Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
In my 34-year teaching career I have had a wide variety of experiences. I have taught middle school and high school required classes and electives. I have also served as a library media specialist at the elementary and middle school levels. I have provided inservice workshops and conference sessions for my fellow professionals, and even taught community college classes as an adjunct instructor.
I’m not bragging. I really didn’t intend my career to work out that way. Maybe I just have a short attention span.
I will tell you that working in so many diverse settings has given me a “birds-eye view” of education. Better stated, it’s like watching a parade from a helicopter. I can see the beginning. I can see the end. And I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to get from one place to another.
And I can tell you that the transition from elementary school to middle school is the most difficult transition in education. Middle school requires a skill set that is new to most 6th graders. In this TeacherScope blog post, I’ll list five of the most important skills, and offer my advice on how to teach them.
Before we begin, let’s make sure that we’re not blaming anyone – teachers, students, or parents – for the lack of beginning middle school skills. It’s nobody’s fault. The distinction lies in the organizational patterns and the nature of the requirements. It’s like the difference between running and swimming. Both of those activities demand physical exertion to get you from point A to point B. But the locomotion requires a different set of skills. Just like elementary school and middle school.
And if you work with upper-elementary and middle school students, I’d like to suggest my most recent book, This Is Middle School! (Third Stream Press, 2016.) It’s available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can learn more by visiting the web-site (click here.)
New Middle Schoolers Need to Learn…
#1 - How to Move Independently Throughout the School
Most new middle schoolers are excited to receive their first class schedules. But of course, these class changes require walking throughout the school with minimal supervision. Sure, students change classrooms in elementary school, but typically those changes are completed by large groups of students walking down the hall in a straight line, supervised by their teacher. “Okay class – line up…it’s time to go to music.”
Of course middle school is very different. When the bell rings at the end of the class period, twenty-five students go in twenty-five different directions. There’s no line-up, there’s no common destination, and there’s no teacher leading the way and monitoring student behavior. In middle school students can visit the restroom between classes and access their lockers. They can take various routes, say “hi” to their friends, and stop-by the library to quickly return a book. But when the next bell rings, students are expected to be in their classes, ready for instruction. This happens five or six times each day.
New middle schoolers also need to learn how to conduct themselves in the hallway. The temptation to run or engage in horseplay is too much for some of the less-mature students. Other students want to stand around in the hallway and talk until the tardy bell rings – then they dash-off to class.
The solution: planning and supervision. During the first week of school, teachers of new middle schoolers should take a few minutes at the end of each class period to talk with their students about traveling to their next classrooms. Help students plan the best routes, and point-out the restroom stops along the route. Also, it’s important for teachers and administrators to supervise the hallways in between classes to keep everyone moving along. Parent volunteers can help during the first week of school. Some schools forgive tardies during the first week of school, but it’s probably best not to publicize this policy. Most students will quickly learn how to walk around school. Those who still aren’t making it after the first week should get friendly one-on-one assistance.
#2 - How to Adjust to Diverse Learning Environments
Upper-level elementary school students have one or two teachers during the school day. Sure, they go to art and music, but those classes are much less frequent, and different in format. Basically, elementary students must function in a couple of learning environments that are probably remarkably similar.
Not so in middle school, where students will have five or six different teachers every day – emphasis on different. Middle school classrooms are more diverse, with some classes meeting in the gym, the music room, or the computer lab. Teachers also have different styles. Some teachers are energetic and others are low-key. Some teachers rely heavily on technology, while others use handouts and textbooks. Some teachers accept late work, and others don’t.
The solution: thinking about it, and accepting the differences. Teachers, school counselors, and parents should talk to new middle schoolers about different teaching styles. Remind them that their least-favorite teacher is probably someone else’s favorite. Use the opportunity to teach about preferences, and how the world won’t always be exactly like they want. (One year a parent requested a conference with me and my principal. Her child’s complaint: I didn’t show movies on Friday.)
And correct students when they use words like “mean” (i.e. “That teacher is so mean!”) when it’s not appropriate. Giving a pop quiz on Friday, or requiring that all students bring a pencil to class doesn’t make a teacher “mean.” Rather than complain about their least favorite teachers, students should ask themselves, “What do I need to do to be successful in this class?”
#3 - How to Manage Assignments and Information
Does the phrase “Week in a Peek” mean anything to you? That’s a common name for the elementary classroom newsletter that can be found in the take-home folder that goes home every night. The classroom newsletter contains announcements (field trips, fundraisers, class activities), weekly spelling words, homework assignments, after-school activity notices, homework assignments, and reading goals. Sometimes the teacher posts the newsletter on her web-page, and e-mails a copy to the parents, just in case.
Classroom newletter? Take-home folder? Parent e-mails? Week in a Peek? Join me middle school teachers: Huh?
In middle school, students are expected to write down important information, and follow-up on announcements. Soccer tryouts will be announced over the intercom. The coach many mention it in P.E. class, and there will probably be a poster in the cafeteria. It’s up to the student to get the details and follow through if they want to join the soccer team. Of course, the same holds true for classroom assignments. The teacher will probably write the assignments on the white board. It’s up to the student to complete the work and turn it in by the due date.
The solution: gradual responsibility, and the planner. Here’s a way that elementary teachers can help: gradually wean your students off of the parent/student newsletter in their final semester before middle school. Guide them through the process. Instead of providing the spelling words on a handout, have them write them in their notebooks. Make a few announcements orally – let the students decide if the content pertains to them, and how and where to record it. (We don’t write things down so we can remember them. We write things down so we can forget them!) Turn it into a fun, educational activity. Reward those who “get it” and keep working with those who need a little help.
The planner – a calendar/spiral notebook with plenty of room to write down assignments – is required in most middle schools. Elementary teachers can introduce the planner to their 5th graders . Blank planner pages for “practice” can be downloaded from the Internet. Get students used to the idea of writing down assignments and announcements. And middle school teachers – don’t hesitate to require planner completion. If you make it optional, the students who need it most will probably choose not to participate.
#4 - How to Store and Retrieve School and Personal Items
Elementary storage spaces for personal items are plentiful and varied. Books, pencils, and papers are stored in the student desk. Rulers, crayons, and calculators are found in a plastic tote nearby. Jackets and sweaters are hung on hooks in the back of the room. Many classrooms feature “cubby-holes” where students can store additional gear. In elementary school, everything is within arm’s reach, or at least in the same room.
In middle school, students need to be responsible for their educational supplies as well as their personal belongings. Sure, the student has a desk in every classroom, but they can’t expect to store their stuff there. The locker provides private storage space, but most students don’t have time to visit their lockers between every class. Most middle schools allow bookbags for carrying materials and personal items. It’s up to the middle school student to bring the required items to each class, and to secure their personal belongings.
The solution: planning and good judgement. Earlier in this blog post, I suggested that teachers help students determine the best routes from classroom to classroom. Locker stops should also be part of that planning. The bookbag and locker are complimentary pieces of the storage puzzle. A student using a bookbag correctly shouldn’t need to go to his locker after every class. And a student who uses his locker properly shouldn’t have a 30-pound bookbag.
And that’s where the good judgment comes in. For several years I was a 6th grade homeroom teacher. I would conduct random bookbag “dump-outs” during homeroom; the students emptied the contents of their bookbags on a table. After a few “dump-outs” most students quickly learned what they did and didn’t need. Of course, an important lesson: leave your toys at home! Teach students to distinguish between “what I will need” and “what I can possibly cram into my bookbag.” (If we don’t, they turn into adults who need more than 4 ounces of shampoo for a 2-hour airline flight and hold-up the TSA line!)
#5 - How to Budget Time
Time management isn’t a big concern for elementary students. Sure, there’s homework, but not nearly as much as middle school students are assigned. There may be a handful of clubs and activities at the elementary level, but they probably don’t require the commitment of middle school athletic teams and musical groups.
In middle school clubs and activities and plentiful and demanding. Middle school athletic teams may practice every day until suppertime. That leaves two or three hours for homework, and maybe no time for television or social media. Band and chorus may require after school rehearsals and performances. And middle school students who sign-up for these activities are expected to participate – or drop out. There aren’t any “casual” members of the middle school cheerleading squad, soccer team, or band.
The biggest transition issue is usually encountered by the elementary school high-flyers who are used to participating in every activity offered. They’re on the elementary track team (with one track meet), they’re on the student council (that meets once a month in the library before school) and they’re on the yearbook staff (they take a couple of photos in the cafeteria.) Many new middle schoolers are surprised to find that they don’t have time to participate in every club, activity, and sport. The important lesson: you have to pick and choose.
The solution: prioritize and choose wisely. The good news is that most middle schools have entry-level sports teams for 6th graders, and there are usually several clubs with open enrollment. Students can attend a few practices, meetings, or rehearsals to see if the activity is right for them. Teachers can talk to students about the differences between elementary and middle school activities. Coaches, directors, and club sponsors should clearly communicate the time requirement their activity demands. And parents should vigilantly monitor their child’s time schedule and stress level. When an activity hampers completion of school work, or becomes more stressful than enjoyable, the parent should step in. Adults are skilled in balancing work, hobbies, and home commitments. New middle schoolers still need to develop those skills.
Well, those are my top five things new middle schoolers need to learn. Here’s a bonus…
Bonus: How to Quickly “Take it Down a Notch”
This is more of a personality/social skill, and the need will vary among individuals – but it’s still important. Many elementary students get wound-up (excited, boisterous) and have difficulty calming-down. This skill is very important when students are changing classes 5 or 6 times each day in middle school. Middle school hallways and lunchrooms can be noisy, crowded, and stimulating. Middle school teachers like to begin class when the tardy bell rings – they don’t budget five minutes of “settle down” time.
The solution: teaching and reinforcement in the elementary and middle school classrooms. Ideally, instruction should begin when the tardy bell rings. Teachers – begin class with a question, an assignment, or a concept. In other words, don’t start the class with “Okay – settle down. Okay – settle down. We need to start. Okay?” Instead, just start teaching. By the second or third day, most of your students will understand. The first few minutes of class are the most important because they set the tone for the remaining class period. You may need to speak with some students privately if they can’t learn to “take it down a notch” when they enter your classroom. Here’s what I tell them: “Look around. See how the other students are acting? That’s what I expect from you. Do you think you can do that? Good!”
Success in middle school carries a unique set of expectations, and requires skills not necessarily taught and reinforced in elementary school. Fortunately, these skills are quite teachable. Think of it as a “mini-curriculum.” Wise elementary and middle school teachers spend a few hours helping their students in this endeavor. The time spent will pay dividends throughout the year.
If you enjoyed this article, and you're interested in helping upper-elementary students make a smooth transition to middle school, you'll want to pick-up a copy of This Is Middle School! (click here for link.) You can read a sample chapter online.
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 36 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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