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Stuck in the Middle

Local middle school students speak frankly at the Safe Community Coalition's 11th annual Middle School Forum.

Erin Cummings and Erin Gistaro arrived at McLean Baptist Church on the morning of March 15 with low expectations of the day's forthcoming "Middle School Forum" event. In fact, Cummings, a seventh grade student at The Potomac School, and Gistaro, a seventh grade student at The Langley School, anticipated several hours of absolute monotony. Fortunately, they were wrong.

"I thought it was going to be boring but it wasn't," admitted Gistaro, and Cummings said, "It was a lot better than I expected."

Last week on Thursday, the Safe Community Coalition (SCC) sponsored its 11th Annual Middle School Forum. Students and teachers from Cooper Middle School, The Langley School, Longfellow Middle School, The Potomac School, Langley High School, McLean High School and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology participated in the day-long program which provides a forum for the discussion of middle school issues. In previous years, the Middle School Forum had only involved seventh grade students, but based on participant feedback, the Safe Community Coalition adjusted this year's format to include both seventh and eighth grade students.

The students were divided into small discussion groups led by two high school student facilitators. Depending on their group assignment, seventh grade students discussed healthy relationships, stress and pressure, time management, family dynamics, drugs and alcohol, self-image and self-esteem, bullying and communication and self-expression. The eighth grade student groups focused on issues related to transitioning into high school — high school influences, healthy friendships, "being a teenager" and time management.

DESPITE THE ASSIGNED categories, group conversations tended to cover a vast range of issues.

"We fed them the topic and asked questions, but they branched off into other things," said high school student group facilitator Cate Rooney, a junior at The Potomac School.

Rooney and Stephanie Manitius, a senior at McLean High School, both facilitated a seventh grade group discussion on family dynamics. Both girls said that they were pleasantly surprised by the forthright commentary from their group members.

"It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be because they were a lot more open to discussion than I expected," said Manitius. "It was really easy talking to them, and we didn't have to force them to talk at all."

Rooney and Manitius said that the discussion of family dynamics eventually morphed into a discussion of the intense academic pressure felt by all of the students in their group.

"They said that their teachers put pressure on them, that their parents put pressure on them," said Manitius. "It was really surprising to me that they were saying that they get five to six hours of homework every night."

Manitius, who attended Longfellow Middle School, said that she did not remember getting that much homework as a seventh grade student.

"But since they all go to different schools, it was interesting to see what they all had to say about their own personal experience," she said.

Zayd Farah discussed healthy relationships in his student group, and the Longfellow seventh grader said that he really enjoyed the format of the Middle School Forum.

"I thought it was really fun because they had people your age talking about troubles you might have, but the high school students made it really fun and they made a lot of jokes," said Farah. "We talked about dating and relationships between friends, and how to avoid problems with loyalty with friends — everybody from each school talked about things from their school."

The eighth grade student groups discussed the stress of the increased social pressures that often come with entry into high school, and like the seventh grade students, they attributed the free-flowing nature of the conversation to the high school student facilitators.

"It was really good to have the high school students there," said Matt Stewart, an eighth grader at Longfellow. "It made it a lot easier to talk about things."

Ethan Stackpole, another eighth grade student from Longfellow, agreed with his classmate.

"It was really good to hear from the high school students personally, because they've been through everything and can tell you what it's really like," said Stackpole.

Longfellow eighth grader Nat Eliason agreed.

"They've done it all, so they know," he said. "It was really fun — we had a really good discussion and met a lot of really great people."

STUDENTS WERE NOT the only ones to participate in group discussions at the Middle School Forum. Safe Community Coalition board member Susan Gorin also facilitated a 35-minute "Adult Forum" roundtable discussion of middle school issues, concerns and solutions. Gorin said that one central theme centered around the challenge of teaching students to take responsibility for their own behavior, whether it be commentary they wrote on MySpace.com or their poor behavior in school. The adult group also talked about the growing problem of parents prematurely enrolling their children in advanced courses.

"The teachers said that they understand what is academically best for the kids, and they get frustrated when the kids take courses above their academic achievement level because of parental pressure," said Gorin. "There is so much competition these days that it's best for kids — especially in middle school — to take what's appropriate for them, rather than not doing well and not succeeding in another class."

In addition, the adults discussed the importance of the formative middle school years.

"Middle school is a good time for kids to develop good skills," said Gorin. "Some kids don't think that it counts, but the truth is that it counts the most because that's where the foundation is laid — it really counts for more than people give it credit for, and it needs to be taken seriously."