Alejandro’s Story of Growing Pains & Gains from Middle Grades
Alejandro is a Mexican-American student who grew up in West Lawn. He went to a neighborhood K-8th elementary school for his middle grade years. He is the first in his family to go to college. He is currently a sophomore studying advertising at a 4-year state university in Illinois. On campus you can find him sketching and designing footwear or at meetings for the American Advertising Federation club.
Alejandro’s Middle Grades Experience
Alejandro enjoyed his time in middle grades. “Looking back, I honestly wish I could relive those moments.” Since he went to his neighborhood school in West Lawn, his 8th-grade friends were folks he had known since kindergarten. Although he identified as a shy kid, his stable friend group helped him feel like he belonged and like he could be comfortable in his shyness. Through his friendships, he learned the power of a strong community. “They’re still my friends now, and I talk to them. I got to know them at a young age. And as I grew, they also grew. And just having that bond of friendship, that was really nice.”
“They’re still my friends now, and I talk to them. I got to know them at a young age. And as I grew, they also grew. And just having that bond of friendship, that was really nice.”
Teachers also played a crucial role in Alejandro’s community. “The teachers were really invested with the students. Like, each teacher was unique in their own special way… You got to know them, and you could see how much they cared for the students, teaching and making sure you at least learn something at the end of the day.” He created strong bonds with his teachers through one-on-one check-ins. During those check-ins, he said, teachers, and students could get to know each other and discuss their learning goals. Although these check-ins were brief, he considered them one of the most memorable moments during his years in middle grades.
He remembers vividly how supportive and engaging his teachers were. His teachers tried to make the content ‘fun’ and create an environment that sparked students’ curiosity. Even in math class, a subject Alejandro had a love/hate relationship with, he remembers his math teacher taking inspiration directly from his students into the lesson. “He would make scenarios that we could relate to as students, and that we were more invested, and we understood him more.” Alejandro developed his relationship with learning in these moments. “It makes you love learning. It makes you enjoy learning. Whatever the subject is, just at least for me, that’s how I was able to keep learning more and keep having that mindset of ‘hey, I should put in effort and want to do it.’”
“It makes you love learning. It makes you enjoy learning. Whatever the subject is, just at least for me, that’s how I was able to keep learning more and keep having that mindset of ‘hey, I should put in effort and want to do it.’”
Through art class, Alejandro sparked his passion for arts and decided he wanted to pursue an arts-related major in college. “I really enjoyed art. I mean, I kind of still do. The whole designing footwear, I was inspired through art.” He remembers the joy he felt when experimenting with art for the first time and appreciated having a space to discover one of his passions. “During my art classes, I’d always try to figure out, what does this specific thing do? I would test it out. Most of the time, it became something, and then that something, I guess became art. And I just enjoyed it. Finding out what you enjoy is the good thing that came out of classes at the time. You’re freeing up more about yourself without you really knowing it.”
Alejandro considers his middle grades experience to be one of the building blocks for college. It is a time when students explore their passions to spark ideas for their future. His school actively talked to him about college and even took field trips to visit some college campuses. Looking back, he appreciates the college initiatives his school did. “They were exposing us to college at an early age, which was really good. Even though we’re going to go into high school, just having that in the back of our minds that there’s something after high school, which is college. I feel like it was really good to just know, and just have that exposure.
“They were exposing us to college at an early age, which was really good. Even though we’re going to go into high school, just having that in the back of our minds that there’s something after high school, which is college. I feel like it was really good to just know, and just have that exposure.
Alejandro’s family also actively encouraged him to think about school. “They would always support me in the fact that I should aim towards college, even at a young age.” Both his school and his family inspired him to decide he wanted to go to college. “At that young age, I kind of already knew that I was going to go.” He said having that decision “gave me a purpose” and it helped him focus on how to develop the skills he needed to get to college.
Growing After Middle Grades
During his time between middle grades and high school he started experimenting with different ways to manage his time better. On the weekend, he would research other organizing techniques to try out during the school week. “I started with a calendar that didn’t quite work out. I looked up a spreadsheet, which was sort of helpful. I mean, I kind of use it now, so spreadsheets. And lastly, like writing, like in a journal. That was really helpful. And just researching what you wanted to do. I did that, and it was really helpful, figuring out what I actually enjoyed doing when it came to organizing myself.”
When it was time to start the high school application process, Alejandro had various adults in his middle school helping him. “There was always someone there to help me.” He knew he wanted to stay close to home, and thanks to his school, he also thought about the school’s environment and whether it was a good fit. He enrolled in a neighborhood high school in Gage Park, not too far from West Lawn. His high school selection process directly influenced his criteria for the college application process: close to home and a good fit.
Now in college, he feels more responsibility as a young adult and sometimes misses being in middle grades. He continues to stay in touch with some of his lifelong friends from the middle grades and honors the bonds he has with them. He is content with his major and loves exploring the different artistic storytelling elements he can incorporate into his work.
Alejandro’s Lessons from Middle Grades
- Alejandro learned about the power of community and appreciated the beautiful friendships he made during middle grades. They helped him feel more comfortable with himself and in school.
- Inspired by his goal of going to college, he learned to develop time management, organizational, and research skills that would support his academic journey.
Alejandro’s Hopes for the Field
- He wants schools to plan activities to help students get to know one another. Looking back, Alejandro realized that although he sat with all his classmates, he didn’t know many of them. “At lunch, everyone has their group, and people stuck with them. You knew people at your school but realized you didn’t know many of them.”
- Educators should tailor their lessons to have real-world implications grounded in their students’ worlds. For Alejandro, it made the class feel more meaningful and exciting.
- He wishes teachers could have more one-on-one talks with students. Those conversations were deeply meaningful to him and helped build strong relationships.