Michelle’s Story of Growing Pains & Gains from Middle Grades
Michelle is a Mexican-American and first-generation college student who grew up in Gage Park. She attended neighborhood schools from kindergarten to high school. For middle school, she went to a 6th-8th grade school. She is now a junior at a private liberal arts college in Wisconsin, majoring in Business Economics. On campus, you can find her playing lacrosse, planning the next Spanish club meeting, or supporting her student community as a Resident Assistant.
Michelle’s Middle Grades Experience
Michelle remembers her 5th-grade graduation very clearly. “Everybody crying at the end like ‘OMG, we graduated!’ For me personally, I was excited to be out.” Michelle struggled to feel welcomed at her elementary school. She didn’t feel invested in her schoolwork and was stressed out navigating her school life. She had a hard time getting along with her classmates and would get in trouble at school. She’d often return home with low grades on her report card.
Michelle saw her transition to her 6–8th middle school as a chance to redefine herself. Even though she was going to be around the same people she had known her whole life from elementary school, she knew she had to change. She was especially inspired by the birth of her baby sister. “I wanted to be the best role model I could be for her so that she can look up to me.”
“I wanted to be the best role model I could be for her so that she can look up to me.”
Although going to middle school was exciting, it was also complicated. Michelle noted that she had many unhealthy friendships in elementary school. This pushed her to isolate herself in middle school, which caused her to experience “one of [her] lowest lows.” Anytime someone would ask Michelle “are you ok,” she automatically lied so that people wouldn’t ask her more questions. A teacher noticed Michelle’s distress and asked her directly “what happened?” The question pushed Michelle to be honest and they had a deep meaningful conversation about what Michelle was going through. Throughout the year, Michelle and her teacher communicated openly. She felt that someone was looking out for her at school and that her emotions mattered.
Still, Michelle struggled to figure out what real supportive friendships looked like. “One thing I understood is that not everyone is gonna be kind and not everyone is gonna be your friend, friend. They’re like conocidos/acquaintances. They’re someone you know, but are they your friends? No…friends is more commitment. You’re there for them and everything. Everyone throws around like, ‘Oh my God. You’re my friend now.’ But am I really? No. It’s just part of the social construct of just being able to hang out with somebody so that you’re not alone.”
Later in 7th grade, Michelle found a handful of other students who were also navigating school by themselves, and they eventually formed a group. Together, they built a small community where they felt seen and appreciated.
Michelle worked hard to improve her grades in middle school. She was redefining her relationship with academics and benefited greatly by one of her math teachers teaching techniques. Her math teacher would give a quiz at the end of the week to see what Michelle and her classmates were confused about. “It wasn’t much of a quiz like if you get it wrong, then you’re wrong and that’s it. She would actually go back to those topics and reteach it the best way she can and we would redo the quiz.” Michelle felt that this teaching technique helped tailored the lesson to best fit Michelle and her classmates’ needs. “ I love that system a lot because it truly made it seem like, ‘This is what I taught. Are my kids actually learning and everything and retaining the information? If not, then where can I improve or how can I reiterate this so that my students can actually understand to improve?’”
“I love that system a lot because it truly made it seem like, ‘This is what I taught. Are my kids actually learning and everything and retaining the information? If not, then where can I improve or how can I reiterate this so that my students can actually understand to improve?’”
For Michelle, home could also be a stressful place. She had to grow up fast to translate legal documents and figure out how to support her parents in navigating English/American structures. While figuring out how to help her parents, she also had to find ways to help herself. Anytime she came home with questions about school, “I had to search for my own answers.” She became known as the “independent one” in her family, which was a lot of pressure for a young student. Still, it pushed Michelle to think about what she wanted for her future.
Growing After Middle Grades
Michelle’s relationship with college started with her older brother. Her brother was a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient and the first person in her family to graduate high school. He enrolled in college and was paying out of pocket until he eventually stopped out. Michele was inspired by her brother and made graduating from college the next goal for her family. However, she and her family were still conflicted. “In a way, they wanted to push college, but it was a very dividing conversation because in some way, they were like, ‘How are we gonna pay for this? What is college?’… So for me being in middle school and learning about people getting into big schools, I was like, ‘What is that? Is it just more school? I don’t want that.’”
“In a way, they wanted to push college, but it was a very dividing conversation because in some way, they were like, ‘How are we gonna pay for this? What is college?’… So for me being in middle school and learning about people getting into big schools, I was like, ‘What is that? Is it just more school? I don’t want that.’”
At times, her middle school amplified some of her worries about college. Some adults in her school would paint college as an intensely rigorous place. “They would always give the scary talk of, ‘Oh my God. College is gonna be something different. It’s gonna be difficult.’ It’s always so daunting to hear those conversations when they talk about college because the way they reflect college, even in high school, it’s like, ‘college is gonna be very different. It’s gonna be harder.’” Despite hearing how difficult college sounded, Michelle was still set on graduating college because she felt it was an obligation to her family. “Since my brother couldn’t do it, I had to take on the part…to let my sister know she can also do it and maybe help her ease into that situation more. Through it all, I just thought about my sister.”
After an intense struggle with her emotional health in middle school, Michelle knew she needed more support. “I still knew I had to resolve some issues because I couldn’t talk to my parents because they always looked at me as being the strong one, being able to be independent. So I had to maintain that façade where nothing can hurt me because I knew I had to look forward to and not make them feel too worried, or sometimes they’d be like, ‘just go sleep it out.’ So sometimes emotional health is not taken seriously, and I knew I had to do something.” That’s when Michelle heard about an afterschool counseling and mentoring program. During the program, Michelle built a strong community that supported her overall well-being. She learned about what happens during adolescence and understood how to create emotional health goals for herself. The program helped ground her emotionally and she was able to better navigate school.
Now that she’s in college, Michelle thinks middle school is the most challenging schooling she has ever done and that college is the easiest. “Nobody really talks about the ways college is easy. You have classes once a week almost if you wanted to. You can have flexible hours, nice professors that can be flexible with you.” Although she still struggles to figure out how to navigate college as a first-generation college student, she is better grounded socially, emotionally, and academically thanks to the tools and support she had learned back in CPS.
“Nobody really talks about the ways college is easy. You have classes once a week almost if you wanted to. You can have flexible hours, nice professors that can be flexible with you.”
Michelle’s Lessons from Middle Grades
- She redefined what healthy and real friendships look like. After juggling unstable friendships in elementary school, Michelle imagined new values and expectations for the friendships she wanted to create in middle school.
- She learned how important it was to have mental health support. Michelle was struggling with mental health, which made schooling challenging. Once she was able to talk to someone she felt more grounded and supported.
Michelle’s Hopes for the Field
- She hopes that current middle grades educators can learn from their students and understand where students are at in their learning. This could help educators meet students where they are and better support their learning experience.
- She encourages middle grade teachers to prioritize teaching their students about socio-emotional health and create space to care for their feelings. One of the most empowering experiences for Michelle is having a mentor and learning opportunities to understand adolescent development and how to create emotional health goals for herself.
- She wishes for folks in education who work with students to be careful about the language they’re using to talk about college. Try to talk about the positives aspects about going to college. This could help ground students’ worries about college.