xblockblognew-247768-editedEducation’s forgotten middle child?

The middle-school years have often struggled to get the kind of attention and respect afforded the elementary grades and high school. As a result, that period is sometimes viewed as little more than an academic holding pen – the place where students wait to move from the nurturing instruction of the primary grades to high school’s more sophisticated challenges.

A wealth of research shows, though, that the middle school years are absolutely crucial to a child’s intellectual development and, by extension, his or her future academic success.

Patrick Tolan, a noted expert on youth development at the University of Virginia, writes in a Washington Post op-ed piece that middle school can be a “treacherous” time because the students, all of them just entering adolescence, are at risk of disengaging from school and clashing with parents at home.

But that’s just part of the story, Tolan says. Middle-school students are also uniquely receptive to positive, rigorous and stimulating instruction: “This is the perfect time to shape adolescent idealism and their growing interest in the wider world into commitment to work, engaged citizenship, and care for others.”


Global citizenship is one of the core values that drive the new middle-school program at GEMS World Academy-Chicago. As part of the program, the school has launched a course called “X-block,” which brings all of the school’s middle-school students together three times a week. The course is taught by five teachers from different academic disciplines – art, science, and the humanities among them.

Elysia Sheehan, an art teacher at GEMS, said X-block encourages students to talk about issues or problems they see in the world, and then to conceive and design solutions for them.

“The goal is to create what is called a ‘self-organized learning environment,’ a place where students work together, lead projects, and solve problems,” Sheehan said. “They’re at a great age for this, because they’re starting to become engaged with their communities in a stronger way.”

During X-block, students will make use of all the technological resources available at GEMS, and they'll examine problems through a variety of lenses. "Having the different teachers working in an integrated way is a key to this course," Sheehan said.

Thomas Steele-Maley, the director of innovation and academic technology at GEMS, said the skills learned in X-block — leadership, critical thinking, entrepreneurial learning — will help students not only when they transition to high school, but in their collegiate and professional lives, as well. 

"The skills can translate to any environment," he said. "This is what 21st-century education has to do."

Programs, like X-block, designed specifically to engage students at the middle-school level will help instill the notion that middle school is not just a holding pen, but a vital period of social and intellectual development with challenges and opportunities all its own.

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