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Chris Stevenson: On Teaching Ten to Fourteen Year Olds


This week, Education World sits down to chat with Chris Stevenson, author of the hugely popular Teaching Ten to Fourteen Year Olds. Why would anybody in his or her right mind want to teach middle school? Who were the big influences in his life and career? What are the benefits of portfolios? Learn Stevenson's thoughts about those questions and more in a candid and personal e-interview -- the perfect way to celebrate Month of the Young Adolescent! Teaching 10 to 14 year-old Book Cover

Chris Stevenson, author of Teaching Ten to Fourteen Year Olds, has been involved in the education of young adolescents throughout his adult life as a teacher, coach, teaching principal, parent, professor, and researcher. Presently, he is a professor of teacher education at the University of Vermont. He works with middle level educators there, across the United States, and beyond.
This week, Education World had an opportunity to chat with Stevenson about his life's work, the people -- young and old -- who have influenced him, and about the everyday challenges that middle level educators face.

Education World: Your book, Teaching Ten to Fourteen Year Olds, is dedicated to a long list of 10- to 14-year-olds. Why did you dedicate your book to students rather than to somebody else, perhaps your wife or an influential teacher?
Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson: To me, it was the obvious thing to do. I think of a book dedication as an expression of respect and affection and also gratitude. Those were the feelings that were prevalent to me in putting that book together. Those are some of the kids I learned a lot from. I kept a journal, especially in the 70s when I was teaching in Cambridge. I leafed back through that and was reminded of individual students. I learned a lot from them, and I was very aware of their trusting me, often indulging my ideas and propositions. I really enjoyed the act of putting that dedication together because I felt that those were exactly the people I wanted to honor.

EW: Is there one person -- a teacher, a family member -- who most influenced your decision to become a teacher?

Stevenson: My father was a teacher -- a really gifted teacher, apparently, because of the way his students responded to him. I have a really clear memory during the Second World War when he was away in the service, and he had to leave his position in the little town where we lived. The football players he coached came over and put shingles on the house one time. They came a different time and painted the house. They had lots of questions about what my mother was hearing from my father, and they treated me very nicely. Later on, when he was teaching in a university, grad students would come over to the house on the weekends and we'd have a cookout. I was around, and I'd listen to their conversations. I loved the way the way they would be talking about what they were thinking in ways that were very candid. My father was really good at listening and reflecting and affirming. That was the model I grew up with. He was an extraordinary parent as well as teacher. He's the person I most think of when I think about my model of teaching. ... Since then, I've been around an enormous number of wonderful middle level teachers. They're all part of Teaching Ten to Fourteen Year Olds.

EW: As a university teacher, you have interviewed many of your students about their middle grade years. What have you learned about middle level education from your students?

Stevenson: I've learned that the middle school years were a very influential period of their lives. A lot of powerful stuff happens. The experiences of that time of life seem to have a huge impact on how they perceive themselves. When they had a lot of success they seem to still have a lot of success. And when they had a lot of self-deficiencies and they didn't have new experiences to contradict them, there seems to be a persistence of that self-doubt. ... If I could have only one outcome [from the middle school years] it would be that kids be optimistic about their futures.

EW: You quote Mary Pipher, who wrote in Reviving Ophelia that the middle school years are the time "when many battles for the self are won and lost." That, it seems, puts a lot of pressure on educators to ensure that their middle level students feel success. But recently, there has been a lot of criticism of that sort of "feel good" teaching. How can teachers guard students' self-concepts without diluting the students' sense of self-worth with undeserved praise?

Stevenson: First of all, I think the way you characterize the "feel good" movement is a very accurate way of characterizing a misunderstanding of what I'm talking about. I'm not talking about hollow praise or lowering standards. Quite the contrary, I'm talking about helping kids learn how to be successful. They know when they've put out and when they've produced and when it's of a good quality. There's no mystery about that. When somebody tells them what they've done is wonderful or fabulous or terrific and they know it isn't, then they distrust the source. ... One of the great things about engaging young adolescents in keeping personal portfolios is that those don't lie. The concrete evidence of progress is documented in those portfolios, and the investment of oneself and being candid about what I can do well and what I don't do well and what I've got to work on is right there in black and white. The efforts an individual makes to do better by themselves is clearly documented, and when you see that happening, there is an empowerment. When children are educated in ways that place them in responsibility for themselves, then we're really onto something. And they know it's real as well. ... I've interviewed some eighth graders at the end of the school year. I've asked them to tell me about themselves, to show me their work. Then I'll pull things out of their portfolios without looking at them and say "What can you tell me about this?" There is a sense of competence, efficacy, and responsibility evident in how they talk that is just very profound. In fact, one of the teams where I've interviewed kids about their portfolios has at the end of the eighth grade year something called Finale. What each student does is put together a presentation about themselves over the three years they've been on the team. Then they design and make a presentation to adults and friends about themselves on a designated evening. People are routinely blown away. Those kids are more aware at 13 and 14 of who they are, what they do well, what they need to work on, with enormous energy and optimism for getting on to high school and then to college and then into life because they believe they can do it. It's very powerful stuff. And do they know content? Absolutely, because they've been so engaged in content so intensely for such a long time, but it hasn't all derived from the teachers standing up and telling them about things and telling them what to do all the time. There's a place for that but not as the dominant pedagogy.

EW: You're an avid sailor. Teaching Ten to Fourteen Year Olds is full of references to sailing. You see the correlation between sailing and almost every aspect of teaching at the middle school level. Among your observations are these:

Maintaining the principle of balance is essential in both sailing and teaching. ... Prudent teachers ... achieve a balance of expectations for learning and types of teaching and learning activities.

Just as light breezes necessitate lots of sail, and stronger winds require that sails be shortened, teachers adjust their demands and strategies according to shifting conditions of student energy.

You won't learn sailing or teaching by merely reading. No, you must move into the wind, allowing its embrace to guide you into a host of challenges and new realizations. You must do it to learn it.

Can you recall when this connection between sailing and learning first dawned on you?

Stevenson: It was the beginning of 1969. That would be my tenth year as a teacher. I was very excited by books I'd read by Charity James and Sybil Marshall, and I really wanted to get into the curriculum integration, so I began to do small things, then larger things, with the students. At the same time, I was learning to sail. I had [those] two great passions in my life at that time. It just hit me one day, and I wrote in my journal that learning to sail a boat was so much like learning to be a teacher -- the engagement of natural forces that you could not control but learning how to use the energy of those forces to get where you wanted to go. That's the origin of that image.

EW: I taught for a number of years. I taught primary grades and adults. Never would I have considered teaching middle school! (Until I read your book, that is. You provide a foundation for understanding middle schoolers. You've shared a sense of the magic, the inherent possibilities, that those close to students that age understand.) Why would anybody in their right mind choose to teach young adolescents?

Stevenson: The great primary teachers I've known have been good at it because they've studied their kids a lot. They tried to create constructive matches between their agendas and where their children were developmentally and skill-wise. And the really great middle-level teachers I've been impressed by have the same quality. As you know from reading my stuff, I think you begin by trying to know your constituency and trying to find all the best ways you can to make complements between them and what the people who know best say everybody is supposed to know and be able to do. Some curriculum and some content and some skills are not negotiable. Kids have to learn [them]. But then it's a big world, with a wonderful array of possibilities, so we need to also effectively and successfully honor kids' preferences. ... I didn't have a terrible early adolescence, but it was something that I really was impacted by. I believed schools made virtually no sense when I was that age. I went to a small school in the South. I could make good grades without too much work, but the really interesting part of life was outside of school -- the things I built, the job I had in the pharmacy, the books I read. I believe that potential exists in all kids. I wanted school to be more like what I saw the outside being. Charity James wrote about that so eloquently. She was a wonderful inspiration.

EW: I've read rave reviews from middle school teachers about Teaching Ten to Fourteen Year Olds. One teacher recently posted a message to a popular middle school listserv: "Stumbled across a book the other day that I must put in my sacred middle-school shrine. ..." Aside from your books, what other "essential" reading materials would you recommend to educators of young adolescents?

Stevenson: Among people I don't know personally, I think the book that really was a profound influence on me that I read in college was Abraham Maslow's book Toward a Psychology of Being. Over a period of about ten years, I guess I read it three or four times. That connected for me. John Dewey has been a powerful influence. I think his essay, "The Child and the Curriculum," is an extraordinary piece of insight. ... Among people I do know personally, John Lounsbury has been a monumental influence and a great friend. I'm extremely thankful for that connection and that relationship. ... I remember in the 60s a book by James B. Conant on the American high school that I thought was as totally and completely wrong as anything I could imagine, so it was a big influence on me. ... Other people I know -- Joan Lipsitz, her book Successful Schools for Young Adolescents and her previous book Growing Up Forgotten were huge influences. ... I think the key thing is that everybody needs to find people who write in ways that express their views. It's the experience of finding the thinker, the writer, whose values and perspectives are not just agreeable but affirming of one's own.

EW: What's the best advice you've ever received -- or given?

Stevenson: My first job as a middle school principal was in Atlanta. I was living in New York, and on my way to Atlanta, I stopped in South Carolina to visit my father. ... He was really interested in all the ideas I had. "It's going to be really wonderful, you have such great ideas," he said. "There's only one piece of advice that I can give you." Great! What is it? He said, "The first year that you're there, don't you do a damn thing. Let the people teach you about who they are, what they're after, what their weaknesses are. You listen. You study. Then bring your ideas to bear as they complement the circumstances already there." Best advice I think I've ever gotten.

EW: Over your desk, you have a sign that reads "Every Kid MUST Be a Hero." It's clear that the sign has been on your wall for some time. Why is that thought so important to you, and how can middle level educators help develop "heroes"?

Stevenson: I think of a person who is a hero as a person who reaches beyond what they think they can do -- and they benefit and others around them benefit. They may save lives, but they may give of what they have to help somebody else, and I see that as heroic too. Overcoming doubts, fears, that's heroic action when someone does that. When I say every kid must be a hero, I mean by that that every child must come to grips with those doubts, those uncertainties, the alienation in life and get through it and beyond it and be better for it. Another way of thinking about it is that these are men-children and women-children. They're not little kids anymore. They have an awareness and set of expectations -- sometimes fears -- that are different from young children but they're also not grown-ups yet. ... My interest in that expression is that from me children get the kind of support and the kind of guidance and the kind of counsel that enables them to engage all that uncertainty and maybe be made stronger by it and be, as I said earlier, optimistic about their futures, about their possibilities. And proud -- and I don't mean that in a vain way -- that they've done what they've done. That's the way I want my children to feel because I think that's the kind of confidence and character that will serve them well regardless of what kind of career experiences or family experiences they'll have the rest of their lives.

The second edition of Teaching Ten to Fourteen Year Olds, written by Chris Stevenson, was published in 1998 by Addison Wesley Longman, Inc. Ask your local bookseller to order a copy of the book for you.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1999 Education World