Middle School Years: Achieving the Best Education for Your Child, Grades 5-8




Studies have shown that the middle school years are key to a child's future. With social pressures escalating and schoolwork becoming more and more demanding, many children lose their way during these years -- and the effect can be devastating. This book, written by a former Ivy League ...

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Studies have shown that the middle school years are key to a child's future. With social pressures escalating and schoolwork becoming more and more demanding, many children lose their way during these years -- and the effect can be devastating. This book, written by a former Ivy League assistant director of admissions, offers a comprehensive, detailed approach to successfully guiding your child through this challenging time and shows you how to become your child's advocate at school. Find out:
-- What your child should be learning, if he or she is on track, and if the school is really doing its job
-- What books middle school kids should be reading
-- How to help your child become more organized
-- The truth about standardized testing, and what the results mean for your child
-- How to get your child into advanced placement or other special classes
-- How to pick a tutor
-- How to unravel conflicts between your child and a teacher ... and the answers to many other important issues.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446675628
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 7/1/2000
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter 1

Organization 101: Teaching Your Child How to Get His Act Together

Before setting out to design a book that would be helpful for both parents and students, I sent out a survey to roughly 650 parents at the private school where I work. I asked them a series of questions about education: what skills they felt their children lacked, what they wished the schools would teach, and what they already did in order to help their children. I grouped all these questions into different subject areas and outlined the book's major chapters around parents' most pressing concerns.

My biggest surprise was that an overwhelming number of parents (about 80 percent of those surveyed) said they felt that their children's most serious problem was a total lack of organizational skills: how to organize a locker, a backpack, a notebook, a schedule-the list went on and on. Most parents wished that the school had a larger role in teaching these skills but acknowledged that they wished they were better informed to help their children learn these vital skills at home.

Since I monitor the academic progress of all students on our campus (high school and middle school), I have the opportunity to speak to many parents every day about their children's academic struggles. In the majority of cases, their academic problems are rooted in their inability to organize their time, their workload, and their various after-school commitments, rather than in any lack of academic talent. The more time I spend in schools, the more clear it is to me that a student who learns to be a master of his own schedule is much more likely to succeed than an equally bright student who is organizationally impaired.

Why is it that young middle school students have such difficulty organizing their lives? The hardest adjustment for young children is the transition from having the same teacher all day (as most do in elementary school) to having a different teacher for every subject (the norm for middle school). More than any other factor, this dramatic procedural change marks the transition from the comforting environment of elementary school to the often "sink-or-swim" environment of middle school.

Think of the change from your child's perspective: Children love predictability and regularity. For years they have been accustomed to having the same person teach them all day, almost always in the same room. They have had time to learn that teacher's idiosyncrasies: Does she write the assignments on the board? On a piece of paper that goes home to parents? Whatever the case may be, they quickly adapt to the teacher's methods, and through sheer repetition, become more or less adept at keeping track of assignments.

Suddenly, at the onset of sixth grade, students may find themselves in a different location (some schools switch campuses after the fifth grade), while at the same time their routine is completely disrupted. Not only do they have a different teacher for every subject, they also have to move physically from classroom to classroom-the teachers do not come to them. Add to that the confusion of five different ways of assigning homework in the best of cases; that is, assuming each of the teachers is consistent in using the same technique every day. Is it any wonder, then, that many children who were doing fine in elementary school find themselves lost and confused when they get to middle school?

When your children make the transition from fifth to sixth grade (or from sixth to seventh grade), it is perfectly okay as parents to help them organize themselves and teach them the necessary skills. In some schools, the teachers themselves teach organizational skills, but in my experience, the majority of students in the United States do not learn them well enough, or shall we say early enough, to help them succeed before they get too far behind.

I think it's better to assume that whatever methods they learn in school, while not necessarily incorrect, will just scratch the surface of what I will try to outline for you here. As a postscript, although you should help your children learn these study skills yourself, you should also put pressure on the school to teach them as well. Many fine schools devote an entire class to study and organizational skills because they don't count on individual teachers' being able to cover all the skills students will need to succeed.

The first thing your child will need is the proper set of school supplies. Of course these supplies vary greatly from school to school, and even from teacher to teacher. I don't want to devote a great deal of space to school supplies in this chapter, but if you want a quick refresher course, I have included information on backpacks, binders, paper, homework notebooks, and basic school supplies in Appendix B at the back of this book. Feel free to flip through this section if you need to.

Homework Notebook

There is one item so valuable that I will discuss it here in greater detail than I do in Appendix B, and that is the homework notebook. There is no general agreement as to whether the homework notebook should be a little tiny notepad, a calendar-sized daily planner, or a full-sized notebook, but I do think it should be its own separate entity and not simply a section of the three-ring binder. I say this because the three-ring binder is a big, clunky item that no child is going to want to take out of his bookbag if he doesn't have to. Imagine: The class is just ending, your child has already put his big notebook away, but suddenly the teacher says, "Whoops, I almost forgot-be sure to do exercises one through ten in your grammar book." If it's a choice of dragging out the binder or just saying to himself "Oh, I'll remember . . ." (which has an almost zero probability), he will probably opt for the latter. On the other hand, if your child has a smaller and more easily accessible notebook, he is much more likely simply to pull it out of his backpack and copy down the homework assignment.

At least while your child is a sixth- and seventh-grader, I would recommend organizing the notebook with him (not for him) so that you train him well and leave him with a lifetime of good study skills and habits. Before school starts, suggest that your child design a chart for each week of the first few months of school. This chart can be formatted in any number of ways, but you want to be sure to have the dates and days of the week in the left column with a few spaces between each one, and a place for all five subjects across the top. If the notebook is shaped like a rectangle, have your child use the short side for the days and dates and the long side for the subjects. A sample notebook might look like this:








Monday 9/1



Tuesday 9/2


Wed. 9/3


Thurs. 9/4


Friday 9/5


Once you have taken the time to set up this notebook with your child, the important part of the routine is to check it every day for the first week of school to make sure that your child is in fact writing down every assignment. After that week, tell your child in a nice way that you reserve the right to check his homework notebook at any time.

I think the hardest statement for parents to deal with is "But Mom, I don't have any homework." To get around this fabrication, I would require that your child fill out the whole chart every day. If there is no homework for a certain class, you should have him write in "No homework" rather than just leaving the space blank. That way you can at least check with a particular teacher if you see a pattern of not writing down the homework.

A major advantage of a calendar-style planner (available at stationery stores, or any office-supply store like Office Max, Staples, or Office Depot) is the ability to "log in" the future due dates of long-range assignments, term papers, exam dates, et cetera.

Although setting up a homework notebook seems simple, I can almost guarantee that children who get into the habit of keeping close track of all assignments early on will be much more successful students than those who rely on memory or on asking other students in the class.

With technology becoming even more accessible in classrooms across the country, some schools have Web pages that can be accessed at home and at school so teachers can post their nightly homework for all to see. If your school does this, it is a great backup method to compare your child's written homework notebook with the Web syllabus so you can have the most updated information.

You need to impress upon your child the importance of taking a minute toward the end of the school day to look at the night's homework assignments so he can figure out which books he will need to bring home. In fact, it is a very good idea, at least in the younger grades, to have your child add a column to the homework pad that reads "Books needed" so that he can quickly scan down and figure out that he can't do his math homework without the math textbook, for example. Although it sounds painfully obvious, anyone who has had kids or dealt with students on a daily basis knows that one of the most common excuses for not being able to do homework is "Oh, I can't do my reading because I left the book in school."

At the very least, students need to bring home all notebooks (the three-ring binder, the homework notebook, plus math or any other subject that has one) and then the appropriate textbooks. Finally, you might want to make it a rule that loose pieces of paper have no place in the backpack since they only get ripped to shreds or lost. At least while your children are young, you may want to check their backpacks every few days to make sure there is some order and neatness. No need to nag them; just let them know you reserve the right to check their backpack periodically. Insist that once homework assignments are completed, they must be clipped back into the binder or, in the case of a spiral notebook, into a folder for that subject so that they are not floating around in the backpack.

One further note about going through your child's backpack: By the time a child is in sixth grade, he has the right of privacy. Therefore you should assure your child that you will not read personal notes from his friends or go through his notebook page by page.

Leaving Books in School

There are ways to reduce the risk of your children leaving books in school. One extreme measure is to buy an extra copy of the heaviest, bulkiest textbooks to keep at home; yet this is costly and many public schools don't even have enough to go around in the first place. However, even if you can't afford to buy an extra textbook, there is another way at least to minimize the number of days a week your child will need to carry the book home. Assuming that the teacher is organized and assigns work in advance, if your child brings home the textbook for a certain subject on a Friday, he can actually complete the assignments for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the following week so that he does not necessarily need to bring the book home unless there is a test that needs to be studied for. As we will see in later chapters, getting ahead or reading ahead in several subjects is one of the keys for later academic success.

Some teachers allow students to use a "buddy system" rather than transport back and forth five or six heavy textbooks every day: Two buddy students bring a certain heavy textbook to school on alternate days, and then they sit next to each other in the classroom so they can share their class copy.

If you actually pick up your child at school every day (and I realize that the majority of students will take the bus, but this advice is for those who don't), there is no excuse to leave a book at school because you can remind your child to check which books will be necessary to complete the night's homework before you leave the campus. Finally, money permitting, it's not a bad idea to invest in a basic fax machine (around $150 to $200) so students in your children's class can fax any missed assignments. Many reasonably priced fax machines also have a copying capability; you'd be surprised how often your child will need to photocopy something that is homework related!

Missing School

One thing you will need to teach your children early on is that if they miss school for any reason, it is their responsibility to find out what the homework was. If you know your child is home sick for the day, remind him to call teachers himself for the assignments if he's well enough to do the homework. Good teachers expect to be called and often call home if they know a child is sick (if they don't have a huge class load like many public-school teachers, a situation that makes a phone call home almost an impossibility). If it is hard to reach the teachers at the school, your child should compile a list at the beginning of each school year of two children in each of his classes with their phone numbers. These children can either be friends or just very bright and reliable children (most teachers would be happy to recommend a student who they know always does the homework so that they don't have to be called every time someone misses school). After the school day, you should encourage your child to call this list (hopefully we are only talking about one or two calls, since usually children share several classes) to find out: (1) what they did in every class that day and (2) what the homework is.

There will be cases when your child really can't do the homework because the lesson is impossible without the class instruction, but at the very least the child should attempt it in order to have an idea of what was covered so that he does not feel hopelessly behind when he returns to school. Once your child returns to school, you should train him to talk to every single teacher to explain why he was absent and to ask how he can make up the work. This kind of responsibility at an early age impresses teachers and also prepares students for the years of school ahead. It also teaches them the lesson that missing school does not mean missing work or being allowed to skip something; in fact, it means doing more work to make up what was missed.

The Locker

The only topic we have not covered that has to do with organization is the school locker, assuming your school is like most and has lockers. In terms of developing a procedure, it is a good idea to give your children sometime at beginning of sixth grade a quick lesson in organizing their locker at the beginning of the day. Their first step is making an extra copy of their schedule so that one copy stays in their notebook at all times and the other can be posted right inside the locker's door. This way, your child never loses track of exactly where he is supposed to be at any given time of day.

Next, your child should empty his backpack and impose some order: perhaps textbooks in one section of the locker and notebooks in another. Then the backpack can be hung up for the day on a hook and your child can carry all books he will need before lunch in his arms, then all books he will need after lunch in the second load (if the locker is centrally located). On those occasions when parents are invited into the school for parent-teacher conferences or for open-school nights, it is a good idea to glance inside your child's locker to get a sense of how well he is organizing himself; that is, no loose papers, no rampant disorganization or sloppiness.

Although it may seem like a lot of work on your part to help your children learn how to organize their school days, children carry these habits with them for the rest of their school lives and beyond, so that you will not have to repeat every step every year. Once your children have the organizational tools for success, your job shifts from organizational coach to progress checker, so that all you have to do is touch base once or twice a week to make sure that homework is getting done and that your child is upholding his side of the bargain in school.

Now that we have covered these basic organizational skills, we turn to the crucial process of creating an environment at home that encourages students to succeed academically.

Copyright (c) 2000 by by Michele A. Hernández"

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