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Building Blocks: The Middle School Years [Close-Up / City of Fairfax Schools]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor / City School Close-Up
Cover Story, March-April 2007

INSIGHTS INTO EDUCATION: K-12—THE MIDDLE SCHOOL YEARS What students need to know by the end of 7th and 8th grade

THIRD in a four-part series

In the last two issues of Close-Up we have offered guidelines to help parents prepare for their child’s future by having them “Begin at the End: 12th grade.”

With that goal in mind, we started our discussion at the beginning. In the November-December issue we talked about the Foundation Years: Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades, and teachers from Daniels Run and Providence Elementary provided tips on what children need to know as they head into 3rd grade.

Then, in the January-February issue, we described the Formative Years: 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, and teachers discussed the milestones students need to hit by end of elementary school. In this issue, we embark on the critical Middle School Years — when students get their first taste of independence and responsibility. On the following pages, the chairs of the science, math, English and social studies departments at Lanier Middle School offer insight into what students need to master by the end of 8th grade.


The leap to Middle School is an adjustment for students. But after just a few days at Lanier Middle School, most 7th graders have settled in and settled down, says Lanier’s Principal Scott Poole. “To make the transition smooth for students, we break each grade into teams, and that provides them with the feeling that they are working as part of small family.”

Team leaders also host several orientation sessions to familiarize the students with the school. “Although the kids are sometimes a little nervous at the beginning of the year, but it doesn’t take long for everyone to get used to the routine. Once that happens, the stress level goes down pretty quickly,” Poole says.

For parents, though, making the adjustment isn’t always so easy, admits Superintendent George Stepp. “There is a tendency for parents to think that when their children get to 7th grade that they no longer need to be involved,” he says. “That’s definitely not the case. In fact, from 7th to 12th grade, parents need to be even more involved than they were in elementary school. They need to make sure their kids are taking the toughest classes they can handle, and getting good grades.”

How can parents balance their child’s need for independence with the all-important job of staying involved? Lanier’s department chairs offer some advice.

Cindy Linn knows something few parents do: “Even though your children are old enough to read to themselves, studies show that reading to kids — even into the teenage years — helps them do better in school,” she says, pointing to research by Jim Trelease, an educator and author of The Read-Aloud Handbook.

Trelease argues that a child spends 900 hours per year at school — and 7,800 hours outside it. “Somewhere in that seven-day week,” he insists, “there must be time for your child to discover the specialness of you.”

The mistake parents make is stopping reading aloud to children too soon, Trelease and Linn agree.

“I suggest reading to children during those quiet times — while they are eating breakfast or dessert and reading anything from newspaper articles about rock stars to magazine stories on hairstyles,” Linn says. “If they grumble really loudly then at least sit in the same room and read your own book.”

And, Linn notes, don’t underestimate the power of the picture book. “This spring, I had my students read Stella Luna, a book they probably read when they were in preschool. But I had them listen for sensory language, description and the poetry of the words the writer chose. Books like this sketch the story with words, and that makes for good writing — and reading.”

Then, when the book is finished, Linn hopes parents will take the opportunity to talk to their teens about what they learned.

“Discuss the book’s meaning, setting, word choice, and the character’s point of view,” Linn says. “The goal is to have children grow up loving to read. Parents play a big role in this, so the more time you spend reading with children, the better.”


When it comes to mastering math, Lanier’s department chairman Darlene Whitaker says the key is to success is helping students realize the practical applications of mathematical formulas. “Too often, I hear students say that math won’t matter in their future lives. That is just not true.”

Math is one of the most important areas of study, she insists. “You can’t get through the day without knowing how to calculate a tip, make change, or balance your checkbook,” Whitaker says.

To help students realize how critical it is to do well in math, she suggests parents make a game of it.
“Talk to them in terms of math vocabulary: Ask what is the sum of all the entrees you bought for dinner at a restaurant, have them calculate the tip, and at the supermarket ask your children to weigh the tomatoes to determine how many are in two pounds.”

Whitaker also suggests taking teens to a department store and giving them a budget of $20. “You’ll be surprised how thrifty they’ll be as they try to get the most for the money,” she says.

Another idea: When taking a road trip, have your middle schoolers calculated how much gas you are using per mile. Then, when you arrive in a different city and need to fill up again, have them figure out which city you get the most miles per dollar.

Most importantly, parents should help their children determine if an answer is reasonable, Whitaker concludes. “This is a lesson in logic, and that essentially is the beauty of what math teaches kids. So, when they do sit down in math class and learn about fractions, percentages and algebraic equations a light bulb will go off.

“They’ll realize that if they can master the information in the classroom, it will help them do well—when they aren’t in school. The thing that always amazes me is that there is a stigma in society if someone can’t read. But that’s not the case with math. But it should be. If they can learn to be logical, critical thinkers, they will excel in all areas of their lives.”

Whitaker suggests parents review the math section of the sidebar, on page 3, for a list of benchmarks students need to master by the end of 8th grade.

Want more? Check out our online book review of Arithmetricks: 50 Ways to Do Math Without Using a Calculator: Log on to www.fairfaxva.gov/school/school.asp. Then click on: Be Bookish!


“I don’t recall learning all this great science stuff in middle school,” admits Lanier’s Science Department Chair Mike Savage. “But it sure is wonderful that we are doing it now.”

Among the topics Savage teaches in 7th and 8th grade: life science (featuring lessons on cells, microscopes, and observing living things), heredity and diversity, animals and the environment. Students also get an introduction to chemistry where they learn about the periodic table and atom, and 8th graders learn about physics, matter and change, heat and temperature, forces and motion, and six kinds of energy (chemical, electric, mechanical, nuclear, radiant, and thermal).

And best of all, Savage says, almost all of the lessons are taught via hands-on labs.
“I love the fact that we use labs because I’m an experiential, hands-on learner. Since I was a kid, if I could touch it, I understood it. I think a lot of students learn this way, which is why the science curriculum is so meaningful.”

How can parents help? “Talk with your children about what they are learning in science,” Savage says. “If, like me, you were not exposed to all these interesting science concepts in school, have your kids teach you what they are learning about chemistry, physics and energy.

“By explaining it to you, they will have to truly understand the concepts — and that’s an excellent way for them to master the information. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and show them you have a thirst for learning. We want all of our students to be self-motivated. Showing them you want to figure out the lessons with them speaks volumes.”


What are the most important thing students need to know when they leave middle school?

“They need to think critically and have excellent study skills,” says Amy Smith, chair of Lanier’s Social Studies Department. The same goes for all of the middle school curriculum areas, Smith explains. “This is what all four of the department chairs try to help kids master.”

And parents can help.

When it comes to social studies, Smith suggests that once a week, parents discuss current events with their kids. “Pick a topic that is in the news, and if you don’t know what is age appropriate refer to the Kids Page in The Washington Post.

“The entire family will likely learn something new, and students will also come to realize that their parents are curious and engaged about what is going on in the world. That is a critical message to send.”

Understanding history — present and past — also supports the 7th grade social studies curriculum, which covers U.S. history from 1877 to today. When students get to 8th grade, parents can help reinforce lessons that focus on that year’s course of study: Civics and Economics.

“In 8th grade, students focus on the role they play in the larger world and are required to do eight hours of community service. I encourage them to volunteer at a local charitable organization, and pick something they like so the experience is truly meaningful.”


More Close-Up / Fairfax City Schools Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.