Youth Culture Paper

Middle School Early Adolescents at Lunchtime


           Balancing my laptop, keys and, most importantly, blueberry muffin and large coffee, I walked slowly down the hallway, headed to my classroom.  I knew I had a scant ninety seconds to make it to my room, before I became part of the “Lion King” montage, also known as middle school lunch period.  I failed.  The bell rang, and I went wide hoping the thunder of feet coming my way would go left.  Most did, but there was that one stray kid, running, and looking behind him as he turned the corner (wide).  “Whoaaaaa!” I yelled backing into the wall, spilling coffee on myself.  He stopped short, half apologized, while looking down the hall, at the kids who had now gotten ahead of him.  I started to go after him, but thought, “[Darn] it’s March, how many times do you have to say ‘walk’?  That cafeteria time must be crazy…”  Taking ED523 I wondered what are they were like at lunch time and the subsequent question: what can be observed in the individual and group dynamics of middle school students, at my school, when they have “free” time, that is, lunch/recess or less structured activities?  I work in a small suburban, combined middle/high school, and most of the students have been in school, together, since Kindergarten.                 

    The principal of the middle school stands solidly behind his philosophy of creating a nurturing, respectful environment for the students.  Early adolescence is a period where teens are “...moving away from the need for parental approval, [and] need to know that someone other than their peers will provide  a support system” (Brown and Knowles, 105).  The middle school creed for both students and teachers, is “Respect Acknowledge Unite”, and during my observations, I saw this demonstrated at lunch time, which I believe helped facilitate much of the positive relationships I saw.  

At this point of development, the need for peer acceptance and comfort in social settings is paramount, and the school cafeteria has been “characterized it as an important site of peer interaction, identity formation, and status differentiation” (Ng, et. al, 2013, p. 65).      During my observations of students in the cafeteria and in the schoolyard during recess, it was entertaining to watch the 6th graders try to follow the “walk” rule.  This is the first time that they have been able to move throughout a school building without a teacher, so the energy is practically bursting out of them as they make their way to the cafeteria.    Predictably, mostly boys, though some girls, were engaged in speed walking races, elbows moving, trying to be among the first to get online (sometimes it can take 10 min. to actually get a sandwich and pay).  Of course, part of the motive was to eat quickly and get outside.   In the cafeteria, the students predominantly sat in gender groups:  boys with boys and girls with girls.  There were very few students who sat alone; although in one case, a student was sitting with a group, but not interacting (he was on his phone, playing a video game).  I spoke about seating, and students who might be isolated, with the 8th grade guidance counselor on lunch duty, and she said that in September and throughout the year, she and the other teachers watch for students who may be off on their own, or less able to navigate the social waters of the less structured lunchtime period.  It has been documented that Should a situation like that occur, teachers often sit and talk with the student, or privately speak to other students whom they know to be friendly, and set up a quasi buddy situation.  Given that social isolation or peer rejection can lead to negative behaviors, including internalizing feelings or acting out, I believe that both teachers and guidance counselors have their pulse on the needs of the middle school child (Capella & Hwang, p. 81).

Scanning the lunch room, I was pleased to see that not that many students were on their phones: the girls were talking to each other, as were the boys, though they tended to be louder, touch each other while speaking, and were more demonstrative.  Predictably, the male group that was in the back was the noisiest, and had students standing and eating, as well as sitting.  On more than one day, Mr. Hayes had to go over and tell them to quiet down; he happens to be the “coolest” teacher in middle school, so they always cooperated.  Rather than yell “Hey!” across the lunchroom, he would walk back and say something like, “Hey wanna quiet down a bit?”  On one occasion, he just went over and started having a conversation with them and they quieted down.  This is crucial in terms of adolescent development, because, during this period of pre-frontal cortex development and synaptic pruning, Mr. Hayes is modeling appropriate behavior, diffusing a situation, while maintaining the trust of the students.  It’s these types of positive social interactions and it’s these coping strategies that will be used as neural pathways are “strengthened” and used, and “weaker ones are pruned away” (Blakemore, 2:34).  

On another day, I observed the students in outside in the yard.  True to what most of us would believe, there were mostly boys out there.  One article I read, stated that when given a choice boys preferred outside, while girls preferred inside, with more low key socialization.  The researchers noted that boys’ physicality may infringe upon the girls’ space.  Based on my observation, the yard is really set up for boys.  There are basketball hoops, a box ball stencil on the floor, and balls are provided.  There was a jump rope for girls, too, as well as tables to sit at, with a small risk of a ball coming near.  The first group out there were part of the noisy group; they were the first to finish eating and run outside: the basketball players.  Yes, most of them had the “superior height”, and “broader shoulders”, significant of the onset of puberty and they were mostly 8th grade (Brown and Knowles, p.21).  Naturally, there was much pushing, shoving, yelling, occasionally, cursing even, as they played.  However, interestingly enough, there were no physical fights or serious verbal arguments, which is natural in this particular school environment.  I’ve been at the school for nine years, and as far as I know, there have been no physical middle school fights and only three high school fights.  I think the socio-economic factor, and the fact we’re a small suburban school is a big part of it.  Actually, there are more issues with girls and gossiping, switching friendships, from what I’m told.  The principal’s message of respect, as well as what is acceptable behavior is evident out here, too.  Plus, our secret weapon, Mr. Hayes had come outside.  

On another observation, I saw a mixed group.  This time I spoke with a school aide who was watching them, and his charge - an emotionally volatile student who teachers say is “somewhere on the spectrum”.  This group was mixed; they were mostly the smaller, perhaps less athletic boys, and this group consisted of students who, for lack of a better word, may have been outliers:  some were students who were students with special needs, students who I thought to be more loners, with no visible group of close friends. I used the word “outliers” with the aide, and at first he was a little put off, but I explained what I was learning about the middle school child and his/her development, maturity and social awkwardness, and then he likened himself to the members of this particular group, not the athletic groups.  

I was very interested that this group had come together to play, and was informed that once Mr. Hayes he brought out a couple of balls, these boys used the “box ball” frame painted on the floor in the yard to play.  I thought this was very intuitive, because this mix of students (some of them I knew) might not necessary cross paths in class.  As Dr. Mosatche alluded to  in class, this actually builds an opportunity for conversation, negotiation of roles, and social skills.  These students were slightly competitive but much less aggressive and more encouraging than the basketball group, but perhaps that is the nature of basketball.    There were a few students that stood closely and watched the game, but for some reason, did not actually participate.  I wonder if they didn’t feel confident enough… or were still finding their place.

On one of my observations, I noticed a student that was usually with a group of boys that play basketball, sitting inside the cafeteria.  I asked him why he wasn’t with his friends outside, and at first he didn’t say much.  I sat near for a few, watching him look out the window, and I said, “Well, it’s cool if you don’t feel like hanging today...everyone likes some down time.”  Then he told me that he was feeling weird (my word) because his best friend had gone to the shopping center the day before with a group of kids, and not invited him.  He was really hurt by it, especially since his friend had told him he wasn’t going.  It seemed that the group was a “basketball” group, and now that they were playing it in middle school more, the friend was gravitating towards that group.  I understood that during this time students are searching for their sense of self and who they are, so their groupings may change a little, based on their interests and how they see themselves, or would like to see themselves.  I tried to let him know that he should explain his feelings to his friend, and know that it’s normal to move around and have different friends, but if they have been friends since 1st grade, chances are they’ll stay friends.

Based on the readings, I don’t know that my school reflects a lot of the research on negative lunchroom behaviors.  I suspect if I observed for a longer period, and developed real relationships with the students, I would have learned a lot more.  What I did learn was that the principal that I consider too soft with the middle school children is actually attempting to include structures and a philosophy that is actually doing the right thing.

    • Alanna Kardon-Alkalay
      Alanna Kardon-Alkalay

      **** I think you forgot to tag you paper. 

      Hi Lorna. It sounds like you had opportunity every day to really 'get into' the life of the middle school student.

      1-   Your paper is rich with all kinds of observations that made me like I was in the experience with you.

      2- I really enjoyed reading you introduction.  I can see where you placed your essential question:

      "what can be observed in the individual and group dynamics of middle school students, at my school, when they have “free” time, that is, lunch/recess or less structured activities"?

      Since you have noted some clear patterns, maybe you could place them within your thesis and group them together within your paper to strengthen your thesis


      Gender differences

      The need for physicality

      Social interactions/ group dynamics leading to identity formation

      The role of educators.

      2. You have some great references.  Since you wrote so much about physicality and movement, maybe you  want to look at that chapter in the text and make some additional references. You have so much rich description to work with.

      3. You state the school creed: "Respect Acknowledge Unite”.

      This really sets the reader up nicely for understanding the school's philosophy.  You talk about the principal at the beginning of your paper and in the conclusion. Perhaps weave the creed into the conclusion to help tighten the structure?

      4. The insight about the principals use of structure is a nice way to introduce and conclude your paper.  Is there a way to make that theme more explicit throughout your paper? You have wonderful examples throughout your analysis.

      5.Your conclusion sums up your own learning from this experience.  If you add a bit about what you believe are the implications for your acquired knowledge, it would make your conclusion even stronger. 

      I really enjoyed reading about your experience as a middle school teacher.  It made me excited to become one and have many similar experiences.

      • Antonia Bueti
        Antonia Bueti

        Hey Lorna,

        I really liked how you began your paper with an anecdote, I think it set the tone for the rest of your paper. It was hooked from the first line. I also believe that the principal sets the tone for the entire building and noticed the same thing during my observations about the mixed groups.

        Some suggestions -

        I would add the implications that your observations might have for other educators or how educators might be able to use your observations. 

        Where you stated "Naturally, there was much pushing, shoving, yelling, occasionally, cursing even, as they played.  However, interestingly enough, there were no physical fights or serious verbal arguments, which is natural in this particular school environment." I would support this with external sources, I think there is a section in the text that discusses how this is natural for boys at this age. 


        Overall, I think this is a well written observation! 

        • Rebecca Italiano
          Rebecca Italiano


          I love this topic because so much happens in the lunchroom. This year, I set aside time to go to gym, lunch, and recess with my students. I learned so much about them just by leaving my classroom and seeing them in different environments.

          I could really picture the whole scenario of the child running down the hall and you yelling at him to stop. However, I felt like there were a lot of commas. Perhaps rephrase them to be shorter sentences?

          Remember APA should look like ( Author, publishing year) i.e. ( Brown and Knowles, 2014) ..if it's several authors than it would look like , ( Brown et al., 2014). You don't need to put the page number.

          I like the amount of observations you included in your paper, i felt it made your paper strong.

          I also liked how you related to your own experiences after stating something from research.

          You might want to rephrase or reword calling the principal "too soft". Perhaps say, "too lenient" .

          Thanks for the good read!! 

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