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Fires in the Middle School Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from Middle Schoolers

reviewed by Sarah Anne Eckert & Dana L. Mitra - December 14, 2009

coverTitle: Fires in the Middle School Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from Middle Schoolers
Author(s): Kathleen Cushman and Laura Rogers
Publisher: The New Press, New York
ISBN: 1595584838, Pages: 240, Year: 2009
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Fires in the Middle School Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from Middle Schoolers, like its predecessor, Fires in the Bathroom: Advice to Teachers from High School Students (2003), uses the voices of students to help teachers develop an understanding of the wants and needs of the students in his or her classroom. In the current educational climate, test scores and other forms of quantitative data often are considered the most valid indicator of educational performance and experience over the voices of students and teachers themselves. The narrowing of validity in educational research ignores the unique and important information that students themselves can provide about their learning experiences and how to improve them. Exploring youth experiences, including a special focus on how students are not succeeding in current school climates, can yield new definitions of the sources of problems, as well as possible new solutions for reforming schools. Fires in the Middle School Bathroom provides an example of the power of student voices in articulating what works and what they need from teachers, administrators, and parents to have positive and successful school experiences. The voices of the young people in the book remind readers that students possess unique knowledge and perspectives about their schools that adults cannot fully replicate.

Similar in form and function to Fires in the Bathroom, the Middle school bathroom differs in one important aspect. For this book Kathleen Cushman teams up with developmental psychologist Laura Rogers in order to more suitably "distill and interpret" (p. xii) the voices of the middle school students. The authors explain that because middle school students are undergoing a dramatic transitional period, and just learning how to articulate their own needs, "we cannot simply accept their words as 'advice for teachers'…instead we will place what middle-grades students say into the frame of early adolescent development" (p. 4). Using language from Cushman's initial book, the authors explain that fires set in a middle school bathroom mean something completely different than fires set in a high school bathroom, because middle grades students speak an intricate, and often inconsistent, language. The inconsistencies that they capture are transposed into the complicated, and high-pressure, goldilocks problem that defines middle grades teaching.

The interpretations provided by Cushman and Rogers highlight the intricate combination of 'primary' and 'secondary' relationships that middle school teachers, especially, need to create with their students. In The Trouble with Ed Schools, David Labaree (2004) details the complicated balance teachers must find between, for example, "emotional closeness" (primary) and "universalistic application of the rules" (secondary) (p. 49).  Cushman and Rogers further this analysis, explaining that, in the middle grades, teachers need to learn how to rework this relationship from student to student, moment to moment, and in such a way that slowly acclimates students to the nature of high schools. The authors refuse to offer a blueprint for navigating this relationship, yet they provide the insight that teachers need in order to learn to listen to the voices of their students.  

Although the authors provide numerous examples of student comments, and a few suggestions concerning how to listen, the book could benefit from more direction on how to access and interpret voices of middle school students. Admittedly, this process of interpretation is a challenge in student voice research. The use of student perspectives requires a fine balance of providing analytical summaries of student experience, but also avoiding categorizing youth as having a monolithic point of view. It is important to understand youth in relation to their respective contexts. Student voice research must rise to the challenge of representing the diversity of youth experiences while trying to capture the essence of student experiences. Because the book emphasizes description rather than analysis, it can serve as a preliminary step in undertaking rigorous, reform oriented student voice research, specifically because student voice research is not possible without first understanding how to listen to student voices.   

The developmental focus that Rogers brings to the book is evident in the themes of emerging adolescent identity that structure the chapters, such as classrooms being a space for growing up, students needing to challenge teacher authority, and social perceptions of impulse control versus external standards of behavior. Although intended, theoretically, for teachers in urban schools, these insights are just as applicable for suburban teachers, because the authors focus on the powerful nature of the competing social, emotional, and academic worlds that all middle school students occupy. Whether the lack of attention to urbanicity is a result of the categories selected while sorting the comments of students, or provides evidence that most middle school students are plagued by a similar set of forces, is unclear. What it does indicate, however, is that even if a middle school teacher was not raised in an urban area, he or she might still draw upon personal experiences in learning how to listen to student voices, and in understanding why it is necessary. Although the authors allude to the demands of after-school jobs, display a few student comments concerning race and ethnicity, and reveal the voice of one high school student regarding the birth of his child, it is difficult not to question the scope of pressures that exist in urban contexts.

The intended audience of this book is teachers, evidenced by an introduction that addresses teachers directly as “you.”  With this audience in mind, the book contains a series of dualisms from which teachers must find a happy medium. Rather then create a list of proscribed behaviors for middle grades teachers, the authors claim that the book aims to help teachers become aware of the importance of listening to their students' changing needs. Middle school students want to be challenged, but they want help in succeeding. They want to know what is expected from the start, but they want time to transition. They want to know you as a person, but they don't want to know your personal life. They want to have fun and play games in the classroom, but they do not want to be made to feel like children. They want time and space to socialize, but they also want to feel prepared academically for high school. This list of needs is complicated by the finding that each student will fall into a different place on each of these spectra, and a middle grades teacher needs to uncover how to address the needs of each student in his or her class.

While the focus of the book is on the classroom, the expertise of Cushman and Rogers on whole school reform is evident throughout the text.  The book is written for an audience of new teachers; however, it becomes very clear that the authors, in collaboration with What Kids Can Do, Inc., a nonprofit with the aim of encouraging student voice in school reform, have goals beyond individual teachers in individual classrooms. The book is organized around several themes along which the authors sort the voices of the students and interject synthesis and analysis at various points. The book, like its predecessor, provides a series of activities for teachers to engage in to connect with students, parents, and their former selves. It is through these activities that the reader becomes aware that this book is clearly intended for new teachers, yet some of the student voices are translated into advice on aspects that are often beyond the teacher's control. In the chapter on the transition to high school, for example, the authors explain that students in ninth grade would benefit from the creation of small learning communities (p. 185). This comment, although outside the scope of a teacher's own classroom, might actually be useful in encouraging teacher voice in school reform and organization. Helping teachers listen to the voices of students is clearly an important step in helping schools listen to the voices of students. What this book brings teachers is a deeper understanding of how and why middle school voices are different, as is the process of soliciting and understanding those voices.


Labaree, D. F. (2004). The trouble with ed schools. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cushman, K. (2003). Fires in the bathroom: Advice for teachers from high school students. New York: The New Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 14, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15871, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 10:16:25 AM

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About the Author
  • Sarah Eckert
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    SARAH ANNE ECKERT is a doctoral student at Penn State University in the department of Educational Theory and Policy. She has just begun to undertake research connecting urban teaching, teacher preparation and teacher self-efficacy.
  • Dana Mitra
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    DANA L. MITRA is Associate Professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Dana’s research interests include high school reform, student voice, and civic engagement. She has published a book with SUNY Press entitled Student voice in school reform: Building youth-adult partnerships that strengthen schools and empower youth.
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