Building the Bridge to Middle School

What do you remember from your middle school or junior high days? Your test scores? Your grades? Probably not. You are more likely to remember special occasions and events that made a particularly positive impression.

We help our incoming middle grades students start their days at our school on a positive note—one that helps develop a sense of community and sets the stage for experiences that they may remember for years to come.

Every spring, like many other middle grades schools across the country, we bring the fifth graders to our school to tour the building, participate in a middle school pep rally, watch a 45-minute video created by our students, and ask current students about the school and its activities. This is followed by a parent orientation night.

These pre-school orientations help ease the transition from elementary to middle school, but during the week before Thanksgiving break, our now-sixth graders begin to build positive memories and solid relationships on a three- day, two-night field trip to the 4-H camp 45 minutes down the road. Years later, many of our students recall this event as one of their favorite middle school memories.

Getting to Know You

Students come to us from three K–5 feeder schools, as well as private schools, home schools, and Montessori schools in the county. This diversity of population requires that we help students get acquainted with each other and help them form a sense of community. The 4-H field trip provides one of those opportunities.

Rock Eagle is the nation’s largest 4-H center. Owned by the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, a branch of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, the camp is located in a rural area and provides an outdoor setting perfect for garnering the unwavering attention of students.

Students are not distracted by cell phones, video games, iPods, or television. Instead, they are immersed in an environment that requires face-to-face interaction with adults and other students.

All sixth graders are encouraged to participate in the trip; donations from civic groups, churches, and parents make scholarships available for students with financial hardships. The community support for this event has increased over the past several years in spite of the dismal economic situation, primarily due to the positive impact of the trip and the support of the community.

Teachers, administrators, and parents who have attended training sessions act as chaperones. Our parents who serve as chaperones often establish positive, long-term mentor relationships with the students. Some of our parent chaperones attend every year they have a sixth grader; some have offered to go during years when they do not have students in sixth grade.

The students are divided into groups of 10–18 students, each group chaperoned by one adult. This size allows students and adults to get to know each other and form unique bonds and friendships. Team building is critical to developing camaraderie among students. Activities such as a low ropes course and Native American Indian games promote teamwork and cooperation. Meals are served in the dining hall, where students have an opportunity to socialize with other students from the school.

Responsibility and Respect

Students spend quality time together learning about the great outdoors and developing a respect for the environment and its inhabitants. They learn about lake ecology, herpetology, pioneer tools, a historic rock effigy, and canoeing. These academic activities are correlated with the Georgia Performance Standards.

Students keep a journal and respond to guided questions about each activity, reinforcing valuable reading, writing, and listening skills. This journal is evaluated on a rubric provided by the science teachers and considered as a test grade in the calculation of the quarter’s science grades.

The educational staff members at Rock Eagle serve as instructors for these classes, allowing our sixth grade teachers to observe the interactions among the students, parents, and instructors. At the same time, the students see the teachers in a different light—as regular people who like to get outdoors, learn about our environment, and have fun.

Students learn to solve problems, work as a team, and respect individual differences. Students who traditionally are not leaders in the classroom often shine during the ropes course class and other activities. The most outspoken students and their soft- spoken classmates work together to accomplish tasks.

Making Memories

As educators, we strive to prepare our students for the future. Curriculum and content are important; however, our goal must be the total development of each learner.

During middle school, students should be exposed to a rigorous curriculum that is relevant to their real world, but they also must learn to develop relationships and respect for each other. This field trip provides the rigor and the relevance through the curriculum and teaches about establishing and maintaining relationships. It also bridges the transition from elementary to middle school in an effective, enjoyable way.

The benefits of this trip to middle grades students are long-lasting and credible. It is an adventure that will be long-remembered.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2011

Elyse Daniel and Tom Grudowski are teachers at Oconee County Middle School in Watkinsville, Georgia. Philip Brown is the principal at Oconee County Middle School. E-mail: