While the middle grades mark a critical transition period for students, they are often overlooked and underinvested in compared to other grade levels. According to Lynsey Wood Jeffries, the CEO of Higher Achievement, the sixth, seventh and eighth grade education levels experience the highest teacher turnover and hold the fewest grade-certified teachers.
Meanwhile, apart from infancy, students are going through their most intense period of brain development. The young adolescent brain goes through a unique neurological transition when it engages creatively and navigates new social dynamics in a positive manner. Research from Adena M. Klem and James P. Connell shows that during this same period of rapid development, as many as 60% of students become "chronically disengaged."
A student's experience in middle school is a critical gateway to high school. Therefore, hands-on learning activities and mentorship can support development and put students on track for success in high school and beyond. Principals, educators, and service providers alike acknowledge both the challenges and unique opportunities in serving students in these important grades.
As we reflect back on 2015, we remember learnings from a convening of educators, students, families, politicians, and community organizations in Washington DC discussing best practices for expanded learning opportunities for middle grades students. Here are five approaches to helping these students stay engaged and on track:
Middle school students won't ask to be challenged directly. So, it's important to present them with a challenge and to introduce it in a way that makes students want to be challenged while also offering support. Dr. Ronald C. Jones, an associate faculty member at Ashford University, recommends encouraging critical thinking by asking for clarification, deeper explanation, and justification. Additionally, he suggests offering opposing views to generate discussion and push students to support their arguments.
There is a significant difference between sixth and eighth grade students. The average sixth grade student is heading towards adolescence. As a result, according to TeacherVision, he or she is socially aware, physically exuberant, and easily frustrated. Mentors can support sixth grade students in reaching success by helping them cope with change and encouraging them to take on increased responsibility. Conversely, the average eighth grade student is experiencing adolescent development. These students exhibit improved abilities to express themselves and have a greater need for routine. Teachers, mentors, and family members can support eighth grade students in achieving success by helping them set realistic goals and developing a systematic process to achieve these goals.
Tap into middle grades students' focus on the here, the now, and the future. Middle graders aren't spending a lot of time looking back. Lee Hart, the executive director of High Jump, recommends embracing this focus through helping students make meaning out of their present to develop a sense of agency that will help them build a future they want.
Be mindful that being a teacher or mentor to a middle grades student also means being a willing learner! It is important to pay attention to and consider what you can learn from students, and to show them you care. As Carmel Perkins, the principal of the Carter School of Excellence, explained, "They don't care what you know until they know that you care." And Teresa, a volunteer mentor with Spark, explained, "The (mentoring) program gave me a unique opportunity to share a part of my life I don't get to share outside my workplace."
Remember that change does not occur immediately. Although it can be difficult at times, it's important to look at the bigger picture. Even if you are unable to see the impact of your efforts initially, the work you are doing is valuable and the effects may be evident long-term!
This article reflects learnings and shared best practices from the Expanded Learning Summit presented by Citizen Schools and Higher Achievement. It was developed in partnership with the Expanded Learning Middle School Initiative.