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Fires in the Middle School Bathroom

Advice for Teachers from Middle Schoolers

Fires in the Middle School Bathroom by Kathleen Cushman
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This book came about because of the wide interest sparked among educators
by its 2003 predecessor, Fires in the Bathroom: Advice to Teachers from
High School Students
, by Kathleen Cushman. In that volume, students from
four urban areas around the United States offered their perspectives on classroom
teaching and learning, along with suggestions for increasing their motivation
and engagement in school. Like this book, Fires in the Bathroom took
shape with the support of the MetLife Foundation, whose Supporting New
Teachers Initiative recognizes how much teachers can learn from students, if
only given the chance. What Kids Can Do, a small nonprofit organization aimed
at raising youth voices on issues that matter, sponsored the research and writing
of both books.

Although Fires in the Bathroom was intended for an audience of new teachers
in urban high schools, educators and students in many other settings
responded to the candid, astute voices of its student co-authors. Their observations
may have originated in big-city public high schools, but they also struck a
deep chord with teachers in suburban, rural, and independent schools.

Teachers of the middle grades responded, too, especially those new to the
profession. Like their high school counterparts, they sometimes found themselves
wondering what to do when, as one high school student put it in the first
book, “she’s trying to be so nice and they’re setting fires in the bathroom.”
These teachers read the advice of high school students with great interest, but
also with caution. Their middle school students might care just as much about
many of the issues high schoolers raised, but they seemed to care in a different
way. When teachers discovered fires in the middle school bathroom, they noted,
those fires were almost certainly lighted in a very different frame of mind.

These middle-grades teachers had their own questions for younger students:
What helps you want to try hard in school—or keeps you from doing so?
How can we help you deal with the social issues and pressures you face? What’s
fair in the classroom, and why? What helps you understand your challenging
academic subjects? When it comes to your parents, what do teachers need to
know and do? How can we best prepare you for the transition to high school?

In summer and fall 2005, Kathleen Cushman traveled to five urban areas
(Rhode Island, California, New York, Indiana, and Connecticut) to record the
thoughts and suggestions of forty urban middle schoolers from over a dozen
schools. Some spent a few hours in those sessions, others a few days. The differences
in their responses—some terse and guarded, others loquacious and opinionated—
reflected not just the length of time they spent in dialogue, but also
variations in their ages and grades, the schools they attended, and the backgrounds
from which they came. Every conversation yielded new questions, and
often surprising answers. (When students spoke in nonstandard English, we
left their language unedited.)

Laura Rogers joined this project as co-author to help distill and interpret
the transcripts of the students’ responses. A developmental psychologist and
teacher educator, she brings thirty years of experience working with adolescents
to the task of understanding student declarations that otherwise seemed wildly
inconsistent. (She spent the past twelve of these years in a public charter school
for students in grades seven through twelve, which together the two authors
helped to start.) Her experience working with teachers brought us confidence in
the book’s purpose, methods, and structure (explained in our first chapter). Our
own back-and-forth conversations about what the students were telling us
helped us set their advice and admonitions into a developmental context. In
doing so, we aim to help teachers gain new perspectives, sustain their good
humor, and continue to develop in their profession.

We hope you will recognize the enormous importance you have to your students.
When the students in this book talked about instruction, they largely
talked about how they felt about their teachers, and how their teachers made
them feel about themselves as learners. As you listen to them speak of their
hopes and their vulnerabilities, we have confidence that you will find ways to
better support them during their journey on the middle school bridge.

Kathleen Cushman and Laura Rogers
Harvard, Massachusetts
July 2007
The New Press; August 2009
242 pages; ISBN 9781595586520
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Title: Fires in the Middle School Bathroom
Author: Kathleen Cushman; Laura Rogers
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