Teaching Badly: Middle School

My son (5th grade) has been challenging some of my core beliefs about teaching boys.

Because CCD is generally rubbish, we “homeschool” our kids in the Faith.  That turns out to be the only way to do it, but that’s a lesson for another day.  On Saturday and/or Sunday mornings my son and I sit down for about an hour to pray a little, do some Church history and saint biographies, and take notes on One Idea.

Lately he’s been screwing up my plans, because he keeps asking extremely important questions which A) need to be answered at length with interesting conversations and B) should be impossible for a child his age.

On the Standard Model By Me, 9th grade is the strike-while-the-iron-is-hot age for explaining the Faith at a really deep level.  You can consult my 9th grade (we call it Form III around here) reading list to see what I mean.  Middle school, by contrast, is a different animal.  Here’s The Theory.

Work backwards and understand that all of these have fuzzy borders.  It’s developmental, and therefore variable by individual.  It’s also for boys; girls tend to track one year ahead of this and I’ve never yet met a girl I understood:

Boys in 8th grade do ask deep questions sometimes, but they lack the development (more behavior and focus than raw intellect) to understand the answers.  They are suspended between two worlds, which is why 8th grade boys are so horrible.

Boys in 7th grade, by contrast, are mostly oblivious to those questions.  When I make forays into posing some of those questions to them, they shrug and go along with it but it doesn’t grab them.  There’s a gentle acceleration toward those questions, but the gains are modest.

Boys in 6th grade are basically little children.  It’s more like K-5 than anything else.

Now before middle school you can drill a child in just about anything.  They won’t fight you tooth and claw for every bit of knowledge but they also won’t really get it.  After middle school you can start to explain and convince, opening them up to the world outside The Cave.

In between you can’t do either.  Boys begin to form the adolescent rebellion against authority, which peaks in 10th grade.  Good luck making an 8th grader do anything he doesn’t want to.  No amount of negative reinforcement will ever budge him.  But at the same time middle schoolers lack the rational capacity to be moved and convinced by the good stuff.

So in our department we solve this with Scripture.  Middle school is for reading the Bible and slowly learning how the Church reads Scripture.  But primarily it’s just a matter of knowing the story and being familiar with the content.  Then when 9th grade arrives, we drop natural theology and the underpinnings of the Faith on them like a ton of bricks (it’s really fun).  It’s not a perfect system and there are always exceptions, but it works Well Enough.

Ok, back to my son.  He’s totally screwing up this world view of mine.

His 5th grade questions are muddled versions of my 9th graders.  We’re talking faith and reason stuff, inspiration and inerrancy, secular morality, paradoxes of the Incarnation or Trinity.  He’s not chippy like a teen-ager but the questions are unmistakable.  He’s given me some Wow moments for sure.

What’s more, he sort of gets the answers.  Not get get, but he does have enough of a handle on the question to clarify the matter with me, to collaborate on the answer.  And you can see sparks of Aha in the answers.  He’s no 9th grader but he’s way beyond my typical 7th grader.  He thanks me and feels reassured when we are done (heart swells, world will work out after all!).  He teaches his little sister every chance he gets.

So what are the possible explanations (assuming I’m not lying or delusional about my son)?

  1. My Standard Model is flat-out wrong and he disproves the whole thing.
  2. He’s a weird outlier, a philosophy-savant.
  3. The way we raise my son, and the way I teach him the topics, has jump-started his development in a way that could work for any kid.
  4. The way we raise and teach him saves the questions from being plowed under and forgotten.

Now, 1. can’t be right because of my pride.  And I love my son and appreciate his gifts more each day, but I don’t think 2. is the answer either.  I won’t rule it out but I always hated it when I was considered a rare outlier just because I had interest in these things.  I won’t hang that on him.

I’ve been giving serious consideration to 3. and 4. without coming to any conclusions.  I don’t plan on giving a Revised Model here.  The practical upshot is roughly the same: parents need to be doing something different with their kids in the early years.  Otherwise the way we teach is constrained to this Fix-It approach.

I am pretty happy with my Fix-It approach.  I am no universally loved teacher but I’ve also had plenty of kids discover a love of truth, philosophy, the Faith as a result of my classes.  It takes huge energy and skill to work a room of 9th graders as the world currently constructs them, but it can be done and it’s pretty fun to do so (on the good days).

But what could be?


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