If you want your students to care about writing, give them writing projects that actually matter.
Making the transition from elementary to middle school can feel intimidating, but try to see it as a dress rehearsal: Here’s where you lay the groundwork for high school and your child’s learning future, whether that includes heading off to college, mastering a trade, or starting her own business. These are the years when you’ll try lots of different materials, projects, and methods—go in knowing that some of them won’t work. You will fail sometimes, and it will be okay. If there is one overriding message for your middle school years—for you and for your tween—it’s that messing up is just part of the process.
By middle school, your child probably has mastered his educational basics. He can read. He can add and subtract, multiply and divide. He knows some history and some science. He can write a paragraph on a given subject. If you look at lists of what a 6th grader or a 7th grader needs to know, you won’t find a lot of traditional skills listed. Instead, you’ll find an emphasis on analysis: The middle school years are when knowledge takes on meaning—messy, open-to-interpretation meaning—and encouraging your child to question, analyze, and critique the world around him is one of the most supportive things you can do as a homeschooling parent. Here’s what to consider as your child moves into middle school:
Look for outside classes. The tween years are an optimal time for kids to test-drive different kinds of teaching styles and evaluation methods. Different teachers with different expectations give your child the opportunity to discover her strengths and weaknesses in a safe space—and that self-knowledge will play an important role in her future learning.
Don’t drop physical education. Even more than little kids, tweens need active time. Between ages 9 and 16, kids develop their lifelong attitudes toward exercise: Kids who get regular exercise now are more likely to exercise as adults. Regular exercise also gives kids a healthy way to cope with the emotional overload of adolescence and can develop the parts of the brain that help them learn—and remember what they’ve learned—more effectively.
Hand over the reins. If you haven’t already started giving your homeschooler decision-making power about what and how he studies, now’s the time. If you’re committed to covering certain subjects every year, stick with your plan—but let your tween weigh in on how you cover those subjects, and give him space to decide what outside classes or other interests he pursues. While you’re at it, hand your tween her own calendar, and let her start to handle scheduling her activities and keeping up with homework and deadlines. Let her practice keeping (and keeping up with) notes and materials for her classes. Yes, your child may muck up an assignment or miss a meeting, but she’ll be learning how to organize and manage her time while the stakes are still low.
COURSE OF STUDY
Be ready to nitpick everything because that’s where your tween’s academic inclinations will point him. Middle school is all about taking things apart and looking at them from different perspectives. Don’t be surprised if your child is quick to latch onto other perspectives, especially those of his friends.
Language arts: Steer your student toward the nonfiction section of the library. Biographies make a great starting point—the Childhood of Famous Americans series or the DK Biography series include a wide range of historical figures. Encourage tweens to look beyond the story in fiction, considering topics like character, setting, plot, and theme.
Middle school writers should start to practice the art of revision. A good writing book, like The Elements of Style or How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, can help this process, or consider a writing curriculum like Cover Story [Editor's Note: There are a few traces of religion in Cover Story, most notably in the section on conducting interviews, in which the example interview is one with a missionary in Sudan, and an occasional Bible verse as an example of sentence construction. Religious references aren't the only examples, and there's no proselytizing or anything like that, but you should be aware.] , which guides kids through several different types of non-fiction writing, or Moving Beyond the Page, which is a practical option for kids and parents who want step-by-step guidance.
Learning how to find, use, and correctly cite sources is important now, too. (The Purdue Online Writing Lab has a handy online guide to help cite sources—from personal interviews to webpages— correctly.) Research papers that combine original thinking and opinions with thoroughly researched information from a variety of sources are a key achievement of middle school language arts.
Math and science: Your tween will make the leap from memorizing facts to analyzing data during middle school. Expect him to get familiar with scientific notation, charts, and graphs, as well as tools like calculators, protractors, and compasses. In math, you’ll be moving beyond the basics into algebra and geometry, including solving lots of word problems, getting a grip on the concept of negative numbers, and figuring out fractions, decimals, and percentages. Often, this is when parents start to feel insecure about our ability to teach math—if you’d like a program that does the teaching for you, consider Teaching Textbooks, which delivers lessons via DVD, or an outside math class. (But keep in mind: a smart math curriculum can also give you back the math confidence your own middle and high school math classes may have taken away.)
In science class, break out the microscope and telescope to explore the micro- and macrocosm. Explore technology and how things work. Pandia Press R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey Level 2 may be the best traditional middle school science curriculum out there, or take a literature-based approach with The Story of Science series.
History and social studies: If you haven’t already made current events part of your routine, get plugged in now. CNN 10 (formerly CNN Student News) makes a good check-it-every-day resource for keeping up with world events, and you can find in-depth ideas for exploring current news topics via The New York Times Learning Network.
Your middle schooler is also ready to dig into meatier issues, including social justice, environmental ethics, historical conflicts, and more. Trying to see historical events from different perspectives is a mind-expanding experience.
A love of reading comes naturally for some kids and not-so-naturally for others, but you can do a lot to make your home a space where reading is an important part of everyday life.
Curate Book Baskets and Shelves
Especially for younger kids and reluctant readers, walking into a library or confronting a full bookshelf can be intimidating. A sparse bedroom shelf lined with books whose covers face out can help a child locate a book for independent reading time that matches up with that week’s interests. Curated book baskets are wonderful for giving kids choices within limits that help reading seem friendlier.
A few book basket ideas:
- Teething-friendly books for the youngest readers
- A selection of readers—any of which would work for your emergent or beginner reader’s current level
- Books about trucks, puppies, bugs, or ponies—whatever your child’s current interest
- A selection of books that fit bathroom reading criteria—books divided up into short selections that are funny or interesting (like comics)
- A basket of WWII historical fiction choices to complement WWII history study
Never Leave without a Book
Richard Larson, a professor who studies queueing theory at MIT, says that the average person spends a cumulative 1 to 2 years of life waiting in lines. Startling statistics aside, I think we can all agree that we spend lots of time waiting—waiting at the dentist, waiting for takeout food, waiting in the car for a train to pass. Sure, that time could be spent playing Candy Crush or scrolling through Facebook (or picking a fight with your sibling), but wouldn’t it be better spent reading? Make it a rule that everybody leaves the house with something to read.
Celebrate with a Bookstore Visit
You may think I’m a monster, but I told my kids at the outset that there is no Tooth Fairy. Of course, they still want to cash in on their discarded teeth, though, so I like to offer them a trip to the used bookstore instead of money. While we’re there, I’ll offer to pay for a few 75 cent readers of their choosing. There are a million little things in life that we celebrate as families. It’s wonderful to attach some of those small celebrations to books.
Institute the Weekly Library Visit
Make Library Day a thing that happens every week on the same day. Not only will regularity make it a valuable part of the routine, but it will also help you stay out of trouble with overdue fines.
Subscribe to Magazines
We adults get inundated with mail, but getting mail is so special to kids. Tap into that feeling of specialness and create positive connotations with reading by getting a magazine subscription for each child.
Make Readaloud Time Part of the Routine
Readaloud time is one those things that’s easy to let slip past, so we need to build it into our daily routines. At our house, we have two read-aloud times. We start the school day with historical fiction related to our unit of study and read fiction that’s more focused on entertainment value at bedtime.
Make Independent Reading Time Part of the Routine
We all want our kids to spend time reading, but sometimes we forget to make time for it to happen. Just like read-aloud time, we have to make independent reading time a family norm that has its own space set aside in the day.
Listen to Audiobooks in the Car
I will admit that I resisted audiobooks for a long time. I didn’t have the right technology in my car, the library didn’t have the best selection, blah, blah, blah. I actually decided to suck it up and give audiobooks a try in the name of taming backseat squabbles. It worked to a degree I didn’t even imagine possible. Oh, and now we’re all digesting about two more quality books per month than we used to. Seriously, try audiobooks even if only for the peaceful car rides.
Read and Talk about Reading
This is directed toward the adults. If you want your kids to believe that reading is important and worthwhile, you have to model it. Make sure that kids have opportunities to see respected adults of both genders reading and valuing reading.
Geek Out as a Family about a Story
Later this summer, we’re (finally) visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Obviously, the day at the theme park will be magical in all senses of the word, but leading up to it, we are having so much fun immersing ourselves in the story together by reading the beautiful illustrated editions of the books, coloring Harry Potter coloring books, crafting wands out of mismatched chopsticks, watching the movies, and assembling Harry Potter jigsaw puzzles. Geeking out over a story as a family goes beyond just telling your kids that reading is important. It shows them that the world of the imagination is important, that reading is cool, that they can get lost in stories even when they grow up, too.
Over the past eleven years, I've encountered many moments when my kids would not do what I wanted them to do. *insert laugh track* Does that sound familiar? Parenting can be wonderful, but it's also an endlessly bumpy road fraught with wondering and second-guessing.
Fortunately, I've picked up on a few observations about my kids that have helped me. I still face challenges sometimes, but since I have two awesome boys, either these things have helped, or I'm just very lucky.
Every child and family is different, so maybe these tips won't help everybody, but I offer them in case they will. I hope you’ll leave your own tips in the comments area.
I've learned that to get my boys to do the things I would like for them to do, I first need to:
- Examine my agenda. Is this for me and my ego, or is it really necessary for them to live a good life?
- Be explicit. I always have a good reason why I want them to behave a certain way, and I try to explain myself in language they can understand. However, very young kids don’t always understand reason, so I try not to over-explain either. Sometimes I just need to use a firm no. (See last point.)
- If it’s safe, non-destructive, and not bothering other people, let them do what they want to do. Usually, what they want to do is harmless and won't wreck my day. I find that the kids respect my wishes more, if I give them as much freedom as possible.
- Include them in planning. When it comes to the simple daily routine and planning, I seek their input and respect their opinion on what they want to do. This doesn’t mean I’ll always do what they want, but occasionally I’ve been known to go with their ideas instead of mine.
- Keep a regular routine. Until I had kids, I never knew how important a routine could be. My kids know what to expect and when. They complain less about the things they dislike because they know it lasts only so long, and they also know that their “fun time” will be coming regularly. They don’t need to ask for more because their day is filled with a variety of activities, and they always know it’ll be coming around again the next day.
- Do it myself. If it's something like cleaning the house or being polite to other people, then I have to be a role model before I ask them to help or explain why it’s a good idea. If it's something like getting my child to paint, or sew, or learn any new skill, then I should sit down and try doing it myself without worrying about whether they will join me. Kids often want to do what their parents are doing, but if they don't, I know this might not be for them, and that’s okay. They are still benefitting by watching me struggle to improve my skills.
- If it's something like learning math, then again, I should be willing to do it with them, and I need to pay close attention to them. Are they not developmentally ready for it, or are they capable, but they don't like it? Waiting a year or two can make a big difference. And if they don't like it, letting them know that they only have to do, say, 15 minutes a day works wonders.
- If it's something like getting them to take medicine that will save their life, then if I have done all the above, my child will know that when I'm non-negotiating, it's for a good reason, and they better obey me.
- Be firm. Similarly, when I say NO, I should mean no. (This takes practice.) I also need to watch my voice. A deeper, authoritative voice works much better than a soft, sing-songy voice. I can almost always tell when a mom is going to cave in on her “no” by the voice she is using — kids know, too!
What have you learned about your kids that make a big difference in your day?