Bridging the Gap, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Middle School

Confession time: I’m more of a high school librarian by trade and training. My energy level, reading tastes, and general nerdiness play well with high school kids, and If you had asked me two years ago “Hey, wanna be a middle school librarian?” I would have looked at you with a fearful little smile and a polite nod of “Yeah, no, thanks for that.” If a colleague hadn’t taken some time off, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to work with middle schoolers at all, and would have continued to view them as nice, mini-patrons who would one day age into my domain.

Over the last year and change of working with them, however, I’ve come to the not-so-surprising conclusion that past!me is a fool. Because middle school kids are amazing. AMAZING. They’re fun, and passionate, and on the cusp of something big and scary that they greet with remarkable aplomb and, overall, good sense. I’ve had such a blast working with them; hearing their stories, collaborating with their teachers, and watching them grow into the next stage of their development. It’s been the most rewarding and wonderful opportunity, and I’m so grateful to have stumbled into it.

A year older and wiser, I often run into other high school librarians who hold similar opinions as past!me when it comes to middle grade students: they’re slightly smaller versions of teenagers; their books aren’t as cool; call me when they hit 9th grade. But as more libraries are facing budget or staffing shortages, being asked to cover a division or grade that you’re not familiar with can be a reality of working in a K-12 school. And that can bring mixed feelings of excitement and terror.

Don’t panic; this is going to be great. Presenting four lessons that I wish someone had told me going into this (but that I enjoyed learning along the way):

 

Middle School Would Destroy You If You Tried to Go Through It As an Adult

You think you’re nervous? Let’s take a moment to appreciate just how absolutely stressful and nerve wracking this whole “middle school thing” is for your students, shall we?

Sixth graders are a step out of elementary school and that’s a huge leap for them to have taken. Fifth grade saw them in a room with one teacher: one person who was educator, helper, surrogate parent, emergency nurse, disciplinarian, and mentor. Now they’ve been thrown into a world where everyone else is bigger, no one is guiding them around from class to class, and they have to deal with a new group dynamic every time the period changes. They’ve generally nervous, full of excitement for the future, and want what everyone else in life wants: someone to be nice to them and think they’re really cool.

Then there’s seventh grade. The kids know the players, understand the system, and are starting to relax a bit. But just as they’re comfortable in their own skin, it goes and changes on them. Think about how absolutely frustrating and awful that is: you’re hitting your stride and all of a sudden BOOM. Puberty, hormones, mood swings, and all that great stuff is in full swing, and everyone else is in the same boat. You pinwheel from happy to sad to confused to angry for no good reason. Your peers are in the same boat, life is awash with insecurities and feelings, giving room for bullies and isolation to grow. I’m a grown-up, and it’d be enough to send me home to sob into a cup of tea and hide under my comforter.

By eighth grade, they’re starting to feel that itch for more freedom– the right to make more choices and try new things. They’re eager for the next step, but also hearing the roar of the falls and the hard-won knowledge that change always brings both good and bad. They simultaneously want to go on to high school and don’t want to leave the safety of a place that may not be what they want but is at least a known-entity. The emotional roller coaster is still rolling, friends are changing and alliances are breaking, and then there’s schoolparentssportsclubsthefutures to worry about.

And through all of this craziness, with all of this stuff happening to them that they can’t control and often don’t enjoy, they still come to school every day and sit down at a desk, willing to learn. That’s insanely brave, right there.

 

Readers’ Advisory is Hard

These changes mean that a sixth grader is miles away from a seventh grader who is miles away from an eighth grader, and that can bring new challenges to finding and recommending a book. Whereas a 10th and 12th grader might enjoy the same title, a 6th grader often lacks the context and emotional maturity to appreciate a book that an 8th grader swears by. Likewise, most books a 6th grader likes will be a hard sell for an 8th grader who wants something with more gravitas to match their experiences.

This can lead to some uncomfortable moments when you realize the book you’re talking about has that one scene, or the opening page has that reference that they might get or might not, or the end, oh no, the end, that ending– will they be okay with that ending?

If you’re not sure how well a student will take to a possibly too-mature title, remind them that it’s okay to “self-censor.” Our library has no circulation limits (anyone can check out anything), but when we see a student grab a book that might be a bit beyond them, we give them a little schpiel that boils down to: “This is a great book. Remember that if you’re reading and you start to feel uncomfortable, or like you’re not liking where this is going, that’s okay, put it down. We do that all of the time, and maybe you’ll like it more in a few years, or maybe it’s just not for you. That’s okay, too.”

Part of growing up to become a librarian was getting over the stigma of not finishing a book. Supporting and cultivating well-adjusted middle schoolers means letting them know it’s okay to do the same, while encouraging them to be open to trying again later.

 

Chillax

When I’m teaching an upper division class, I tend to bounce. High-energy enthusiasm is a great default setting when you’re dealing with high schoolers because while they generally won’t meet your enthusiasm (being too cool for school, and all), it sets the tone for the class on a positive note. It presents you as an open, willing to help resource, and one who has a passion for the work, and there is nothing more encouraging than someone who wants to help. Teenagers are like bees; they can smell fear and someone who doesn’t want to be there.

Middle schoolers, however, will meet your energy level and pass you by like you’re doing 35 in a 75 mile zone. They’re living, breathing perpetual energy machines, and if you rev them up they’ll go. This has meant an adjustment in my teaching style because you haven’t seen chaos until you’ve seen twenty preteens who all want to talk at the same time because you’ve gotten them all so excited that they might just burst if they keep it inside any longer.

It might take you some time to find a balance between encouraging and calming, and that’s okay. Just remember to evaluate and adapt as you work with them– just like you would with a high schooler.

 

Middle School is a Creative Librarian’s Eden

You know what all of that energy is good for, though? Having fun. Having so much fun you just might burst with librarian-satisfaction. Middle schoolers are willing to meet you halfway. They’re willing to play a little silly, have some laughs, try something new and not worry so much about looking cool.

They’re on the cusp of losing that love of make-believe that we remember with fond nostalgia; the days when your backyard became a fairyland, populated by evil hags, plotting toads, bewitched trees, and crusading ninjas. Middle schoolers will play games; pretend along with the class; suspend their disbelief and let you lead them somewhere really cool. If you have a lesson that you’ve always wanted to try, or a hat that you’ve always wanted to parade out in front of the class, or a silly set-up premise to a class that would be so much fun if only the kids would play along– try it.

If you can sell it, they’ll buy. Not only are middle grade learners willing to suspend their disbelief, but they’re willing to try something new and see where it takes them. And if you try something new and it doesn’t work, they’re hugely forgiving; if a teacher can try something and not have it work, and brush it off, and be okay, so can I.

They love that.

So what say you, librarians? Are you facing a new division for the first time? Have you been working with middle schoolers for years? Bridging the gap between 6-8 and 9-12? What lessons have you learned about how the two age groups are different (and maybe similar?)

11 thoughts on “Bridging the Gap, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Middle School

  1. Yes, famous last words. I never thought I would end up a school librarian after specializing in law librarianship and working for 20+ years in law and academic libraries but here I am and loving it. Working with students keeps us young!

    • So true! I started in academic and law libraries as well; it’s amazing how many of us never thought we’d wind up in school libraries only to discover that kids are a pretty awesome demographic to work with.

  2. Great Blog! I too found myself in a mixed division situation after 15 years of being a HS librarian.

    My first on the job lesson with middle school students?…a small discipline situation arose and it being the first day and all, I came DOWN on these MS students with the wrath of my past-me high school librarian self (which honestly is not that bad, but is firm). I got apology notes and apology phone calls for a whole week! MS students like to know what is and isn’t okay in the library and when they cross the line, they are quick to ask for forgiveness. I find them sweet and, as you said, FUN!! Thanks for your blog! Great insight and encouragement.

    • Oh wow that’s too adorable! I have this image of them meekly poking around your desk and peering around corners to see if you’re coming to crack down. I’m glad we both get to work with them– they really can be the epitome of sweet.

  3. Sounds like a ton of fun! Thanks for sharing your experience. It helps to have an insight into all the adjustments you have made. Wonderful!

  4. Clair, you capture middle school librarianship PERFECTLY!!! I went in the other direction. I was a lower elementary teacher and expected to be an elementary school librarian. The mantra back then was, “There is not enough money in the world to get me to work with middle schoolers! Elementary. Great! High school. OK, cool! Middle school. NOPE!” Who knew that teaching middle schoolers could be this much fun?!?!? Now that you’ve let our secret out of the bag, though, people won’t feel badly for us and give us the sympathy that, IMHO, we so richly deserve! 🙂

  5. Claire – I couldn’t agree more! When I started in middle school, over 20 years ago, a lot of my friends told me I was crazy. Well, I’ve been crazy happy the entire time! Your description of each grade, 6th, 7th & 8th is right on, as if you know all my students! Thanks, great post!

  6. Oh my! What a lovely post. Middle schoolers are the most amazing creatures and they are so effervescent about what they love as well. Getting the readers and talking with them about books is quite the experience. I love this post. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Awesome post, Clair. I work in a 7-12 library, so I get the best of both worlds, and I agree with everything you have said so well in this article.

  8. Clair! You hit the nail on the head right there! I worked as an archivist and public librarian (cataloger) before coming to a middle school. Who knew that it was pretty much the perfect place for my personality. It’s been 8 years and these kids continue to amazing and inspire me. Also, how great is it that we can to have so much fun!

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