There is a joke among the girls at our middle school campus that instead of the Washington School for Girls, it should be named the Washington Hallway for Girls. Yes, our campus suite is small, and I have to give credit where credit is due – it’s an apt observation, and when I mention it to other staff members, it always gets at least an appreciative chuckle. The single, long hallway that connects all of the classrooms, cafeteria, and offices at WSG certainly makes my life easier as an administrator. It’s only a short work from my office to anywhere in the school suite, visitor tours are a breeze, and keeping an eye on students and school activities usually only requires a stroll down the hall.
Of course, for students, the lone hallway means there’s only one place where they can lay claim and make intensely their own – their lockers. Student lockers line the hallway, which bustles with girls regularly throughout the day as they move between classes. When I pass through, I sometimes get a glimpse inside their lockers. Some are stuffed and overflowing with books and papers; things regularly drop out when the door is opened. Others are neatly arranged, perhaps with a shelf inside; books organized according to the periods in the day. And then there is everything in between. Lockers decorated with wallpaper or mirrors; inspirational sayings on sticky notes; magnets and stickers of animals, rainbows, and celebrities; snacks, leftover treats from lunch - it’s all in there.
The middle school locker represents the inner life of our students. It’s their personal space, and we encourage them to have not only what they need when they need it, but also a sense of ownership. Their locker is where they keep their personal belongings and where individual expression is celebrated. And, therein lies the challenge.
While we encourage students to periodically clean out their lockers, middle schoolers are not known for their exemplary organizational skills. Of course, there are the handful of students who are inherently tidy from a very early age, and manage to keep all the books, knick-knacks, and the glitter of personality in order. At my previous school, I remember seeing a child in the preschool program who always took the time and attention needed to put away her classmates’ toys as their teacher called them to the rug for a story. She always knew where things belonged in her cubby. Organization for her seemed innate - everything has a place. But for most of our students this is a skill that must be taught along the way, and middle school is a time for learning how to develop the organizational skills that will help them be successful later in life.
Learning to be organized in middle school can be challenging for our students. For some, it is the first time that they will be switching between classrooms throughout the day, where the expectations of each teacher changes depending on the class. Remembering to bring the right textbook, notebook, pen, pencil, assignment, etc. can be overwhelming. In the short interval between classes, students need to know how to quickly transition from class to class, grabbing the supplies and books that they need and putting away anything they don’t need. For students that struggle with executive functioning skills, their need for additional support may become more apparent in middle school, where the demands for them to be organized are increased. It is important that all students feel supported as they face these new challenges. Helping students to understand how to organize materials and workspaces ensures that they are ready to engage in learning throughout the day.
I think it is important as adults interacting with middle school students, whether as educators or as parents and family members, that we remember that organizational skills are something that can be taught and reinforced - and will be more easily mastered by some students than others. It is hard not to get frustrated at times with what appears to be lack of attention to organization, when perhaps the student simply needs more support to help them understand what organization looks like for them. Provide specific direction and encourage students to identify a strategy that works for them to be able to have what they need when they need it. Be prepared to offer frequent reminders and time for students to specifically work on those skills.
And start small – sometimes even organizing a locker can seem like a daunting task.