Fires in The Middle School Bathroom: Advice to Teachers from Middle Schoolers by Kathleen Cushman and Laura Rogers (New Press, 240 pages, $24.95), reviewed by Angelis Baez
“When we come to school really upset at something, just not in the mood, and it does affect a lot of things. Teachers do not even ask to see what’s wrong; they just ignore it completely. Then they wonder, ‘Why are you guys not paying attention?’” This quotation from student Alma shows, in her own words, what she believes teachers should be more aware of. Teachers sometimes don’t know how students will respond. Although some students want nothing to do with teachers and prefer to be left alone, there are others who need more attention. Fires in the Middle School Bathroom voices middle school students’ thoughts and opinions on daily struggles that come with making the transition from being in a friendly elementary school environment to dealing with peer pressure involving friends, parents, and teachers. Kathleen Cushman and Laura Rogers choose to leave most of the text in students’ own words so readers can better understand and connect to the children’s thoughts without misinterpretation.
“Make Way for Parents,” one of the book’s chapters, demonstrates the ways students fight the urge to be rebellious and mischievous without parents knowing. They want to be like other students who seem to get more attention and have more friends. During my sixth grade year, many students wanted to be the class clown, to get more attention from their peers, and even though they were getting suspensions and detentions, they continued with the teasing and the jokes just to gain peer acceptance. Middle school students are at a time when doing the wrong thing is the right thing to do. Their peers ask them to ditch classes, disrespect young women and teachers, and even drink or smoke as a way to fit in. Most parents fear their children will be asked to do such things in high school, when in reality the pressure starts in middle school. Amelia, a student from the book, speaks about how she’s drifting away from her parents because she feels misunderstood and embarrassed by situations she faces in school. I also remember when I wouldn’t speak to my parents in front of my friends because I was scared of getting teased and bullied.
For some middle school students, learning is a distraction. They focus more on making a good impression with their peers rather than focusing on academics.”We’re ready to do something and the teachers are giving us work, and we just want to get out,” says Gabe in the chapter “Using Our Energy to Help Us Learn.” Cushman and Rogers give ideas on how to get students to stay on task and focused, such as playing music for the students or letting them have a snack might help them settle down before starting class.
Middle school teachers should read this book to get an idea of what most students are going through. For example, they can learn that students are at a time when wearing the wrong outfit could get them bullied for months. This is not what teachers usually think about, but to students, it’s important. At the same time, middle school teachers need to push students to get work done on time instead of extending deadlines, because in high school we are expected to make our own decisions and be responsible for our own work. Cushman and Rogers give ideas on how to engage students with constructive ideas and writing prompts to help teachers understand each individual student’s needs. And there are questionnaires for students as well as teachers, asking questions such as “What do you recall best about your own experiences in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade?” These questions help teachers relate to some of the issues their students are dealing with.
Fires in the Middle School Bathroom gives students the courage to speak up and let the world know that middle school is no walk in the park. As a high school student, I could relate to most of the situations mentioned in this book, and I wish I could have had the opportunity to speak about my challenges during middle school. This book is perfect for any teacher, student, or parent who really wants to understand middle school students.
Angelis Baez is a freshman at The Met’s Peace Street campus in Providence, Rhode Island. She currently has an internship with Jill Davidson, editor of Horace. She loves to write, read and meet new people.