I never thought I’d say this, but I love the middle school years. I have two teens who are through middle school and in the thick of high school and another son right in the midst of his middle school career, and when he is done with it the youngest will be ready to start. I never thought one brief period of childhood could be so exciting, but it is.
Middle school is magical. The physical metamorphosis from child to young adult dramatically occurs right before my eyes. And when the high-pitched voices leave, so too does the gullibility and simplicity of infancy. Their eyes begin to open and take in the world behind the temporal, the ideas and implications and motivations that drive the world around them. It’s inspiring to watch that realization dawn on them when they realize there is even more to the world than they previously noticed.
That’s why preteens need middle school. They need to broaden their mental and academic abilities beyond the basics of the three R’s to prepare for more rigorous learning. They need practice reading deeper. They need to grow, think, learn, and mature so they can begin the high school years strong.
It is true that so much of the material middle school students work on is presented again in high school (for that matter, high school is repeated again the first year of college, but oh, well). Rather than discourage homeschool teachers, though, this should help underscore how critical these basic studies really are. Grammar, writing, algebra, world history, sciences, and the arts are not merely academics to be endured or skipped but rather disciplines to be practiced.
The goals of a well-developed middle school student are not readily apparent. There is no special standardized test to demonstrate high school readiness. If there were, it wouldn’t work. Middle school is about so much more than grades.
What a Middle School Student Needs to Know
1. They need to know how to study.
Even the brightest, most talented middle school student will, at some point in his future life, experience a hard class. A really hard class. The fortunate middle school student meets his first really hard class before the high school transcripts begin, so he can practice how to study, overcome failure, and achieve success when it counts.
2. They need to know how to fail.
Too many smart homeschool students (particularly classical or Charlotte Mason homeschoolers) have no experience taking tests — so they never got to get an F. And everyone needs to practice getting F’s. We don’t know how to prevent F’s, anticipate F behavior, and recover from accidental F’s until we’ve gone through it a few times. Isn’t it better to do that when the F’s don’t really count?
3. They need to know how to ask questions.
Elementary students ask a lot of questions. Middle school students learn they are “all the wrong questions,” as Lemony Snicket would say. Instead of “Who was the last Pharoah of Egypt,” it should be “WHY did the age of Pharoahs last so long and what made them end?” Instead of “Was our state Union or Confederate,” a better question is “How did so many great men then and now get the question of race equality so wrong?” or even “How did Christians defend slavery?”
Learning begins with questioning, and one’s capacity for learning is in direct proportion to his ability to ask the right questions.
4. They need to know how to write a sentence.
It’s a skill so simple, yet completely integral to all of academia from hence forth. If one can’t write a sentence, one can’t write a paragraph, and all future essays and papers are doomed. If elementary years are all about reading, middle school is all about the sentence.
5. They need to know how to evaluate abstract concepts.
This applies to everything from algebra’s variables to history’s philosophies to science’s atoms to music’s theory. Elementary students spend years manipulating and examining concrete things — nature, math manipulatives, toy soldiers, and crayons. As they should. That’s how young minds learn best.
The middle school years are about moving beyond that to imagining concepts, ideas, and environments the student has never explored and discovering their relationship to his own life. It’s hard work, and it will take years of practice to become comfortable doing it. So better get started.
6. They need to know how to reason logically.
Logic skills really begin developing during middle school, and they will continue to grow (we hope!) through high school and early adult years. So middle schoolers don’t behave logically yet (like you needed to be told that). However, their reasoning skills are growing noticeably during the preteen years, so this is a great time to start studying logic and reasoning.
7. They need to know how to work on long-term projects.
Elementary work is pretty straight-forward — one finishes the worksheet, project, or book within a day, week tops. It takes perseverance, vision, and discipline to stick with a project for weeks on end.
I see this a lot with middle school music students. Even if a student has been studying since preschool or early elementary, the private music student usually hits his first real plateau in middle school years. This is when he wants to quit. Weeks of practicing the same pieces and scales and seeing little tangible results is soul-sapping work. The longer it goes on, the less enthusiastic the student becomes, the less real effort is put into practice, and the longer the plateau continues. It’s a great learning experience, though, because if parents remain consistent with the practice requirements (and don’t give into the student’s pleas to quit) and the teacher can cast a vision before the student, there will be a tremendous breakthrough in just a few weeks.
A lot of subjects are like that, too. I’ve seen my students languish in algebra purgatory, history purgatory, science purgatory, and writing purgatory. Some projects and skills take a lot of work and a long time plodding along before the sudden jump in ability.
8. They need to know how to learn honestly.
For the rest of their lives, students will be tempted to misrepresent themselves and their work. They are tempted to cheat, to lie, to plagiarize their work, to pretend they have mastery, understanding, and creativity that is not their own.
Adults face the same pressure.
Too many students fail the test of honesty because they were never taught the true value of work, of creativity, of learning. They believe the grade is more important than mastery, that a score determines their value. They are taught either explicitly or implicitly to win at all costs.
That is the ultimate failure.
We as parents and teachers must do all we can to train our students how to remain true to their character and convictions in the midst of hard things, how to remain honest in the face of failures. It is perhaps the most important lesson of their academic lives.
Middle school is more than just a transitional time between elementary and high school. It is a formative period in a young student’s development. Let’s make the most of it in these critical areas.
What lessons would you add to this list?
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