By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach
When students move from elementary to middle school, they go from being the oldest, and most respected kids on campus to the youngest, and often smallest, residents on a campus that not only looks but also feels unfamiliar. Their academic and social lives can change considerably between 5th and 6th grade. They shift from the familiarity and safety of a single homeroom and teacher to the complexity of multiple classes and teachers—all while they navigate the physical, cognitive, and emotional changes of tweendom.
Thankfully, Wildwood and its teachers—on both campuses—work to ensure that students’ academic and social-emotional experiences from elementary school transition to middle school as smoothly as possible.
Self-Efficacy for the Successful 6th Grader
For close to 20 years, Becca Hedgepath and Sandi Crozier have shepherded nearly an entire generation of Wildwood students between 5th and 6th grades. Becca teaches humanities to 6th graders, and Sandi is her language arts counterpart in 5th. Sandi and Becca base their work with students on aligned best educational practices and the sound judgment that experienced teachers bring to their craft.
“Before they finish elementary school our students know that, in 6th grade, Becca will hold them to high standards,” Sandi says. “Our job throughout 5th grade is to broaden their skills and build their confidence to meet our standards and Becca’s, and all of their middle school teachers’ expectations.”
Sandi and her 5th grade colleagues, Mallory Konell, Monique Marshall, and Linda Gordon, foster what educational researchers call transition self-efficacy—the self-confidence to meet the increased expectations of middle school. When elementary teachers emphasize the goals of middle school success, students are more likely to succeed.*
“The kids come to us from the elementary campus very well prepared,” Becca notes, “with their creative and analytic writing skills, a love of reading, and ability to discuss character and theme at a very high level.” Equally important, she says, “the 5th grade teachers have helped kids get comfortable with asking for help when they need it.” Students have been encouraged to develop a strong sense of curiosity and inquiry.
When Teachers Talk…
Every summer, Becca and Sandi spend time together to talk about the past school year and look ahead to the next.
“We talk about our most recent 5th graders—their strengths as individuals and as a class, along with their stretches,” says Sandi. “Every group of kids is unique, and I tell Becca what approaches our team has used that work best with these kids so she can plan best for the coming year.”
Becca also uses these summer discussions to help Sandi assess her language arts curriculum and practice with a view towards smoothing the move to middle school as much as possible.
“As we strengthened our standards at the middle school,” Becca says, “I noticed that my 6th graders needed an earlier start in their skill development. I’ve asked Sandi to help out, and she makes it happen.”
As a result, today’s 5th graders focus more intentionally on reading annotation, note-taking, and familiarity with the parts of speech—all in order to foster their success in 6th grade.
Sixth grader Jacob L. says he felt well-prepared for middle school humanities class. “Sandi talked a lot about what Mrs. H. [as Becca is known to kids] would expect of us,” he says. “And even though I have lots more homework this year, I got a feel for it last year when our 5th grade teachers assigned more as the year went on.”
Students also noticed that their middle school days flowed in a familiar way. “Having different teachers in 5th grade helped,” says 7th grader Josie B. All Wildwood 5th grade students move between three teachers for language arts, math, and social studies. “It made it a lot easier to move around to seven classes in middle school,” Josie says.
Advisory is also a consistent and essential part of the transition. Wildwood’s middle school Advisory program is designed to recreate the feel of an elementary school homeroom in a developmentally appropriate way. It provides a safe, familiar space for kids to get support.
Josie liked the 6th grade Advisory check-in experience. “We had the opportunity during our morning share times to talk about what was going well and what we were struggling with,” she relates. “It always made me feel better knowing that other kids were experiencing what I was.” Sixth grader Noe S. had a similar experience. “Advisory helps me start the day off in a good mood,” she says.
Scaffolding for Success
Wildwood intentionally structures student and parent experiences between elementary and middle school to provide insight and alleviate anxiety in the transition from 5th to 6th grade.
In 5th grade, the Habits of Mind and Heart are introduced alongside the Life Skills, to familiarize future middle schoolers with the concepts that will drive their learning at Wildwood’s middle and upper schools. To strengthen student self-advocacy, Wildwood’s 5th graders have a dedicated “collaboration time” every Friday, when all three of their core teachers are available for help and enrichment. This mirrors a similar structure that students experience in middle and upper schools.
Parents, too, have the opportunity to get a glimpse and prepare themselves for the differences their children will experience in middle school.
Wildwood’s annual fall Step Into Middle School event gives elementary school parents an opportunity to meet the 6th grade teachers and middle school administrators, see examples of curriculum and student work, and tour the middle and upper campus.
For students and families entirely new to Wildwood, individual attention by staff, a host family, and peer support help make the transition successful. It’s informal, but intentional.
Becca has taught many 6th graders who are new to Wildwood and enjoys watching their surprise at discovering the Wildwood way. “What strikes them the most,” she says, “is how they feel seen and heard by the adults here; that it’s almost impossible to fall through the cracks.”
To Josie B., the Wildwood way is about community. The middle and upper campus “looks and feels different,” she says, “but there’s that same sense of community here as there is at elementary.”
Sixth grader Giacomo C. knew he was seen and heard by his new community on his first day at Wildwood this year. Coming from a Los Angeles public school, he was fearful of not knowing anyone and feeling lost. “People were really friendly to me and by the end of my first day,” Giacomo says, “I knew so many new people. I think I’m going to like it here.”
* Madjar, Nir, and Ronny Chohat. “Will I succeed in middle school? A longitudinal analysis of self-efficacy in school transitions in relation to goal structures and engagement.” Educational Psychology 37, no. 6 (2017). Accessed November 14, 2017. ERIC.