Public Middle School Girl Culture

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Michael Strong tells a bittersweet tale about public middle school girl culture:

Upon opening the middle school, about half the incoming students were normalized Montessori students and the other half came from public schools. Among those who came from the public schools were three girls who had already adopted typical public middle school girl culture — jaded and cynical, heavy make-up and provocative clothing, socially successful cool girls. The internal Montessori culture, boys and girls alike, was sweet, open, innocent, and full of a love for learning and friendly camaraderie. The new girls hated the Montessori middle school and complained about how uncool the kids were. They lobbied their moms hard to let them return to “a normal school” so that they could get away from these weirdo kids who liked learning and being nice.

Gradually, after about six or eight weeks, the new girls began to change and adapt to the Montessori culture. By the end of the year they enjoyed the friendly, open environment and they (mostly) loved learning.

When the original Montessori students approached middle school graduation, although they knew they were going to miss Emerson School, they also were excited about entering the big world and having new experiences. When the oldest of the girls from the public school cohort approached graduation, she cried and cried bitter tears — she did not want to have to return to the culture of brutality she had known before, in which she knew that she would have to pretend to be jaded and cynical, and in which she would no longer be allowed to express the same love of learning and community that had been her daily nourishment at the Montessori school.

Again, skeptics often don’t believe, first of all, that American teen culture could be anything other than what it is. When I describe how wonderful the peer culture is in many Montessori adolescent programs, the response of many is first that it can’t really exist, and then that if it does exist it is unnatural and that kids ought to be exposed to the rough-and-tumble of public middle school life. I always reply by pointing out that, in my adult life, the only time that I experience boredom as numbing as experienced in public school is when I have to renew my driver’s license, and I never experience interpersonal cruelty as an adult. Outside a few elite suburban districts, public middle schools have mostly become brutality factories, and it is terrifying that caring parents glibly accept it everyday.


  1. Aretae says:

    Yup. The reason experienced homeschoolers homeschool is because of social reasons. The theory being anything is better than the evils of normal middle school

  2. Candide III says:

    The guy worked in a Montessori school in goddamn Palo Alto! How can anyone generalize anything from this is a mystery.

  3. Harold says:

    American teen culture is particular to America. When I was at school in New Zealand there was no such thing as ‘popularity’. Kids had their groups of frirnds and their was no intergroup hierarchy whatsoever. Things may be different now as the TV is saturated with American teen dramas all of which revolve around who is more popular than whom.

  4. Bob Sykes says:

    The New Zealand school kids almost certainly had a popularity culture, Harold just couldn’t see it. The popularity culture is an unfolding of genetics and morphs into the normal adult culture.

    Also, the description of the Montessori children is deeply disturbing. There is something wrong with them.

  5. Harold says:

    If you knew me you’d know that the idea is absurd that I of all people was oblivious to anything involving social dynamics.

    It’s not an unfolding of genetics; it’s one of the many ways America is weird.

  6. Alrenous says:

    it can’t really exist, and then that if it does exist it is unnatural

    They lobbied their moms hard to let them return to “a normal school” so that they could get away from these weirdo kids who liked learning and being nice.

    The child becomes the adult when their cultural habits ossify.

    I think Prussian schools moved away from corporal punishment because it’s too hard to disguise the sadism. When someone physically strikes you, they almost automatically go into the ‘enemy’ camp.

    The existence of the Prussian school relies totally on the delusion of the victims. If the average voter could recognize its sadism, it would not work very well. If the average voter could recognize that the sadism is intentional, it could not exist.

  7. Isegoria says:

    The story didn’t strike me as at all specific to Palo Alto. It wasn’t about, say, the amazing software projects middle-school kids could do, if teachers would just get out of the way and let them explore on their own. (Also, Strong’s teaching experience goes beyond one Montessori school in Palo Alto.)

  8. Isegoria says:

    I’m sorry, are you being sarcastic, Bob? Deeply disturbing?

  9. Candide III says:

    I didn’t mean that sort of specific. What I meant was that the sort of children and parents that you get in Palo Alto (and similar enclaves) is highly unrepresentative of the American population, or any national population for that matter, and that it is wrong to generalize from it. The same consideration ought to be applied to, say, Sudbury-type schools. At least that John Taylor Gatto guy taught an inner-city public school full of NAMs. Education Realist also teaches in a regular school with regular students. I didn’t find anything about Montessori in his blog. I wonder what his opinion is.

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