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April 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 7
The Transition Years
Phrases associated with school transitions, like school readiness or reading at third-grade level, imply that students reach a given skill level at a set point in time. But as psychologist Denise H. Daniels points out in her article in this issue (Demystifying-the-Adolescent-Brain", p. 18), school readiness—or readiness for any next step on the schooling journey—is not something a child acquires once, but something that is continually developing. School transitions seem to be more like hallways than archways: students gradually make their way down them rather than gracefully step through.
So what's the best way to accompany students down those hallways? Let's look at what authors in this issue recommend at different stages.
According to Elizabeth Graue (
"Are We Paving Paradise?", p. 12), at the earliest school stage—kindergarten—it's important to let students progress at a pace appropriate for their development, one that allows for exploring and meandering. But kindergarten has come to focus on getting children to academic benchmarks rather than offering them enriching experiences and relationships. What's lost in this shift, Graue argues, is time for any activity that doesn't link directly to mastering academic content. But although mastering content has value,
content is inherently intertwined with other elements like motor skills, aesthetic experiences, and social-emotional development. In an increasingly sedentary, structured context, students have few opportunities for rich experiences of moving, creating, or interacting.
Rick Wormeli (p. 48) notes that what happens in middle school is "transformative" for the rest of a person' school journey. Wormeli delineates mindsets teachers must have to strengthen kids in these salient years, the first being to foster teens' sense of having a meaningful purpose in their new school, and the last being to let kids explore how much they really can do independently. "Because middle schoolers seem so young," Wormeli notes, "some teachers make the mistake of thinking they are less competent than they really are." He recommends trusting early adolescents to do things like help plan school events for parents.
Adults may be reluctant to trust adolescents with responsibility because they tend toward impulsivity, as psychologist Laurence Steinberg confirms in his article "Demystifying the Adolescent Brain" (p. 42). But Steinberg argues that the more chances we give teens to plan and carry out work with real stakes, the stronger the brain systems that govern such activities become:
Given the well-documented finding that practicing something will strengthen the brain circuits that control that behavior, it's important that, as educators, we provide adolescents opportunities to practice things like planning, anticipating the future consequences of a decision, and self-regulation. … Assignments that require teenagers to think ahead, make a plan, and carry it out may stimulate the maturation of brain systems that enable more mature self-regulation. (p. 46)
How much responsibility and non-superficial work (other than academics) can students take on day-to-day in your middle school? Are average students ever trusted with real responsibilities, such as setting up a schedule for time in the computer lab? Is there a way you could trust your students to take over any of these kinds of tasks?
Several articles in this issue (Turning Seniors into Freshmen by Donna Rodrigues and Cecelia Le, p. 79, and "ELLs: What's the Endgame?" by Judith Rance-Roney, p. 74) discuss the fact that many high school students find themselves unable to cope once they enter college. Other high school seniors who could thrive in college with a little advance preparation aren't given the message about how much support they will need for this transition.
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD
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