This American Life: Middle School

[ By on December 03, 2012 ]

449: Middle School

(Link to podcast)  

Oct 27, 2011

This week, at the suggestion of a 14-year-old listener, we bring you stories from the awkward, confusing, hormonally charged world of middle school. Including a teacher who transforms peer pressure into a force for good, and reports from the frontlines of the middle school dance.

(Pictured: 7th graders at a costume dance, dressed as chararacters from The Outsiders.)

Host Ira Glass interviews a 14-year old named Annie, who emailed us asking if we would do a show about middle school. She explains why exactly the middle school years can be so daunting. (4 1/2 minutes)

Act One

Life in the Middle Ages

In an effort to understand the physical and emotional changes middle school kids experience, Ira speaks with reporter Linda Perlstein, who wrote a book called Not Much Just Chillin’ about a year she spent following five middle schoolers. Then we hear from producer Alex Blumberg, who was a middle school teacher in Chicago for four years before getting into radio. Alex’s takeaway? We shouldn’t even try teaching kids at this age. Marion Strok, principal of a successful Chicago school, disagrees. (6 1/2 minutes)

Act Two

Stutter Step

We sent several correspondents straight to the epicenters of middle school awkwardness: School dances. Producers Lisa Pollak and Brian Reed, plus reporters Eric Mennel, Rob Wildeboer and Claire Holman spoke with kids across the country during the nervous moments leading up to the dances. And Lisa even ventured inside, to the dance itself. (9 1/2 minutes

Act Three

Mimis in the Middle

When Domingo Martinez was growing up in a Mexican-American family in Texas, Domingo’s two middle school aged sisters found a unique way of coping with feelings of inferiority. This story comes from Martinez’s memoir The Boy Kings of Texas. (11 1/2 minutes)

Act Four

Anchor Babies.

We realized that there are already reporters on the ground, embedded inside middle schools: The kids who report the daily announcements, sometimes on video with full newscast sets. Producer Jonathan Menjivar wondered what would happen if instead of announcing sports scores and the daily cafeteria menu, the kids reported what’s really on their minds. Students at Parkville Middle School outside Baltimore, and their journalism teacher Ms. Davis, agreed to try out this experiment. (7 1/2 minutes)

Act Five

Blue Kid on the Block

Producer Sarah Koenig reports on a kid we’ll call Leo, whose family recently moved away from Rochester, NY, leaving behind all of Leo’s friends and stranding him in a new — and in his opinion, much worse — middle school. (10 minutes)

Act Six

Grande with Sugar

Ira speaks with Shannon Grande, a teacher at Rise Academy in Newark, about a seventh grader who had all sorts of problems with behavior and hygiene and schoolwork. In order to help turn him around, Grande had to harness the power of peer pressure for good. This story came from Elizabeth Green, who’s writing about Rise Academy for a book and for a reporting project on the schools called Gotham Schools. (7 minutes)
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