promote this behavior. These are the kids that are going to have problems down the line and the parents who are going to ask the question 'why'? Did you see any of this during your surveys?

Linda Perlstein: Hi Springfield -- I was disappointed with how many parents (not necessarily those of the kids in my stories) throw up their hands and say, "Nothing I can do." But easy for me to criticize -- I don't have kids. I hope today's story got across that it's not so easy to be as on top of everything as the experts would like. Still, I think that should be everyone's goal.

washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have today. There have been some really good questions. Thanks to Linda for spending the last hour with us.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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