Transition to Middle School - Steve Barkley

Transition to Middle School

I have continued my work presented in an earlier blog exploring the transition for students from elementary school settings to middle schools. As part of prepping grade five and six teachers working with instructional coaches to plan purposeful actions, we asked sixth grade students to record on Flip-Grid Video their responses to these questions:

As a fifth-grade student, last year, what excited you MOST about going to middle school?

Students shared they were excited about…. lockers, more than one teacher, meeting new friends, joining friends who didn’t go to their elementary school, and walking in the hall with no lines. (I wonder if we could provide students with additional excitement about the things they will learn and study?)

As a fifth-grade student, what were you MOST worried about prior to starting middle school?

Students mentioned being worried about… opening a locker, changing classes, getting bullied, how hard the work would be, not having recess, and what the teachers are like. Most sixth graders confessed the things they worried about turned out not to be an issue. (How can we get that message as strong as possible to fifth graders? Do we sometimes try to use fear to motivate 5th graders to study?)

Now that you are a sixth-grade student, what did you discover about middle school that you didn’t expect?  Students were surprised how easy it was to open the locker, that there were several options to explore music in choruses and bands, that the work isn’t that hard and the teachers are really nice. (I wonder how to move things from the surprised list to the excited, looking forward to list?)

What advice would you give to current 5th graders who are moving into 6th grade?

The advice they offered was be prepared for class… have all your stuff and don’t try to boss because you will get bossed. Here is some advice I really enjoyed hearing;  “Be yourself”  “Go do what you want to do because there’s a whole bunch of things you can do at middle school.” (I’d really like all 5th graders to hear those messages.)

I would strongly recommend implementing a similar activity for your grade five and six teachers. Fifth grade teachers valued hearing from their last year’s students and pondered what their current students were thinking. Sixth grade teachers valued hearing what their students said about sixth grade and pondered how to respond to next year’s incoming students.

These discussions lead to the development of a plan for engaging current 6th graders in preparing 5th graders for the transition. Teams developed different plans depending on schools’ locations that ranged from Skype sessions to 5th and 6th grade teachers co-teaching learning activities with 5th and 6th grade students being paired. In each case the discussions included pre-surveys of grade five students’ thoughts and concerns and 6th graders specifically addressing them.

Another theme that emerged during these conversations was the value of 6th grade teachers knowing a lot about their incoming students and having quick and easy ways to learn more. There were discussions and thoughts about how to communicate the information that 5th grade teachers possessed to 6th grade teachers who had many more students, frequently from four or more schools. This requires a very different process than in the elementary building where the grade 5 teachers walk down the hall to last year’s teacher to ask a question. Looking at the use of electronic portfolios was suggested. There were examples from the past of grade five teachers investing many hours developing reports and portfolios of student work only to find they were used infrequently by grade 6 teachers. Can digital provide  easier and more assessable options?

I was intrigued as this conversation on digital portfolios moved in the direction of empowering students. Can we engage 5th grade students in reflecting on who they are and what they have learned and in designing a plan for introducing themselves to next year’s team of teachers? It strikes me that this could be a valuable activity beginning early in 5th grade and developed and refined throughout the year.

Another discovery during these conversations was that 5th and 6th grade teachers rarely knew each other. I recently met a grade 5 teacher who shared that she did not know the name of a 6th grade teacher in the district. That lack of knowing certainly decreases the flow of information among staff. Several groups began designing activities to bring teachers together to simply know each other. During some of the sessions a grade 5 and 6 teacher connected and planned some communications among themselves and their students.

At one transition planning session I met an elementary principal who shared a strong commitment to her fifth grade graduates having a successful middle school experience:

Rachel Esh is the principal of Carter & MacRae Elementary School in the School District of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She shared, “As an elementary principal I am very passionate about supporting 5th-6th grade transition. I had the honor to work as an administrator previously at the middle level and it’s apparent to me what our students need. As educators, we continue to refine what we do on a daily basis to ensure that we are meeting the whole child. Moving forward my personal charge will be the following to support 5th-6th grade transition:

  • Beginning of the school year, I will visit the middle school where my “alumni” attend and check in weekly with the students, teachers, counselors and administration.
  • My guidance counselor will be attending weekly SSP (student support process) meetings in conjunction with the middle school guidance counselor.”

I believe there is tremendous power in Rachel’s actions:

First it sends a powerful message to students about how important they are. When the new sixth graders see her, and ask, “Why are you here?” She can tell them, “I’m here to see if you need anything and to guarantee that you are successful.”

Secondly, teachers will gain a great modelling of the district as a team. We are all accountable for all students’ success.

Lastly, Rachel and her counselor will gain new learning that they can share with educators in both schools to promote continuous educator learning to support increased student learning.

Thanks Rachel.

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