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April 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 7

Help Us Make the 9th Grade Transition

No one knows better than students themselves what they need from teachers as they move into high school.

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By the time students hit 8th grade, the transition to 9th grade looms large. Middle school teachers are talking more urgently about the need to prepare for high school. Friends and siblings already in high school are warning that everything is about to change, big-time. The 8th graders worry about their social world turning upside down as they move from the top to the bottom of the grade-level pecking order.
In conducting research for a new book that brings middle school students' voices to the fore, I spoke with 16 students from Indianapolis, Indiana, just a few weeks after they started 9th grade at two large comprehensive high schools. They were just beginning to find their way in their respective schools and were still filled with the sense that they were exploring new territory.
These young teenagers made it clear that 9th grade marked the beginning of a new, high-stakes period of their lives. Out in the real world, people had been telling them, it would really matter how they behaved and whether they succeeded in high school: When you get to 9th grade, there's no more playing. You got to get about your work. You gotta find a study habit. You gotta do the right thing. Because after 9th grade, that determines where you're gonna be in life. How you gonna get paid, and how you gonna get treated—upper-class, lower-class. High school is going to follow you throughout your whole life. (Brian)
Kids had heard that in the social world of high school, the stakes were equally high. Even though they were eager to start, they also wondered whether they would be able to handle the new demands, fit in, and stay out of trouble.
As these students talked about what helped them most, they suggested how teachers might prepare middle school students for the high school transition and ease its difficulties in the crucial 9th grade year. The 9th graders pointed out that addressing the issues of transition early on—and continuing support through 9th grade—could bolster students' confidence and performance.

What They Worry About

When they are imagining themselves in high school, kids draw on a vast storehouse of lore passed on from students who have gone before them. Fed by the rumor mill (and sometimes also by teachers' warnings), their worries fall into several categories.
High school will be huge and confusing. Unless they are headed for a small high school, kids imagine an overwhelming scene. In a crowded school short on human and financial resources, the prospect grows even scarier: All my buddies told me that high school was going to be a zoo, people running around, nobody going to class. Up on every corner, people just standing there like lightposts, with no worry about getting an education. It's so big here, there's like 2,000 kids. I'm thinking, “How they gonna manage it?” (Brian)
The work will be harder, and there will be more of it. With more classes and more at stake in each one, students know that high school will probably make new demands on them. They worry about losing their freedom to hang out with friends: They expect you to do, like, six hours of homework a night, 'cause each class will give you an hour's worth of homework. And I'm on the phone three hours after I get home, talking to my friends. (Rachell)
Older students will haze and bully the new ones. Exaggerated or not, stories circulate about how students in upper high school grades pick on and humiliate the new 9th graders. Shy, physically underdeveloped, or otherwise vulnerable kids worry especially: My brother said that they have a certain day that they throw the freshmen and some sophomores in trashcans or in the creek, lock them out of their classrooms, hit them, pick on them. (Ashley)

When Reality Sets In

It doesn't take long, however, for new 9th graders to figure out which of their fears will actually come true. Only a few weeks after the start of high school, they describe their transition in more realistic terms.
High school gives you a fresh start. Not everyone knows your past when you arrive in 9th grade, so students sometimes take advantage of this to change their image, either academically or socially: Once you get to 9th grade, you don't want everybody to think that you're a goofy or silly person. So you try to become more mature so everybody will give you more respect. They do give you a second chance. Last year, I wasn't that good in school, but right now, I'm doing pretty good. (Geoffery)
Guarding against social stigma also involves careful calculations about personal appearance. As in middle school, high school students sort themselves into cliques marked by clothing style and body decoration: I see that a lot of people are cliqued off—maybe not purposely, but just by the way everybody's dressed. People who call themselves “alternative,” they're all with the purple hair and the whatnot. Or “ghetto,” where your shoes cost more than the rent. (Heather)
But 9th graders also notice that their high school peers cross those subgroups more than the middle school scene permitted: Back in middle school, everybody wanted to be like everybody else. If you weren't like that, you got picked on. But now, you can do your own thing, and everybody's your friend. A lot of my friends in the beginning of this year were scary goth punk people. But now, I'm like a preppy person. (Rachell)
Classes build on work done in middle school. Students start 9th grade anxious that the academic work will be much harder than before. When their teachers build new material on their prior knowledge and skills, students regain confidence that they can do well: I thought that with getting us ready for all the tests, we were going to have a hard time with math and language arts. But first [teachers] just review what you learned last year. Then they might add something that will help make it easier, like an easier method of doing fractions. (Geoffery)
High school teachers have less time for individual students. If they are responsible for the typical high school load of more than 120 students, teachers usually have little time to give 9th graders the individual attention they may have received in middle school. This can come as a shock, especially to students who struggle to keep up: There's so many of us, it's hard for the teachers to get to know you. Kids expect that they're gonna get special help, like they did in middle school. But if you're really quiet, then teachers don't care. (Heather)
Teachers cut you less slack when you mess up. The workload escalates in 9th grade, so it's easy for students to fall behind: Before, I could do one homework paper a night and still get an A. In 9th grade, there are more classes, and each class gives you double what you got in middle school. I can't get it all done. (Rachell)
Busy high school teachers often deal out matter-of-fact consequences for poor behavior, and students may have some difficulty adjusting to the harsher regime. Especially at a large high school organized in conventional ways, students may be on their way to detention or worse, with no questions asked: [Students] are already realizing that school ain't a joke. You get a couple chances, then you're expelled. After that, that's when dropout comes. (Brian)
Your decisions have longer-lasting effects. As they mingle with older students in the larger universe of high school, 9th graders start to make more immediate connections between choices and consequences: I thought I wouldn't survive high school, 'cause all you do is work and study. I thought maybe I wouldn't even go to class, I'd drop out. But now it don't seem that hard. When you start studying, you ain't got to worry about going out in the streets and getting into all types of stuff. (Nyesha)
As they try out new work and new ways, 9th graders gradually develop identities that may well continue through high school and beyond: When I was in middle school, I felt like I was big. Kids felt like they gotta put on a front, try to do what the crowd do, be popular and cool. That's all middle school is about. But now that I'm in 9th grade, it's just, “Quit being childish, and be yourself.” Everybody's starting to understand and get a better perspective. You have to strive to do your work, pass your class, graduate, go to college, marry a girl who's going to be something, have kids later on...live. (Brian)

Helping Students Make the Transition

Looking back after the first month of high school, these 9th graders offered four suggestions for how teachers can help middle school students make a successful transition.
Connect us up regularly with high school students. Teachers can talk about 9th grade all they want, but kids prefer to hear it straight from the source: I don't think that middle school students particularly listen to teachers' advice. But maybe they'd listen to high schoolers and feel better about what to expect at high school. Once I got into 6th grade, they had us write letters to 5th graders about what to expect. So maybe high school students could write letters to middle school students. (Heather)
Bringing 7th and 8th graders into contact with students who are already succeeding in high school gives them a useful perspective on why they should bother to work hard and master skills in the middle grades: We could pick a middle school class to go back and visit, like one of our favorite teachers. I would tell students the truth about what high school is like—that it's really nothing to worry about; you just need to work hard and be yourself. (Ashley)
Support us in developing skills and strategies for high school success. Teachers can start giving students new responsibilities, such as facilitating a class group, organizing an event, mentoring younger students, or mediating conflicts. At the same time, adults should provide the support that students need to succeed in their new tasks: We're starting to turn into adults, so we're not really sure what's expected. Maybe the schools can make middle school more mature, closer to high school, so it won't be that big of a change. (Geoffery)
Middle school students who participate in support programs start to develop attitudes that they will rely on later, when they face the challenges of high school: Our school established the Pink Ladies, for girls in 7th and 8th grade. Every Tuesday and Thursday, you meet with a speaker talking about the different things you can experience in your personal life. We also talk about what you can and cannot do to move forward in your life. (Nyesha)
Help us make strong and mutually respectful connections with adults. When teachers respond with empathy and respect to students' efforts, struggles, and worries, it can have a big effect on attitudes and behavior as students move on to high school: Eighth grade teachers try to scare students about high school, and then we come in really nervous. I don't think they should loosely say, “Oh, it's nothing.” But they should tell us, “You're going to have a lot more work to do, and it's probably going to be a little harder.” And not to be afraid, but not careless, either. (Heather)
Situations in which young people and adults work together doing things that matter create a context in which mutual respect grows. These include such activities as service projects, school publications or events, and discussion groups on important issues: When kids hang around kids, without adult supervision, they're going to act immature. But if you got the right adult there, showing the right way to be more mature, who's going to act childish? (Brian)
Provide bridge experiences in the summer after 8th grade. New 9th graders have a big advantage if they can start high school with some of their pressing worries put to rest. Being able to find their way around the campus, recognizing familiar faces in the crowd, and getting a jump start in the academic arena—all these can ease the newcomer's anxiety and make a successful transition more likely.
Training for an athletic team in the summer before high school offers many students this advantage. Even if team members have not yet been chosen, going to practices enables the younger students to get to know older students in an atmosphere of structure, discipline, and high expectations: In football practice, you get to know the upperclassmen better, before they put a label on you to say they don't like you. You get to talk to 'em, get to know their personality. (Christopher)
If adults present summer school as a chance to get a head start and make friends—and not as punishment for failure—kids are more receptive to the idea. It becomes even more of an advantage when the summer school takes place on the high school campus. Also, kids may find that summer school equips them with academic grounding for their schoolwork in the fall: They was teaching us stuff that was above us. But it was getting us ready before it comes. They was treating you like you was in high school. (Nyesha)

Helping 9th Graders Succeed

High schools can also take steps that help new 9th graders through the transition and build a solid foundation for their success. Even after only a month in their new high schools, students had plenty of advice for teachers about what worked best for them.
Create smaller learning communities for us. New high school students are more likely to find their academic and social bearings in a smaller learning community: In elementary and middle school, you interact more with the teachers, and they know you more. But at high school, you only see the teacher 40 minutes a day. By the time 9th grade came, [the 2,000-student high school] had already broken up into small schools. That kind of helped. Things been going all right for me. (Brian)
Group 9th graders together in one physical setting. It helps when 9th graders occupy the same physical spaces, especially when the building is large or the campus has more than a few hundred students. New 9th graders find it easier to get to classrooms, and proximity with classmates encourages social bonding and support: I was nervous, but I got over it after a week when I realized I had friends in all my classes. I only got lost my first day here, 'cause all my classes are really close together. (Amanda)
Start our year with a 9th grade orientation period. Coming into an unfamiliar high school, first-year students appreciate extra time to sort out their schedules, find their way around, get to know teachers and fellow students, and ask questions without fearing ridicule: We was in big groups, to help and support you. [Faculty advisors] gave each student a map of the school. They showed you your schedule, then they showed you the times that you go from class to class. (Nyesha)

Help Us Make the 9th Grade Transition

The sharp increase in disengagement usually associated with older adolescents actually occurs between 7th and 8th grade.

Education Week, May 29, 2002

Match us up with student mentors. Some high schools have a buddy system that pairs new 9th graders with a 10th or 11th grader. Mentors go through a training period, then check in with their 9th grade buddies regularly all year: I met my mentor the first day of school; he was one of the first people I talked to. First, we meet in a group; then we go one-on-one with them. They help you out, they take you different places, they introduce you to different things you've never seen. [My mentor] is like a big brother to me, a good friend. He's there for me when I need him. (Christopher)
Build advisory groups into our schedule. Belonging to a group of about 15 that meets regularly with a faculty advisor helps students better manage the high school transition. Whether the group consists of only 9th graders or includes students from upper classes, it can offer a haven in which to build relationships and get academic guidance and support: My advisor is one of my teachers, and we're real cool. I can go to her and tell her anything, and she won't say nothing. And sometimes at the end of the period, they ask if anybody needs homework help, or class help, or directions to any class. (Ashley)
Design classroom activities to connect with us personally. To new 9th graders, high school classes can seem intimidating at first. It helps when the teacher starts the year by showing interest in getting to know students and helping them get to know one another: Working in groups, and asking your group where they came from, where their name came from, what we like to do, what school we came from, stuff like that. We did that in my literature class, and in that class I actually talk to more people than in any other class, 'cause I know more people. (Brandon)
Lengthen class periods to give us more time to learn. In middle school, students may have grown used to longer blocks of time in which to work on academic material or projects. The typical fast-paced high school class period may not offer enough time for kids to understand a concept or practice a new skill, prompting some schools to revise and simplify their schedules: The classes are 40 minutes, and they go by fast. It doesn't seem like I'm getting enough of one thing—it's just jumping around, and it's too hard. And they give me a lot of homework—too much for that little class time, I think. (Kaitlyn)
Establish fair classroom norms and enforce them consistently. New 9th graders have the early adolescent's need for order and structure in the classroom, but they also have the older teenager's passion for fairness and justice. They want to participate in setting classroom norms, and they resent it when unruly students take up all the teacher's attention: One or two people in a class just have to be the class clowns. If teachers have to mess with them for the first week, you don't get to know your teachers. If [these students] don't care about their learning, fine, but just don't interrupt everybody else's. (Rachell)
Give us extra help, both in and out of class. It is especially important to offer individual support with both classwork and homework so that 9th graders do not fall behind and get discouraged. One approach builds time into the school week for supported study groups or tutoring: On the football team, we have study table on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. The older kids can help you out with your homework if you need it. (Christopher)
Provide extra activities to help us succeed at things we care about. As new 9th graders work on meaningful activities with other students and adults, their identity as part of the school community grows stronger and more important to them: Two upperclassmen I know on the football team help in the cafeteria, selling candy and stuff. That's a good experience for us, to imprint on what they're doing so that when we get into the upper classes, we'll be able to help the school as well as they did. (Chandyn)

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Four weeks into their 9th grade year, students already have a good sense of being in a whole new world, with a new hierarchy of people and priorities. However, they will sometimes miss their younger selves. Said one student, The main message that I could give an 8th grade student is, “Be prepared, just not too prepared. And don't grow up too fast, 'cause once you start hitting your teen years, sometimes you wish you were just little again.”
By listening to and acting on student concerns about high school transition, teachers can help students navigate their way through the ambivalence of the early teen years and step up to the plate every day with renewed interest and excitement.

Kathleen Cushman has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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