Welcoming Students to Middle School

What if my child doesn’t know anyone?” “What if he gets lost?” “Who will help her open her locker?” These comments are typical of anxious parents whose child is preparing to transition into middle school.

At Patterson Mill Middle/High School in Bel Air, Maryland, our goal was to create a fun, camp-like transition for incoming sixth graders and their parents to help them become part of our school community before the students even walked through the front door.

In the Beginning

In The Wizard of Oz, the yellow brick road led Dorothy to the Land of Oz. At Patterson Mill Middle/High School, incoming sixth graders have Pup Camp to guide them on their journey.

In August 2007, Patterson Mill Middle/High School opened its doors to students in grades 6–10, giving us the opportunity to develop a school culture for grades 6–8 before the upperclassmen were added two years later.
The spring before the school opened, Patterson teachers began talking about the orientation for incoming sixth graders. What would our orientation program look like? Would it be a parent-only presentation in the evening? Would it be held during the day and include a tour of the building and a question-and-answer session? What kind of excitement and camaraderie did we want to create for these new students?

A committee of teachers and an administrator met to design a summer day program focused on welcoming the incoming students. We wanted them to have an opportunity to discover new friendships and explore their new surroundings without the hustle and bustle of the other 1,500 students being there. Because our school mascot was the Husky, Pup Camp was born!

How Pup Camp Works

During Pup Camp, the school bustles with activity as students begin their transition to middle school.

Pup Camp is a one-day, six-hour summer program for incoming sixth grade students. We have a separate two and one-half hour evening program for the parents. We present each student camper with a t-shirt that welcomes them to our pack—part of the Husky Nation—and announces their graduating class (always a shocking revelation for parents). We vary the colors of the shirts on a three-year cycle so each grade has its own color on spirit days. They also receive a drawstring bag to carry the items they collect from each session during the day.

Students must register for our camp; we charge a fee to help cover the costs of the promotional items and the pizza dinner. Our initial fee was a flat $25 per camper. Unfortunately, that first year we turned many students away because they did not register before the deadline. We now allow students to register up through the day of camp on a sliding scale: $25 until July 1, $35 from July 1 through the day before camp, and a walk-in registration on camp day of $45. This small modification helped our camp to grow from 42% of incoming sixth graders attending Pup Camp in 2008 to 87% attending in 2014. It also allows us to continue to provide promotional items and dinner to each camper.

On Pup Camp day, the students attend ten 25-minute sessions that incorporate cooperative games, a scavenger hunt, introduction to our media center, an art activity, and a session on bullying. The parents attend four 25-minute evening sessions on handling tech-savvy students, communicating effectively, handling their Husky Pup, academic checkpoints, and career pathways.

Calming Common Fears

Yukon Quest gives students an opportunity to practice opening their lockers.

During the past several years we have added to and changed some of our student sessions to meet the needs of the incoming class and the changing needs of the student population. A few sessions have remained constant.

Three of the biggest fears for incoming students are opening a locker, having seven different teachers, and getting lost. We have sessions designed to help alleviate those fears:

  • Yukon Quest: Destination Lockers focuses on students finding their own lockers and practicing their combinations.
  • Meet the Mushers is a bingo session where students learn a little about the sixth grade teachers and other essential staff around the building.
  • Sled Dog Adventures: Touring the Great Unknown is a scavenger hunt around the building. Students are given a “ticket” to locate important places in the building as they take the guided or self-guided tour.

A scavenger hunt helps students become familiar with the school layout.

Another focus of our camp is to help students make new friends and build relationships. A member of the PE staff leads the students in cooperative games in which students must learn to work with their new friends to reach a goal.

In another session, Race Courage, students learn how to work with others and how to handle the stresses of middle school. In this session students receive a brochure from a school counseling organization with tips on transitioning to the middle school.

In the art session, students work collaboratively to create a piece of art to be added to the school display. One year it was a quilt and another year was a giant puzzle. Seeing the artwork on display creates a lasting memory for the students as they progress through school.

Group Effort

The key to our program’s success is the volunteers. Our school’s National Junior Honor Society (NJHS) supplies student volunteers to help the staff members facilitate each session. We have about 15 to 20 staff members and 45 student ambassadors per year. The number of student ambassadors varies depending on the session. The locker session and the scavenger hunt session have seven or eight volunteers while the bingo session has only one.

We also tap into our school PTA and Booster Club to help foster our community spirit with the incoming parents. Club members explain how they support the school and give the parents an opportunity to work on committees as well as purchase spirit wear. Without the volunteers and staff members, our camp would not be as successful.

Our Pup Camp Timeline

We begin preparing for Pup Camp in mid to late April with our Fifth Grade Orientation Day. During this two-hour visit to the school, students get a brief tour of the building, participate in a pep rally-style assembly, and learn about Pup Camp. Then planning ramps up.

Mid/Late April

  • Send registration form to feeder schools and post on school website.
  • Order folders, nametags, and printed materials.


  • Hold student ambassador meeting for volunteers (NJHS and seventh and eighth graders).
  • Ask NJHS members to compile information in folders.
  • Secure staff to lead sessions.


  • Order promotional materials (bag, water bottle, pencil/pen, magnet).
  • Send confirmation email to all volunteers.
  • Contact shirt company to set up shirt design.


  • Send reminder email to all volunteers.


  • Contact shirt company with final total.
  • Send confirmation email to volunteers with specific reporting details.

Week of Event

  • Sort students into groups.
  • Assign student and staff leaders.
  • Print student nametags and attach nametag to each student bag and stuff with shirt, water bottle, pencil, and folder.
  • Organize session materials for staff.
  • Confirm dinner details.

Day of Event

  • Set up cafeteria tables with markers and stickers to decorate nametags.
  • Set up lobby registration table.
  • Set up table for the students to pick up their bags.

Meeting Our Goals

The goal of our Pup Camp is to help foster a sense of community for our incoming sixth graders and their families. We wanted to alleviate the fears that many parents and students have as their child enters
the next stage of their educational career.

Our incoming sixth graders enter the building less stressed and better prepared to learn. We have noticed an increase in instructional time during the first week of school because teachers do not have to spend days teaching students how to navigate the building or how to open their lockers. The number of anxious parent phone calls has decreased dramatically. Most important, our students enter our school with the mindset that we are a community and we have a respect for each other.

Karla J. Wienhold is a seventh grade history teacher at Patterson Mill Middle/High School in Bel Air, Maryland.

Blaire M. White is a high school special education teacher at Joppatowne High School in Joppa, Maryland.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2015.