This article is the second in a series, Preparing Your Middle Schooler for High School.
In our first article we discussed enabling your kids to catch a glimpse of the big picture. They are responsible for their schoolwork and they are there to learn (not just finish their assignments), in order to prepare them for the next step in their educational journey—high school. Additionally, their parents’ job is to coach and mentor them in order to help them, over the long term, develop into the people God has created them to be. In other words, we are on their team, not their opponents!
In this article, we are going to briefly discuss a student’s developmental changes during the middle school years as well as teaching methods and types of curriculum to maximize learning during this period. Fortunately, as your student begins to move into the middle school years (or logic stage, if you have a classical bent) she is capable of more than just learning facts in isolation. As she reaches this stage, she is better able to reason why something occurred, make connections between events, and see the consequences of someone’s actions. In other words, she is beginning to think more analytically. Our goal as teachers is to recognize this developmental stage when it arrives and encourage this higher level thinking by the way we teach and the curriculum materials we provide.
Heralding this developmental stage is often a surge of questioning combined with what often sounds like a hint of criticism. Students who learned years ago to obey promptly without questioning are now inquiring, “Why do we have to do things this way?” This can be a bit unsettling to parents and teachers, some who have been anticipating those ‘teen years’ with dread. It will be heartening to hear that this is normal and natural, as long as your students are being respectful as they ask questions and they are obedient once they’ve heard the answers. They are questioning, in part, at least, because their reasoning ability is increasing, and this is just what we want to encourage in school. Be cautious not to fall for the false worldview that disrespectful behavior during this period is “normal and just a stage” that will be suddenly outgrown. How you respond to your student during this time greatly determines the type of relationship you will have in those challenging high school years. Questioning is healthy, disrespect is not.
At this age it is important that students not only learn facts, but also learn to apply facts in new ways, make connections between new facts and ones they have already learned, and generate new questions (and find the answers) about what they are learning. The content of what they are learning is important, of course, but so is the way you teach it. One of the most effective ways to promote higher level thinking is through dialogue. Help them think about the information they are learning and connect it to something else they have already learned. Ask questions to remind them of what they already know about a subject and encourage them to list things they don’t know but would like to learn about it. As teachers, we are to encourage active inquiry, as well as be their sounding boards, mentors, guides and cheerleaders. But, you ask, what do I say? How do I encourage this kind of dialogue? First, when learning about anything, teach your students to answer the ‘basic’ questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. Once that foundation of knowledge is laid, move to the higher level questions. Here are some ideas to get you started:
When learning about an event, discuss:
o What was important about this event?
o What happened that lead up to this event?
o What were the short and long-term results of this event?
o How did this event affect the country/world/history?
· When studying a person, ask:
o What do you think about his/her character?
o What do you think the impact of this person was on his family/country/people/history?
o Why do you think she made the choices she made in her life?
o Putting yourself in his shoes, what would you have done in his place?
o How do you think her home life growing up affected who she became?
o What events in his life shaped who he turned out to be?
o Does this person remind you of anyone you know?
o Do you admire or respect this person? Why or why not?
o What qualities, if any, would you like to be known for some day?
· After reading a book, discuss:
o What do you think was the main point the author was trying to make?
o How do you think the author looks at the world?* (Do you think he/she is/was a Christian? Why or why not?)
o How did the author tell you about the characters?
o What did you think of the choices (a specific character) made?
o How do you think (a specific character) felt when ….
o For fiction—what problem(s) did the main character have to solve and how did she solve it?
*This is the age to begin teaching discernment. It is time for your student to learn that authors write from their own worldview, which may or may not be the one to which you and your student subscribe. Regularly discuss authors’ worldviews as they apply to movies, books, television shows, etc. Science books often have a few obvious sentences that pertain to evolutionary thought—help your students learn to pick up on that and teach them to be like the Bereans, who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11) Introduce this practice during middle school and continue it throughout high school. (At that time, we recommend more formal worldview studies.)
What if my student is not interested in these types of discussions?
1. She may not be developmentally ready for them.
2. Try easing your student into them by beginning with a question or two here and there rather lengthy discussions.
3. Realize that some students are naturally more verbal than others, but articulating one’s thoughts is good practice for
everyone and so require it from all of your students, taking into consideration their natural giftings.
4. Remember that during the middle school years, besides some increasing mental ability, your students are experiencing a
myriad of physical and emotional changes that take a toll on ability to focus on school. Be patient. Many parents
have found (myself included) that increased physical activity can be most helpful to sons, particularly, at this age. If
you encounter resistance, try to increase physical activity and then begin in “small doses”.
5. Parents who use narration as an evaluation technique in the elementary years usually find that their students are more
verbally responsive in later grades.
Varying Teaching Methods and Materials
Public and private instruction and curriculum often cater to auditory and linear learners. Unfortunately, not only are there PLENTY of us who learn differently, educational research shows that the more learning modalities that are offered, the better most of us learn. An ancient Chinese proverb sums up this concept: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” As homeschoolers, we are in an ideal position: we can identify our students’ learning styles, we can choose curriculum and teaching methods that match, and we can offer curriculum that utilizes a number of learning modalities to maximize learning. Take advantage of this blessing!
Our teaching style and materials should promote active learning. By middle school, it is time to move away from fill in the blank answers, worksheets and ‘textbook sound bites.’ It is time to more deeply explore a subject. Rather than a summary chapter about World War I, read an historical novel about it, immersing your student in the culture of the time period as he relates to a character who lived through those events. In your discussions, help him identify what lead up to WWI and how the world changed as a result. After studying World War II, compare and contrast the two wars, using other higher level thinking skills. (Note that your student is just developing these reasoning abilities, so you are guiding discussions at the middle school age, rather than asking for well written essays!)
In addition to encouraging higher level thinking through dialogue, your middle school student will also benefit by your inclusion of other activities in her schooling. This is not the time to discontinue activity-based learning because your student is getting older and so school now needs to be more ‘serious’. Curriculum that includes activities in addition to reading and writing will meet the needs of kinesthetic and auditory learners, as well as provide all students with opportunities to analyze and synthesize, two advanced learning skills. Student activities that emphasize these skills include:
· Making vocabulary or event flashcards. Use the flashcards in varied ways—with events on one card and date and event description on other cards:
o Play the ‘match game’, matching the events to their dates and descriptions
o With just the events cards, put them in order of their occurrence
· Creating a “Jeopardy” or “Trivia” game on a topic of study, such as the American Colonial period or the Reformation.
· Writing and performing a play taken from a novel
· Composing a song or hymn that could have been sung by enslaved Africans during the time of the Civil War
· Creating a work of art based on a book, period, person, or event of study.
Curriculum that provides for these varied learning experiences will reach and engage students more than traditional textbook curriculum. More learning will occur by varying activities other than just memorizing facts!
Recognizing the dramatic physiological and mental changes of the middle school student requires us to modify our teaching strategies and curriculum choices to keep up with their increasing intellectual abilities. Taking the time to dialogue with our middle school students to encourage higher level thinking and requiring them to articulate what they are learning will increase their communications skills and their writing abilities. Encouraging students to develop their own questions and research the answers yields high dividends in students’ ownership of their own learning. As well, providing curriculum that offers experiential and auditory learning options will pay off in engagement and increased retention. All of these factors will help lay a promising foundation for high school studies.
Are you teaching, or going to be teaching a middle schooler? What could you use from this post that would help you? Tell me in the comments.
Read my third post in this series called 12 Surefire Ways to Prepare Your Middle School Student for High School.