This post is for the many, many homeschool families who ask me about the middle school years and how best to prepare for high school when a competitive college admission is the ultimate goal.
I've met many parents of middle school students who feel stranded. They want to be prepared for the high school years that are skulking around the corner. They want to get this right, but they're unsure. School administrators, grandparents, and well-meaning friends offer "do this, do that" sound bites. But, inertia and uncertainty prevail.
There are two distinct phases of home education, after the elementary years wind down: The Interrogatory Phase (middle school) and the Execution Phase (high school).
It is in the Interrogatory Phase that you learn what you will be doing in the Execution Phase. The Execution Phase is a terribly busy time and as the name implies, you are putting into action all of the plans you made in the late middle school years. If you wait until high school to ask the important questions, you will find yourself bogged down, confused, and feeling rather ineffective.
What happens in the Interrogatory Phase other than school?
Figure out your kid
What does my student love best and where does he/she excel? For example: Does she like to build things? Is he quick with his math? Does she read above grade level? Can he write better than most boys his age? Do topics in science, music, art, or history hold her attention more?
It might seem like a lot to know about your student but if you pay close attention to your days, the answers are there. Your goal is to get an academic lock on your student and know his strengths, weaknesses, and special interests. Pay attention to your student's skill set and talents. These are the headwaters from which good things can flow.
For an objective "stock-taking", you'll need to test. I am not a big advocate of testing, especially in elementary school, but by middle school you really need to get a fix on how your student measures up against the general population. We are not very good scorekeepers for our own kids.
(There are many online resources for testing your student in the privacy of your home, if you prefer. A google search will reap a harvest of them.)
1. You can have your older middle school student take the PSAT or the SAT. Scores prior to 9th grade are purged - no one but you will ever see them. You don't have to get upset with low scores here because you will adjust down for his/her age. For example, if your 7th grade student has an SAT math score of 500 - you should be very encouraged; that is quite good for that grade level.
2. There is also a test called the SSAT (not administered by the College Board). The SSAT is similar in shape to the SAT, is geared toward the middle school student, and it will give you a projected SAT score, depending on the age of your student when he takes this test. The SSAT is a personal favorite of mine.
What does this testing accomplish?
1. You will have a reality check.
2. You will know where you need to concentrate your efforts.
3. If your student has real strength in one area, it will be revealed and you may have a ticket to gifted learning programs.
4. Since all of these achievement exams are (at minimum) 3 hours long, your student will know ahead of time what it feels like to sit through this endurance test. Better your kid do this before it counts than do it for the first time when it really does count.
Is my student ready for high school? Is he ready to work hard? Does she know how to manage her time? Does he know why he needs to do all of this work? Are we on the same page?
Most students do not know what they want to do with their lives. But, they should still have goals. Without goals, how will you get them to study into the late hours of the night and on weekends when that time/need arrives. It is very hard to push a kid who does not have a shared vision of excellence and achievement. To instill this desire in your student, he must see the goal(s). You should do college tours. It might sound foolish to traipse across the campus of Columbia University with a middle school student - it is not. Pick a beautiful day, travel without time constraint on a day when classes are in session, jump in to an organized tour or just walk the campus and hang in the nearby eateries to get a sense of the intellectual energy and excitement that you will find everywhere. If you can get your student excited about attending ONE college, ANY college, then you are on the "go" square of the game board. You can build goals from there. Without this, you will find yourself parroting admonitions which will fall on deaf ears. A student needs a tangible goal, especially if no particular career goal is present. Invest in your student's enthusiasm.
Does my middle school student even KNOW what hard work looks like?
This is critically important. Your daughter might view 20 math problems per week as punitive. Your son might think that a weekly 250 word essay is pure torture. Most middle school students need to calibrate what they think is hard work to what hard work actually is. They need good models. Middle school students who want to land in a competitive college need to meet other students with similar goals.. Your job is to find them. The homeschool community is filled with success stories. Find the families who have high-achieving kids. Ask them what they did. If your 12 year old son or daughter sits down with a 21 year old who has a proven academic track record and they hear it straight from the source, they will never forget it. It is golden.
To find peers, try to get your middle school student into one high-achieving program, whether online or through your local community.
From Ideas to Action Plans
During the Interrogatory Phase of the middle school years you should try out different things. This takes time but it is worth it. If math seems to come easy, find a math club. If your student loves science, do science fairs. If writing is at the top of the list, find contests and competitions to enter. Your goal is to get some traction. Once that happens you will see real progress. Advice for mom - get on numerous homeschool discussion loops and scour the digests from these groups nightly. This is how you learn about cool, local opportunities. You will have to make a regular investment of time to do this research. Here is a terrific website with lists and lists of competitions in science, art, history, math, computers and writing. A good place to start - http://cty.jhu.edu/imagine/resources/competitions/index.html
This list includes a good number of competitions for middle school students.
If a student is preparing to compete for something - anything - he will be more focused. Then you (mom) can reverse-engineer your school year around this event. Big events like these actually ADD structure to your year.
Plan, Plan, Plan Some More
Once you have gathered up activities, events and competitions, you are one easy step away from creating a calendar for the year with clear goals mapped out. Keep going with this. Do a hypothetical 4-year high school plan. Involve your middle school student in this. Of course, this plan is going to morph. But if you have no plan at all, you are bound to fall short of a high standard.
A desire to achieve and the determination to do hard things won't come out of thin air. You need to nurture it. There are wonderful educational events run by Learning Unlimited throughout the year. Middle school students can take exciting classes on the campuses of some of the best universities in the country for as little as $30 for a full weekend of amazing courses. No grades are given. University students volunteer to teach. Often a middle school student discovers an entire field of science or language they did not even know existed. Inspiration is everywhere. Do this! Do it as often as you can.
http://www.learningu.org/current-programs Get on the mailing list. Have it on your calendar. The MIT and Yale programs are especially good.
Many years ago a homeschool family asked to meet with me. Mom and dad could not get their kids to read books. They wanted advice. Most home educating families know that in order to be poised for the academic world kids need to read - a lot. They need to read hard stuff and they need to read often. These parents were worried. Their kids did not have dyslexia or ADHD. They were neurotypical kids. "Why can't we get them to read?" they lamented. I asked them what they (mom and dad) were currently reading, looking high and low for a sign of books. "We don't read, we don't have time for it." Hmm.
The prescription is simple. Kids will read more if you have a set reading time and lead by example. Kids will also read in the absence of other forms of entertainment and if most table top surfaces hold a small stack of interesting books.
If your middle school kids are glued to glowing rectangles, have technology free hours built into the day and have good books ready to fill the gap. It is harder now than it ever was before to encourage kids to read books. The glowing screens hold far more appeal. We cannot extricate ourselves from these devices entirely but we can claim back a few hours a day - this is a reasonable goal. Lead the way on this.
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The middle school years are a period of intense mentorship. It is during these years that you can establish that you and your student are on the same team. The road to excellence is arduous, but it is made easier when the prize is clear, the goals are reasonable, and your leadership is obvious. You got this ! Godspeed !