middle school students

April 15, 2014

Not too long ago I visited with a retired English teacher who took on a semester-long substitute teaching gig for a middle school English Language Learners class. The school assured that it would be easy for her—only half a day teaching, all lesson plans available, and small classes. In what she calls “a weak moment,” she agreed. To her dismay, she found herself with students who not only have no foundation in English, but little foundation in learning how to learn, and no idea or incentive on how to be successful students.  

Most of this teacher’s students are from Mexico, have low elementary-level reading and writing skills, and know little about appropriate classroom behavior, such as raising your hand to ask a question. Out went the lesson plans; this teacher created lessons to fit the situation at hand instead of trying to stick to a prescribed program that simply wasn’t working.

What was really needed, she said, was an opportunity to give these students hands-on life skills that will serve them well in both school and the workplace. We discussed what that might look like: going to school for half a day, then having some type of vocational training in the community. Such an opportunity would give these students a chance to learn teamwork, learn appropriate behavior in a workplace, build confidence in spoken language skills, and introduce them to various occupations.

What they didn’t need, this teacher said, was to sit in classrooms all day being fed curriculum for which they did not have adequate background. Such situations enforce the fact that they are behind, overwhelm them to the point of giving up, or create an atmosphere in which they act up to overpower their confusion and feeling of inadequacies. Why try when you are so far behind? Why try when you believe you are doomed to fail? Why try when you don’t see the point?

I do think offering outside vocational work is a great idea for students as young as middle school as well as for high schoolers. I also realize it takes a school district with the manpower and funding to create such a program—not obstacles easy to overcome—plus it takes community businesses and industry willing to step up and offer such opportunities. As overwhelming as those tasks may seem, I do believe it would be highly beneficial to all involved: the school district, the community, and the students. It doesn’t do anyone any good for students to do little besides occupy a seat in a classroom.

To really “educate” students, we need a school situation that offers more than a one-size fits all curriculum. Yes, there are some academic skills that all students need to learn, but wouldn’t it be better to give those who prefer “getting on with life,” to learn a marketable skill at the same time they are learning how to write a paper or compute an algebraic equation? Or better yet, turn that paper into a report for the business in which they are training and that math lesson into figuring the accounts receivable.

And as for college—well it will always be there if they decide later to pursue that route. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? states: college is not for everyone, and it certainly isn’t necessary to go straight to college after high school. Our education system needs to help all students find their path toward success.

Oct. 29, 2013

One of my biggest concerns has come up again in “education” news—that of the dismal writing skills of far too many students. Matthew Lynch recently wrote in his Education Week blog that a recent study by Michigan State Professor Gary Troia found that “K-12 writing standards are stagnant from a decade ago, along with student writing achievement.” Troia goes on to say that “nearly 25 percent of K-12 students in the United States are not performing at a proficient writing level.”

As I have written before, in his extensive research on college readiness, David Conley of the University of Oregon professor and Director of the Center for Educational Policy Research has found that proficient writing is the most important academic skill for success in college. I also have written that writing skills are critical communication skills, and that no matter what job or career a young person chooses, being able to write clear, well-organized, concise papers, emails, task orders, proposals, reviews, critiques, and even notes shows that the employee is professional, pays attention to detail, and strives for quality.

I also have written that too often middle and high school teachers skimp on writing assignments because they require so much time to grade, followed by corrections, rewriting, and re-grading. Yet, it is precisely during these years that students need to develop their writing skills.

Lynch made some good suggestions to improve writing proficiency in K-12.

·         Teach keyboarding earlier than third grade, as is the current standard. Lynch points out, correctly, that kids are savvy keyboard operators as soon as they are introduced. A recent National Public Radio story discussed how quickly toddlers under age two learn to operate a touch screen on Mom’s phone or tablet. Lynch goes on to say that as young students learn keyboarding, they also learn spelling, reading, composition, phonics, and improve memory skills.

·         Writing should be an interdisciplinary focus. There is reading material on every subject, so it follows that every subject should include some writing—and be graded on the proficiency of the writing as well as the subject matter. Lynch writes: “Writing is a must-have skill in the global economy and one that will be needed in some capacity for every career. We can’t let students off the hook if writing is simply not their strong suit. Writing is a skill that anyone can master with enough practice and its practical applications need to be emphasized in every subject area.”

·         Lynch’s last point echoes Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?: “College is not the place where students should receive remedial help on their writing.” Professors assign papers assuming students already have the skills to research, compose, edit, and meet assignment deadlines. Students without those skills will indeed struggle in college. Lynch challenges K-12 to put writing on the “pedestal it deserves. It is the foundation of K-12 academic success and workplace achievement. If we put writing on the back burner, it has the potential to damage every other subject area and hold our students back from their true achievement in school and life beyond the K-12 and college years.”

Well said. Writing skills are essential to college success. To read Lynch’s article, go to: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/education_futures/2013/10/improving_k-12_writing_standards_what_will_it_take.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-TW

Sept. 17, 2013

Researchers from the University of Michigan have found that techniques promoted by the non-profit College for Every Student (CFES) truly lives up to its goal “to raise the academic aspirations and performance of underserved youth so that they can prepare for, gain access to, and succeed in college.”

Caralee Adams explains in her Sept. 13 Education Week article that the study that sampled 1,100 6th to 9th grade students in 21 schools across 10 states found 75 percent of the study participants “plan to attend four-year colleges, compared with five percent of students in a control group.”

With such a positive influence, I decided to look further into CFES. CFES uses three “high-impact practices” that help get underserved teenagers on the track to college and that helps them be successful once they are there. Practice number one is mentoring personal and academic growth by means of an older peer, teacher, community leader, college student, or engaged adult.  

Practice number two is leadership through service, which builds not only leadership skills but also develops responsibility skills and resiliency. Practice number three is pathways to college that provides opportunities for visit college visits, for interaction with students and faculty, and introduces CFES students to the admissions process and financial aid options.

CFES’ statistics are impressive: “Ninety-five percent of CFES Scholars nationwide are from low-income households, 99 percent graduate from high school, and 96 percent go on to college.” In addition, nine out of ten CFES students are their family’s first generation to go to college.

CFES sounds like it is meeting an important need: to help low-income, underserved teenagers make it to college and succeed once they are there. My guess is that their techniques would benefit many students that do not fall into the underserved category. Too many teenagers disengage from school for a variety of reasons and the involvement of a mentor could make a huge difference in a student’s perseverance and resiliency. And the fact that CFES works with young students—middle school or even younger—is definitely a contributing factor to the student success rate. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? states over  and over: Teenagers need the opportunity to develop life skills long before they graduate from high school. Skills such as time and priority management, conflict management, financial management, self-advocacy, and communication skills are all necessary for a successful college experience.

To read more about CFES: http://www.collegefes.org/

To read Adam’s article: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/college_bound/2013/09/promise_seen_in_college_awareness_program_targeted_at_middle_schoolers.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-TW

An update on my son’s situation: My son, who was hit by a car while riding his bike home from class at the University of Hawaii, suffered a serious compound fracture of his leg. After almost two weeks in the hospital, he realized that it was impractical to attempt this semester of classes (including several geology field trips). His dad helped him pack up, but before they left Honolulu, they took to the beach. I’ll post his picture on the Toward College Success Facebook page (www.facebook.com/towardcollegesuccess). He is now back here in Colorado trying to figure out how to stay busy. One thing he plans to do is contact his geology professors and see if there is anything he could do from a computer—and further develop his networking as a bonus. His graduation will be delayed, but I promised him that it really won’t matter in the long run.

July 24, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, the Senate introduced the “Family Engagement in Education Act of 2013.” It, of course, must go through review and revision, with no guarantee of passage, but I thought it worth mentioning because one of the basic tenets of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? is that parents’ engagement in their children’s education is one of the important components to success in college and beyond.

The proposed bill states that Congress finds the following to be true:

1) Family engagement in a child’s education raises student achievement, improves behavior and attendance, decreases drop-out rates, and improves the emotional and physical well-being of children.

2) Families are critical determinants of children’s school readiness as well as of students’ decision to pursue higher education.

3) Effective family engagement is a great equalizer for students, contributing to their increased academic achievement, regardless of parents’ education level, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background.

4) Research on school improvement has identified meaningful partnerships with families and communities as one of five critical ingredients necessary to turnaround chronically low-performing schools.

5) Positive benefits for children, youth, families, and schools are maximized through effective family engagement that a) is a shared responsibility in which schools and other community agencies and organizations are committed to reaching out to engage families in meaningful ways and families are committed to actively supporting their children’s learning and development, b) is continuous across a child’s life from birth to young adulthood, and c) reinforces learning that takes place in all settings.

All of these findings ring true, and as school starts again in just a few weeks, parents should consider their involvement. As I point out in Toward College Success, parental involvement can begin with Back-to-School-Night, usually held during the first three weeks of school. It might have been novel when the child was in elementary school, but during middle and high school years, Back-to-School-Night gives parents important information that their teenagers will probably gloss over or not mention at all.

Pay attention at Back-to-School-Night. Learn your student’s teachers’ names and keep a copy of your student’s schedule. Most teachers hand out the course syllabus and general dates of importance: tests, projects, etc. You learn what is expected of your student and how he will be graded. Such knowledge alerts you to the right time to ask, “So, what are you doing in history right now?”

You also leave Back-to-School-Night with information about online tools to track your student’s grades and attendance, the best way to contact teachers, and what resources are available to help a struggling student. Be careful, however, not to hover over your teenager—the more she learns to manage her own time, schedule, and priorities, the more likely she will be successful when she leaves home for college or whatever she does after high school. A few strategically timed questions—When did you say that algebra test was?—is usually enough to get her to realize she’d better hit the books.  

Parental involvement is crucial in student success. Be visible in your involvement, ready to guide and offer suggestions, but never take over. Whether he verbalizes it or not, your student will realize you consider his education important enough to be involved and interested. In turn, his education becomes increasingly important to him—and success is at hand.

To read the Family Engagement in Education Act of 2013, go to http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/s1291/text.

March 5, 2013

Last week I was talking with a couple of friends, one of whom teaches classes at a nearby university, the other who grows and distributes fresh veggies through her community supported agriculture (CSA) business. My teaching friend explained her frustration last year when she was teaching an online course. She missed direct contact with her students and she found problems more difficult to resolve. She also explained that over half the students dropped the class—a percentage that was quite distressing to her, although she was told that high dropout rates usually occurred with online classes.

 She gave the example of a student who turned in a required paper that was full of grammatical errors, unorganized, lacking in citations, and, at times, incoherent. Instructions with the assignment clearly stated that she expected papers to be grammatically correct and properly cited (she is not an English teacher). She wondered how that student was surviving college with such poor writing skills. I wondered how he graduated high school and was accepted into college—who missed that? As I’ve said here before, good writing skills are essential to college success.

 My other friend said poor writing skills are common everywhere. She told us about a business associate with whom she corresponds. She described the woman’s writing as sloppy—full of grammatical and spelling errors. The woman is apparently well-educated—she just doesn’t take the time to produce well-written business correspondence—it doesn’t seem to matter to her. However, my friend noticed and she finds it unprofessional. Not only is it unprofessional, it diminishes the woman’s credibility and she comes across as someone who can’t be bothered with detail. Her poor writing skills can damage her reputation—good writing skills are essential not only for college success, but also for career success.

 I have written before that Dr. David Conley, aProfessor of Educational Policy and Leadership at the University of Oregon and who specializes in researching college readiness, has written that of all academic skills needed for college success, writing is the most important. Being able to compose organized, properly cited, coherent, grammatically correct writing directly influences a student’s ability to succeed in college. Those skills also are greatly appreciated in the business world where, it seems, few employees come equipped to write concise, consistent, well-organized reports, proposals, letters, and emails.

 Written communication is essential to college and business success. How do you rate your writing skills? How do you rate your teenager’s writing skills? Is she getting writing instruction in high school? Middle school? In researching Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?, I found several middle and high school teachers who said they simply didn’t have time for students to research, write, and revise papers. With class sizes of 25, 30, or more, teachers find they don’t have time to carefully grade and give significant feedback to those students. In addition, teenagers often don’t see the relevance in writing. My vegetable-growing friend said writing didn’t click with her son until a high school teacher suggested he write about a subject significant to him. He chose to write about cooking; he is currently a successful culinary arts student.

 Is that the answer? Let students chose the topic? That may be a good approach now and then, but students also need to learn to research and write about a variety of topics—it never happens that a college student or someone in business always chooses their topic. Good writing communicates clearly, is mostly free of errors, and makes a statement about the writer. The teenager that learns to write well will increases his chance of college and business success.

Oct. 23, 2012

Tonight I will do a breakout session at a local high school’s “View of the Future” night. The name is a clever twist on the high school’s name, but the program is the basic college information night.  Parents and students will come, listen, take notes, pick up brochures, and ask questions about how best to secure the student’s place in a college of his or her choice. While getting answers to questions about landing a place in college is a worthwhile pursuit, I will be there reminding parents that getting accepted into college does not guarantee success.

 I don’t usually have the same attendance in my breakout session as the ones that give tips on how to secure scholarships, how to ace the SAT or ACT, or how to apply for financial aid. That is okay—I completely understand why those topics attract more attention. But as I so often tout in this forum, student often fail in college for reasons that have little to do with scholarships, test scores, or financial aid. Those that come unprepared for their new living and learning environment are the ones who are not successful in college.

That, of course, is what Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? is all about. I suggest that if a student cannot effectively manage his time and priorities, if she cannot recognize when she needs help and does not know how to find that help, if he has no conflict management skills, if she cannot manage her finances, then despite a stellar grade point average and two hefty scholarships, that student is starting college with a significant deficit.

 So tonight I will ask parents if their teenagers know that they are expected to spend two to three hours outside of class studying for every hour they spend in class. I will ask if they have thought about the fact that most freshmen dorm dwellers are sharing a bedroom for the first time in the lives—a situation that guarantees some conflict. I will ask how well their teenager communicates—face to face—particularly with adults. I will ask if their teenager can self-advocate—if they know how to be persistent and polite at the same time. I will ask if their teenager understands the dangers of credit cards and of loaning and borrowing money to friends. And I will ask if they—as well as their teenagers—understand that college students have to successful maneuver the college bureaucracy in order to fulfill requirements and graduate on time.

 I hope that some parents of freshmen and sophomores—and even middle schoolers—will attend because the skills their teenagers need to be successful at the list I mentioned above are skills that take time to develop. I encourage parents to take advantage of their student’s high school college information night and ask questions, but remember that college success depends on much more than grades, test scores, and financial aid.

Oct. 2, 2012

One of my horseback riding buddies is a special education teacher in our local school district. While we ride, I usually ask how her job is going. Even though she works with elementary age children, I often find that the issues she addresses are common with teenagers. Such was the case just a couple of days ago. She was telling me how important it is to develop expectations in the classroom, and I was immediately reminded of how important establishing expectations are for teenagers—and how it relates to college success.

 My friend also pointed out that it is just as important to establish and follow through on the consequences associated with not following the expectations. Nothing could be truer with teenagers, and little could be harder! As I say in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?: “The problem is, once our kids are teenagers, many of us either neglect to follow through in imposing consequences or else we are inconsistent about it, often backing down under a barrage of teenage logic…Consequences are much more difficult to impose and enforce once our children reach that sudden argumentative and defiant stage of adolescence.”

 How does this all translate to college success? Parents who have already established expectations—and the ability to follow though most of the time—with their teenagers while those sons and daughters are still in middle and high school, have the tools in place to set up college expectations. If your high schooler understands that he is expected to call if he is going to be late or change locations, if she knows it is against family rules to attend an unchaperoned party, if he knows he has to earn his spending money, if she knows she is expected to get help with a difficult class, then those teenagers will not be surprised with expectations related to college—particularly if you have been mostly consistent with consequences.

 If your teenager is planning on college, you should set up expectations, particularly if you are paying for any part of the experience. Think through what you expect academically, financially, and behaviorally from your future college student. Do you expect a certain grade point average? Should the difficulty of the class be considered? Are there certain majors or classes you refuse to pay for? How much of tuition, books, fees, and housing are you paying? Who pays for transportation costs, pizza out, concert tickets, spring break adventures? Do you expect your college student to work? And what happens if your student is cited with a minor in possession? Or if you find out she has been in detox?

 While my friend works to set classroom expectations for second graders, parents of teenagers should be firm in their expectations of their sometimes defiant and rebellious offspring. Despite the agony often associated with keeping teenagers in line and safe, it is worth the effort to move them toward success in college and beyond.

Aug. 28, 2012

Last week I touted a study by IQS Research that substantially supported the message in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? This week I’ve been reviewing the ACT’s 2012 report on “The Condition of College and Career Readiness.” The basic finding is that student’s scores have not changed much since 2008; math and science scores have increased slightly while those in English and reading have decreased slightly. The report states that “one in four ACT-tested high school graduates met all four (English, reading, math, science) ACT college readiness benchmarks in 2012.”

 You can read the full report or you can read individual state reports to get the full story. But one thing that caught my attention was mention of the “academic behaviors” evaluations. The report stated: “ACT research illustrates how the combination of academic achievement and behavior yields more information than either measure alone when differentiating students for high school persistence.” ACT uses its ENGAGE Graduation Index scores to look at those “behaviors.” It made me curious to see how ACT rates these behavior influences on college success.

 ACT’s ENGAGE assesses the academic behaviors of motivation, social engagement, and self regulation. ACT defines these three areas as follows:

  • “Motivation includes personal characteristics that help students succeed academically by focusing and maintaining energies on goal-directed activities.
  • “Social engagement includes interpersonal factors that influence students’ successful integration into their environment.
  • “Self regulation includes the thinking processes and emotional responses of students that govern how well they monitor, regulate, and control their behavior related to school and learning.”

 ACT ENGAGE plots out how these three areas of academic behavior manifests itself in middle school, high school, college, and the workplace. Not surprisingly, it shows that students who learn self-control, organization, and cooperation in middle school go on to be high school and college students who study hard and effectively, are involved in their school and community, and who can handle the pressures of school and life.

 Such assessments also support the message in Toward College Success. Educators, administrators, and even the ACT acknowledge that being college ready means more than academic readiness. ACT states that “standardized achievement tests help identify students who are academically at risk or off-track for success. However, other factors influence academic success in school. For example, student motivation—the interest and drive to get schoolwork done—is one of the issues teachers struggle with most. If students are to be successful in meeting a core set of academic standards, they first need to be sufficiently motivated and persistent to do the work.”

 So once again, I point parents to Toward College Success. Within its pages you will be alerted to all those “academic behaviors” and more that are so important in our teenagers becoming successful high school and college students. Guiding and training your teenager in the behaviors and skills that lead to college success should start today.

 To read the ENGAGE issue report, go to: http://www.act.org/engage/pdf/ENGAGE_Issue_Brief.pdf

April 24, 2012

Eighty-four percent of middle and high school students and 77 percent of Fortune 1000 executive “strongly agree that there will be few or no career opportunities for today’s students who do not complete some education beyond high school.”

 That statement comes from the recently released Metlife Survey of the American Teacher: Preparing Students for College and Careers. The report, which surveyed middle and high school students, parents, teachers, and Fortune 1000 executives on the importance of graduating high school prepared to succeed in college, is part of a series that began in 1984 to “give voice to those closest to the classroom.” This most recent survey asks respondents to evaluate the importance of college readiness and what that means.

 Everything that I read about college readiness seems to confirm the focus of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? This survey is no different. I continue to believe that Toward College Success is an excellent resource for parents who want to be proactive in helping their teenagers be college-ready.

 Some of the highlights of this survey include:

  • Forty-eight percent of executives, 54 percent of teachers, and 73 percent of parents believe that “graduating each and every student from high school ready for college and a career” as one of the highest priorities of education. (Toward College Success will give parents ideas on how to boost their teenager’s readiness.)
  • In 1988, only 57 percent of middle and high school students expected they would go on to college. Today, 75 percent consider themselves highly likely to go to college. However, only teachers believe that only about 63 percent of their students will be college ready after high school, and they believe only 51 percent of their students will have the skills and sticking power to graduate from college.
  • And one near and dear to my heart: 99 percent of English teachers and 92 percent of math teachers rate the ability to “write clearly and persuasively as absolutely essential or very important to be ready for college and a career.” They rate that skill higher than they do for higher level math or science.
  • More students worry about how to pay for college as opposed to be accepted into a college.
  • Almost half of the parents believe their child’s school does not provide enough information on how their teenager can get into college or how to pay for it.
  • More than half of middle school students and parents believe their school does not provide enough information about requirements for getting into college. (Toward College Success stresses that parents need to begin evaluating and preparing their teenagers for college success in middle school.)

 As always, the message is: Be involved in your teenager’s education and in and out of the classroom. Evaluate your teenager’s education and get him help if you find deficiencies. Give them opportunities to learn the life skills they will need once they leave home. Help them find the path to success.

 To read the full survey, go to: http://www.metlife.com/about/corporate-profile/citizenship/metlife-foundation/metlife-survey-of-the-american-teacher.html?WT.mc_id=vu1101

March 13, 2012

I just finished grading about 120 8th grade papers on the Holocaust. No, I’m not a teacher, but every year for the last five, an 8th grade English teacher friend of mine, asks me to grade these papers for her. This teacher’s students supposedly build their writing skills toward this big Holocaust paper. In years past, I used to go into the classroom as an aide and coach the students through their writing. Now I ruthlessly mark up their papers, grade them on a rubric, and write them a personal note full of specific areas to work on, before handing them back to the teacher to actually award a grade. The teacher and I both hope that some of the students will appreciate and learn from the thorough feedback they receive from me—ready to move on to high school better prepared to be successful in their writing.

 Unfortunately, I am always dismayed at the writing skills of most of these 8th graders. Too many of them pay little attention to the instructions and lose points for simply not using enough quotes or sources, for not introducing their sources, for using first and/or second person, and for a number of other things for which their teacher gives specific dos and don’ts. When I used to meet with students, I always told them that if they completely followed their instructions, they were guaranteed at least a C. That advice also will serve them well in high school.

 I’m also dismayed at the poor sentence structure of rambling sentences, run-ons, or sentence fragments. I’m also discouraged by their lack of detail and description, and by their list-like attempt at examples. And grammar—well, I think it would surprise many of them that there are actually rules for commas, semi-colons, and apostrophes.

 In a recent Education Week article, writer Stephen J. Pytak, writes that “in the age of Facebook posts, emoticons, and tweets, English grammar may seem like it’s on the road to extinction.”  While those things do enter into “formal” school papers, I think the problem is deeper. Writing is difficult for many students, and when something is difficult, too many of those students work hard to avoid writing, become apathetic about it, or just blow it off by placing themselves in the “writing not’s my thing” category. Any of those approaches will ultimately hurt the student because good writing is necessary for academic success—particularly in college. It’s also necessary in business.

 I’ve written before on this subject, but I will repeat that research from Dr. David Conley, Professor of Educational Policy and Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Oregon, shows that writing is the most important academic skill to master for college success. Good writing is a skill that students can learn if given the opportunity and feedback they need in middle and high school. Parents should investigate their child’s school to be sure that student is getting solid writing instruction and that their child is actually progressing. It is all part of that road to success in college and beyond.

 To read the full Education Week story, go to: http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2012/03/05/mct_patextlang.html?cmp=ENL-EU-MOSTPOP