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"Not Much, Just Chillin'," a Window on Middle School Life


For many, the thought of returning to middle school is about as appealing as food poisoning. Washington Post education writer Linda Perlstein, however, actually wanted to "embed" herself in a middle school to get to know the kids, their families, and their issues. For a year, she followed five youngsters at Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Maryland, gaining rare insight into a mysterious age group. She then wrote "Not Much, Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers," to share what she learned. Included: Tips for relating to middle schoolers.

Linda Perlstein

Did you ever wonder what could be going through your middle school students' heads when they were supposed to be listening or doing homework? Plenty, according to Linda Perlstein, author of Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers. (The first part of the title is a common adolescent instant message response to "whassup?")

An education reporter who covers Montgomery County, Maryland, public schools for The Washington Post, Perlstein took an 18-month leave of absence to "embed" herself at Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Maryland, and in the lives of five students. As part her research, Perlstein went to classes, parties, swim meets, concerts, recess, and family dinners, putting together a book with unusual insight into the lives of young adolescents.

Also included in the book -- to help explain why kids might be doing what they are doing -- is timely research and data about adolescent physical and emotional development.

Perlstein, a graduate of Maple Dale Middle School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, talked with Education World about her experiences researching and writing the book.

Education World: What inspired you to write this book?

Linda Perlstein: Journalists usually come up with an idea and then find a place to write about it. I wanted to do the opposite: find the place, and let the stories present themselves. As an education reporter at The Washington Post, I wanted to spend the 1999-2000 school year in a school. High school, I thought, had been done -- and overdone. Elementary schoolers aren't old enough to really help me understand why they are who they are. And then there was middle school... I had many friends who had loathed their middle school years, and colleagues who were befuddled by the changes in their own middle schoolers. Yet not much had been written about middle school. So I did a four-part series on the subject, and then started it all over again for the book.

EW: How did you pick the students you followed and wrote about?

Perlstein: Well, first of all I wanted kids I liked. That was a gift I gave myself. I wanted average, typical kids -- the one who does his homework often, but not always; the one who loves her parents, but still answers "Nothing" when asked, "What happened at school today?" A couple of the kids were introduced to me by their fifth-grade teacher. The others I found when I sat with kids at lunch, talked with teachers, and kind of spied for a couple of weeks. Plus, I visited each of them and their families at home before asking them to take part.

EW:How much time did you spend with the families? Would you describe a typical day of gathering material for the book?

Perlstein: I was on the job usually six days a week. Typically -- but certainly not always -- I'd miss first period [at school]. I'm a journalist. We have a wired inability to wake up before 8 a.m. I'd go to classes probably four days a week, sitting most of the way through, say, three 80-minute classes and every lunch period and recess.

[After that] I'd go home -- I'd moved a half-mile away for the school year -- and take a break. Then I'd go over to one of the kids' houses, watch them do homework, go to their swim practice, eat dinner with the family. I'd go home as the kids' bedtime neared and type up my notes. About twice a year, I did wakeup-till-bedtime two-day stretches, sometimes including the bus, with each of the five kids.

Weekends, I'd usually spend one day with the kids and (when I was lucky) one day living my own life. I skipped school for two weeks in the spring when my grandma was dying. My mother kept saying, "Go to school," just like I was 12. But I couldn't. I checked in with everyone on the phone or computer, though.

EW: How were you able to get so deeply into the students' heads -- capturing their self and world views, insecurities, and personalities?

Perlstein: I suppose it would be blithe to say, "That's what I do," but really, it is. I can't juggle and I can't lift heavy objects and I can't follow complex movie plots, but this is something I can do better than most. Obviously, time had something to do with it. I was just there, all the time. The families were comfortable with me. I ask the parents why that was the case -- from Day One, even -- and they say, "Because you're Linda." Wow! I mean, that is flattering.

More specifically, though, these kids want to talk. I was completely non-threatening. I didn't tattle. I didn't cringe when they cursed. I told them about my brother's band touring with Sum 41 and Good Charlotte and I told them about breaking up with Jon Dorf in seventh grade because he belched the alphabet on the ski club bus. Mainly, I just watched and listened. I read their diaries -- they offered. I asked embarrassing personal questions and didn't flinch at the answers. I was that cool non-parent grownup in whom every 13-year-old wants to confide. Plus, I had done my homework, not just the newspaper series, but also relationships with my own middle-school relatives, plus loads and loads of academic research. I knew what the kids were likely to feel, I anticipated what they might tell me, and the fact that I understood so much helped me nudge things out of them.

EW: What was the most surprising thing you learned about middle schoolers while writing the book?

Perlstein: I was amazed at how much they had rattling through their brains, and how much they tried to handle on their own, emotionally and psychologically. So many of them hear all about their parents' burdens, which makes them less likely to share their own. They're being sort of protective of their parents: "They have enough to worry about," that sort of thing. Meanwhile, they're facing a lot of weird stuff on their own. I mean, freak dancing, [in which kids] grind against each other very sexually. It's not that all the kids are doing it, or even most of the kids. But all of the kids are aware of it. All that said, these kids do a pretty good job of sorting things out -- although they shouldn't have to.

EW: Why should educators read this book?

Perlstein: Nothing is more important to a teacher than knowing who you are teaching. You wouldn't teach a 12th grader the same way you would teach a second-grader; that extends to middle schoolers too. It's a very distinct developmental phase -- each year of middle school, even, is quite different -- and if you want them to learn, you have to adapt your teaching to their development. These kids are capable of a surprising amount, but they are not capable of sitting still for 80 minutes at a stretch listening to a lecture. They need to know why they are learning what they are learning. They need to be engaged in ways that do not apply to elementary students or high schoolers. Their home lives have a great effect on their schoolwork. And "Not Much Just Chillin'" shows examples of all that.

EW: What are some of the important things teachers and other adults should know about kids this age, but don't?

Perlstein: They have some very deep thoughts. They still want to please adults, even if they don't want to let you know that. Even the gruffest, toughest kid is blown away by a positive phone call home from the teacher.

EW: What middle school memories of your own did working on the book bring back? Were they mostly positive memories?

Perlstein: I reminisced about Spin the Bottle -- I played a lot of that -- and about all my nominal "boyfriends." I kept thinking about this fight back then between a girl named Jodi and a girl named Nancy. I kept thinking about how we had to pick sides, which didn't make sense to me because I liked them both. I picked Nancy because she was slightly more popular. During the course of my book research I ran into Nancy and asked what that fight was about. She cringed. She said that Jodi had slept over and wet the bed, and Nancy told everybody at school Monday. I had picked the wrong side! I was mortified, 20 years later. But mainly my memories of middle school are good. That is very rare, but middle school was probably the happiest time of my life. I think that's why I could go back, when few writers do.

This e-interview with Linda Perlstein is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Originally published 12/04/2003; updated 09/30/2005