When Steve and I were first married he was working as a youth pastor in Santa Barbara. At that time we came to the conclusion that working with Jr. High kids is a controlled riot. I love this age, the energy, the silliness, and the endless questioning. It’s a transitional period of life, that gap between childhood and teen. Some children breeze through adolescence, and for others it’s a difficult period of self doubt. Academically Jr. High presents a unique opportunity for you and your student.
In elementary school we are giving our children the basic building blocks of education; reading, writing, and arithmetic. We also expose them to basic science concepts and vocabulary, and begin to build an understanding of the flow of history. If we make this framework strong and solid our children have a good base upon which to build advanced knowledge and wisdom.
In high school our children’s studies become more focused and intense. If they have that solid foundation they will be able to move, rather painlessly, into these more focused studies. Students at this age are expected to be able to work independently through material, to read, absorb, and analyze new information. By high school we should be past the ‘hand-feeding’ stage where a teacher is needed at every step. New concepts may well need explanations, but students have come to ‘own’ their education.
So, what about Jr. High? Jr. High is a great opportunity to evaluate our child’s progress up to this point and to take 7th and 8th grade to fill in any gaps and to drill those skills that are going to be necessary in High School. Probably most of you know your child’s weak areas, but here are some thoughts on where you child should be.
1. Reading. By Jr. High your child should be reading fluently and comprehending most of what they read. In elementary school it’s important to give your child adequate practice at ‘easy’ reading so that they develop fluency, but in Jr. High it’s time to challenge them. Think of the reading they will be doing in high school…Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald…you don’t want them to have to jump from easy reading straight into these authors. In Jr. High they should be easing their way into the classics, reading challenging works that cause them to think critically and learn new vocabulary. I don’t mean you should overwhelm them, but a little struggle now will pay off later. If your child is still having trouble with the basics of reading, it’s time to have them assessed and maybe do an intensive phonics review.
2. Spelling. By Jr. High your child should be spelling most words correctly, if they are not it is time for some review. Many times I find that students this age, who are consistently making spelling errors, are just being lazy. You will have to determine if this is the case with your child. If they are just being lazy you need to crack down. My suggestion would be if a paper or paragraph they have written for you has multiple spelling errors (and you know that it is laziness, not lack of knowledge), you insist they rewrite the piece until all of the words are correct. Don’t let them erase and fix, but actually require them to rewrite the entire piece. This will quickly teach them that it is worth the extra effort to be careful of their spelling.. If they genuinely don’t know how to spell the words you have a few options. 1) Make up a spelling list of the words they have misspelled and work on those. 2) Review spelling rules, there are lists online. 3) Invest in a program like Spelling Power, I like this one because it can be used from 1st-12th grade and emphasizes the most common words used in the English language.
3. Writing. By Jr. High your student should be able to write a clear and concise paragraph that communicates clearly. They should have some skill at writing summaries, book reports, letters, and fiction. Most Jr. High students need to improve these skills before entering high school and one of the best ways to do this is to get them writing. I had my sons, at this age, writing for 30 minutes a day…minimum. Much of that time they could write what they wanted, although sometimes I would assign a report to focus their efforts. If you use narration in your school day you should be requiring that some of their narrating be done in writing rather than orally.
4. Math. I cannot stress this enough, your child’s basic math skills (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, fractions, decimals, and place value) needs to be absolutely solid. It is best to stop for a period of time and really master these skills. If your child begins Algebra before these other skills are automatic they are going to struggle unnecessarily. In math, in particular, a solid foundation cannot be overstated. Every concept they will learn in the coming years will be dependent upon these skills. So if you need to take a few months to drill these skills before you start your 8th grade math book…do it.
5. Science. Hopefully, your child’s elementary school years were filled with the exploration and wonder of discovering the world around them. A nature walk, gazing at the stars, growing a seed…all provide a good foundation for high school sciences courses. Curiosity is one of the marks of a great scientist, and all children are curious, so science is a natural subject for them to enjoy. This exploration should continue in Jr. High, supplemented with lots of hands on experiments and field trips. It is helpful to use the correct vocabulary whenever possible so that children are becoming familiar with the language of science. A carefully chosen text can be helpful…just be sure you remember you are teaching a child, not a textbook. Adapt the textbook to fit your studies. Very soon students will not have a choice and will have to work through a Biology or Chemistry book from start to finish…but for these years you still have a lot of freedom, take advantage of that.
6. History. Up to this point history is often sort of a mish-mash in kid’s minds. They have probably read books on various historical figures and studied a few time periods (like Ancient Egypt) but they are still fuzzy on where everything fits. Jr. High is a great time to lay out a framework where they can fit in all those pieces they have been accumulating and add in some new knowledge. I would suggest making a time line (there are a few excellent ones that are bound into books) and laying out some of the key moments in history. Children should understand the basic eras and the order in which they occurred, then as they study art, philosophy, science, the Bible, they will be able to put what they are learning into the correct time period. ( hmmm, Sounds like another good article idea…laying out a workable time-line.)
7. Working Independently. By Jr. High your child should possess the basic skills needed to work independently. You should be able to
give them an assignment and leave them to do it. If your child requires you to be sitting with them at the table as they do their schoolwork, it is time to begin weaning them off of your presence. Our goal is to have independent learners who will continue to learn for the rests of their lives. If this is new and/or difficult for your students start small. Give an assignment that can be done in 15 minutes, make sure this is an assignment that they won’t need you for, and tell them they have 15 minutes in which to finish. Giving a time limit does a couple of things, it gives them an ending time…they know they won’t be sitting there for hours…so they are normally more willing to focus their attention, and it lets them know that they don’t have time for staring off into space, sharpening their pencil, or texting a friend. Gradually increase the amount of their day they are working alone, offering encouragement and support when they need it.
8. Research and study skills. Often we overlook these basic skills that are going to be a key to success later in life. Our kids need to know how to study. Again, this topic deserves it’s own post, but for now, you need to help your child learn to study and to do their own research.
Your greatest asset during these years is your child’s curiosity and desire to argue…yes, argue. During the Jr. High years your child begins to develop a sense of self outside of their family and they begin to question…well, everything. Oftentimes this can come across as argumentative, and while I’m not suggesting you should allow your child to be disrespectful, I am saying that this questioning is a natural part of their development. It is also a powerful learning tool; play devil’s advocate, make them defend their positions, get them used to using those critical thinking skills. They will enjoy expressing their opinions and having them heard. Engaging with them in this way develops their skill at expressing themselves, thinking logically, and lets your know some of what they are thinking. Jr. High is an exciting and fleeting time, enjoy it.