Each year, I look at a sea of anxious, wide-eyed 6th graders who are entering middle school for the first time. Some students will acclimate to middle school without any problem; others will find it more challenging. Incoming middle school students will tell you that the most difficult challenge is unlocking the combination lock on their locker or getting to the next class within three minutes. However, I have observed that these are short-term challenges. In reality, the most challenging hurdle for 6th graders is accommodating so many bosses: a teacher for each subject.
(This post contains a flip book.)
Put yourself in their shoes. They have five core teachers and numerous exploratory teachers — each teacher with his or her classroom expectations and academic goals. Having that many bosses can be overwhelming for an adult, much less an 11-year-old. The 6th grade team of teachers at my school decided it would be well worth the time to engage in a middle school orientation that would prepare 6th graders to succeed in middle school and the real world.
To start, we identified the habits and skills of our most successful students. Each year, during the first week of school, we explicitly teach these skills to our students:
Lowville Academy Middle School provides each student with an academic planner from School Mate. Every teacher posts daily assignments on a homework board, and the students are responsible for writing daily assignments in the planner. For the first few weeks of school, I do this as my bell ringer, reinforcing this new responsibility and making it a habit. The planner serves as a parent communication tool as well. If a student does not hand in his or her assignment, the teacher highlights the late assignment. This informs the parents that the homework was not completed. Once it is handed in, the teacher initials the highlighted assignment, so that the parent(s) knows that it is completed.
2. Organizing a Locker
Many middle school lockers have been described as the Black Hole. Once something goes in, it never comes out. I bet you have seen a few of these lockers in your day. One way of managing the chaos is to have the locker inhabitants create sections in their locker for morning and afternoon, or top and bottom. If possible we encourage the students to color-code school supplies by content area to help them organize. For example, science may be green, and math, red. They are encouraged to keep all similarly colored materials together. When they access their locker, they can just grab all the green materials, and they are prepared for science class. Organized lockers help to alleviate the stress of making it to the next class in three minutes. When five-week reports and report cards are sent home, each student cleans out and reorganizes his or her locker for the next grading period.
3. Organizing Notebooks
My English students use a three-ring binder, and it is shared with the reading teacher, reinforcing the idea that the two subjects, which are taught by two separate teachers in two different classrooms, should not be segregated. For many, this is their first experience using a binder, tab dividers, and loose-leaf paper. Imagine my shock the first year I taught when I discovered they were putting filler paper in upside down and that their tab dividers were out of sequence. I quickly learned how explicit I needed to be with incoming 6th graders. Below is a flip book, made using the free service issuu, that illustrates how I teach my students to personalize and organize their notebooks.
Often, the ticket out of my classroom is filing all materials correctly in the notebook. This teaches them to put materials away before leaving the classroom, preventing them from getting lost in the Black Hole. Throughout the year, notebooks are graded to foster accountability and responsibility. It is the first grade of the year. Thereafter, the ELA notebooks are graded periodically — every five weeks or so.
It is important to show my students that I trust and respect them. However, I have an average of 105 students coming and going from my room on a daily basis, and I am accountable for them.
Each student is taught that if he or she is going to miss my class, it is the student's responsibility to touch base with me. The first week of school, I share my schedule with them, so they know where and when to find me.
Because I respect their time as well, I have a student message board. All passes, student handouts, and parent letters are posted for students who miss homeroom or English class. The morning is especially hectic. Homeroom students often have business to tend to before school. Even though they verbally touch base with me, I have them sign out on the message board, so I can take accurate attendance. With some training, the student message board becomes an effective communication tool. Students begin to feel respected, trusted, and accomplished, as their ability to communicate with teachers develops.
Sure you get a few students who come into your class with papers hanging out of their notebooks, so they look like overstuffed hero sandwiches. When this happens, we stop and start over, reinforcing these behaviors until they become habits. Eventually, most students develop the skills that help them to become successful learners and successful employees. Of course, there are also things we explicitly teach, such as study skills, time management, and tolerance. For these, I recommend Overhead Teaching Kit: Study Skills by Michele Goodstein, which offers lessons and activities to address the following areas:
- Setting goals and priorities
- Getting organized
- Managing time
- Reading & note taking
- Planning projects
- Taking tests
I am interested in hearing from you. What skills do you feel successful students exhibit?