Vermont Reads, 'Wonder': The Middle School Brain

Middle school is a time when kids become teenagers, and unfortunately this doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone.

The first year of middle school is the subject of the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio, and it’s this year’s choice for the Vermont Reads community literature program. The book follows Auggie Pullman, a 10 year old born with genetic conditions that have left him looking very different from his peers.

Lamb to the slaughter

In this passage from the book, Auggie overhears his parents discussing his upcoming transition to attending school with other kids. Up until this point, he had only been homeschooled. And Auggie picks up on something his father says:

“What’s a lamb to the slaughter?" I said.

Mom sighed and gave Daddy a “look.”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Dad said, looking at me in the rearview mirror. “It’s not true. Here’s the thing: Mommy and I love you so much we want to protect you any way we can. It’s just that sometimes we want to do it in different ways.”

“I don’t want to go to school,” I answered, folding my arms.

“It would be good for you, Auggie,”said Mom.

“Maybe I’ll go next year,” I answered, looking out the window.

“This year would be better, Auggie,” said Mom. “You know why? Because you’ll be going into fifth grade, and that’s the first year of middle school, for everyone. You won’t be the only new kid.”

“I’ll be the only new kid who looks like me,” I said.

“I’m not going to say it won’t be a big challenger for you, because you know better than that,” she answered. “But it’ll be good for you, Auggie. You’ll make lots of friends. And you’ll learn things you’d never learn with me.” She turned in her seat again and looked at me. “When we took the tour, you know what they had in their science lab? A little baby chick that was just hatching out of its egg. It was so cute! Auggie, it actually kind of reminded me of you when you were a little baby…with those big brown eyes of yours…”

I usually love when they talk about when I was a baby. Sometimes I want to curl up into a little tiny ball and let them hug me and kiss me all over. I miss being a baby, not knowing stuff. But I wasn’t in the mood for that now.”

The challenging years

Some Vermont teachers are studying how the pre-adolescent brain works, and trying to make the most of those challenging years.

On one mid-morning in early May, the classroom at Peoples Academy Middle School in Morrisville is crammed with round tables. About 40 seventh graders are working in small groups on research projects. Last fall, they were all reading and writing about Palacio’s novel, Wonder.

Darien Dubie is 13 years old.

"Wonder" helps kids imagine being different because the chapters are narrated by a chorus of diverse voices, including Auggie's.

Her pretty face framed with long brown hair, she looks nothing like Auggie Pullman, the hero of Wonder, who tells his readers that, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Still, Darien says she can relate to Auggie, and so can a lot of other kids her age all over Vermont.

"Because we did a project where we were talking to some other kids online about the book and we also did, like, a project and we did the cover of the book as us, and what we thought we would look like if it was us,” she explains.

Darien drew her face with one eye. Wonder helps kids imagine being different because the chapters are narrated by a chorus of diverse voices, including Auggie’s. Fifth grader Charlie Veit liked seeing Auggie’s world through a lot of different lenses.

“It just made it easier to understand what everybody’s thinking and what they think of everything that was going on in the book,” Charlie says.

Still, most students here say they didn’t really need the book to learn how to get along with people unlike themselves. Fifth grader Zayda Kellogg says the middle years are not really the hellish time sometimes portrayed in movies, books, and news reports. 

“The media definitely glorifies how difficult it is to go from elementary school to middle school. It’s a lot easier because the age gap isn’t as big as they make it seem,” Zayda says.

"The media definitely glorifies how difficult it is to go from elementary school to middle school. It’s a lot easier because the age gap isn't as big as they make it seem." - People's Academy fifth grader Zayda Kellogg

Now, if that seems a little too rosy — are you thinking back to rough waters when you were 10 or 12? — maybe some schools just try harder than others to ease transitions from one grade level to the next.  One way to make, say, sixth grade not so scary is to mix fifth and sixth graders for, perhaps, a history class. Teacher Maura Kelly says Peoples Academy shuffles and re-shuffles age groups throughout the day for lots of activities, so most of the students get to know each well. 

“Middle school is not just where kids go fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade,” Kelly says. “There’s really a culture that goes along with it and there are really things that teachers need to do intentionally and schools need to do intentionally to help foster these kind, caring individuals. And so we really have to design what their school looks like around the needs of the young adolescent.”

Kelly also teams up with other teachers to use technology — including those state-wide online forums about the book Wonder — to expand horizons beyond school walls, where social cliques can be exclusionary. She says kids who may not be popular in their classroom often find like-minded peers online.

She says it’s important to teach kids how to make safe online friends and become good digital citizens. And as middle schooler Charlie Veit admits, nobody’s perfect. He now regrets taking a few pot shots at drawings that got posted on his class’s Wonder website.

Meg O'Donnell, teaches mixed middle grades at Shelburne Community School, and is president of the Vermont Association for Middle Level Education, says she sees her students trying on different personalities as they see-saw between childhood and adolescence.

“Me and two other friends were, like, making mean comments. We both were, we were all like laughing at it, but I mean, like, say, someone who wasn’t our close friend, they could have interpreted it wrong,” Charlie admits sheepishly.

He says he's glad his teacher gently set him straight.

Peoples Academy is not the only Vermont school tackling thorny interpersonal issues. Meg O’Donnell teaches mixed middle grades at Shelburne Community School, and is president of  the Vermont Association for Middle Level Education. She sees her students trying on different personalities as they see-saw between childhood and adolescence.

“I had one mom say this to me so perfectly,” O’Donnell recalls. “She said, ‘He’ll come home and want to sit on my lap' and the next 20 minutes he’ll ask me, 'You know I really like this girl and I really want to ask her out on a date.' And so she’s like, 'I’m torn between the kid who loved playing Legos and who’s so happy and who’s also like clearly trying to figure out, 'Who am I?’'”

So who, exactly, is a middle schooler? There’s no mold, of course, but researchers do have new clues about how the brain works between the ages of 10 and 15.

Penny Bishop directs the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. She says the pre-adolescent brain has not yet fully developed the ability to make good decisions, so they need guidance. Middle schoolers also crave a sense of belonging and affiliation in school as they become independent from parents.

Middle schoolers crave a sense of belonging and affiliation in school as they become independent from parents.

“We can use that as a way to organize our schools, help them feel that they belong to something good and build a sense of community in the classroom or on a team,” Bishop says.

Vermont’s middle schools, like their students, come in all shapes and sizes. Some programs include grades K-8, others 5-8 or 6-8, and still others K-12. But Professor Bishop says how those programs are configured is less important than what happens after a student walks through the door.

The misery of unimportance

R.J. Palacio’s book Wonder has stirred lots of discussion around the state, particularly in schools. Reading it reminded teacher, historian, and VPR commentator Vic Henningsen of the importance of how schools deal with difference – and indifference:

"Writing about a young person publicly isolated because of his difference, Palacio imaginatively dramatizes a more common struggle: the way young people feel privately isolated by indifference. The cruelty of people’s response to Auggie is the mirror image, if you will, of the cruelty of no response so many students encounter – the utter indifference of their peers, the meanness of simply not caring.

"As a young teacher, I was lucky to have an older colleague who reminded me daily that teaching history was only a small part of my work.  'What you’re really here to do,' he would say, 'is to combat the misery of unimportance. It’s the great affliction of this age group and it’s crippling.  Anonymity leads to despair.  So if you see a kid walking across campus looking at his shoelaces, you need to say hi and find out what’s going on.  If you come to me about an advisee who’s struggling in math, my first question will be ‘What have you done about it?’  Because, sure as shooting, the issue isn’t math – it’s something personal.  And I expect you to know about it and to have done something about it before you ask anyone else to scramble the jets.'

"That faculty believed every teacher was responsible for every student. Even if we didn’t have a formal relationship with a kid – perhaps had never even met him or her before – if we saw something concerning, it was our job to step up and ask 'Are you all right?' and to press for a more substantive response than a reflexive 'I’m fine.' 'Kids need to be known,' said another colleague, 'and we must help them learn that there’s always something to celebrate. You just need to know where to look and how to see it.  Sometimes seeing is an act of imagination, sometimes an act of love, sometimes an act of sheer will, and sometimes an act of a friend.' It was our job to help them learn for themselves where to look and how to see.

"In the little school he attends –headed by a man who reminds me of my former colleagues – Auggie learns a lot about where to look and how to identify things to celebrate. More importantly, so do his schoolmates."

Tomorrow, Vermont Reads: 'Wonder' will look at what Vermont schools are doing to combat bullying.