Middle School: A Method to the Madness

We're knee deep in back to school over here and shit is getting real. This elaborate game of scheduling Jenga is beginning to tip over into insanity and absolutely no one is winning. Nobody. I knew this would be tough, but this year feels brutal. We're both working full-time, and I'm dropping so many balls that I feel like I'm standing in the ball pit at Chuck E Cheese.

Ever stand in a ball pit at Chuck E Cheese? Shudder. Parent's worst nightmare.


Meanwhile, my ten-year old son is just trying to keep his head above water. He's submerged in his first year of middle school, and I feel like I'm watching him furiously dog paddle in circles of panic. My son is a smart kid, but this transition from elementary to middle school has been like shoving him out of an airplane into free fall. He's sinking fast. At first, I thought it was just the hectic schedule, the noisy confusion of crowded hallways, the flurry of newness that always overwhelms. It began as a few missed assignments. I'd roll over Saturday morning to the ping of incoming messages and see a notice from school. listing missing work and scores that seemed as if they couldn't possibly belong to my kid.

My kid is gifted. My kid is capable. But it looks like my kid is also flunking middle school.

And then it dawned on me and I felt like a gigantic moron. I'm a teacher for Christ's sake. I should know what's happening here. Middle school is when kids first begin to take the wheel, steering their education and being responsible for their own work. I don't search his backpack every night, crowing about papers and peering over his shoulder. He doesn't even have books because they're all online or some such nonsense. Most of the time, I only hear when things have already gone off the rails and it's too late to right the ship. And that's terrifying. For all of us.

So this weekend we sat down and got our shit together. And it reminded me of something important. Kids don't intrinsically understand how to excel in academic environments. If we want them to be successful, we need to supply them with a few essential skills that don't come prepackaged from elementary school. There is a method to this madness that is middle school. And it looks something like this.

STEP 1: Check for Understanding

If your kid is stumbling, check in to ensure they're getting it. And no, you can't just ask a generic question to glean this. You're gonna have to dig. Like getting those dirty, inside out socks from the bottom of the laundry basket. Ask to see the books or materials and then have your kid explain them to you, in excruciating detail. It'll become apparent in point five seconds that they either get it or they don't.Think about how your kid learns best and try to find a way to present the material that'll connect for them. Some resources that I adore:

Khan Academy

Kaplan K12

Middle School Methods

STEP 2: Get Organized

This is the first time they'll have multiple teachers and multiple classes and it'll feel like utter chaos. Scratch that. It is utter chaos. Roll up your sleeves and show your kid how to use dividers and pockets to create sections for each class, so work that needs to be turned in doesn't get lost in the shuffle. Get a planner if the school doesn't supply one, but don't stop there. You'll need to demonstrate how to use it. It's not obvious. You've just been adulting for a LONG time. Show your kid how to calendar tests, how to track upcoming assignments, and give them a spot to keep everything for each class in one place. I found this fantastic resource for younger kids that walks through the steps of being organized for school. WITH PICTURES!

Wikihow's Be Organized in School

STEP 3: Explain How to Take Notes

It's weird, but this will be the first time your kid has to consistently take notes. Get used to it, kid. And while you think it's just about jotting down main ideas, good note taking is about SO much more than that. Kids still write pretty slow at this age, so it's hard for them to get stuff down fast enough in a legible manner. There are lots of ways around this, including concept mapping, visual note taking, and more. Explore some of these tips and tricks to teach note-taking.

Life Hacker's Guide to Perfecting Note Taking

4 Note Taking Strategies

Middle School Methods

STEP 4: Develop a Study Plan

Some days, your kid seems to be drowning in homework. Other days he comes home and binge watches Star Wars. This feast or famine indicates there's a problem. Like most of us, kids do what they're told. Math homework, due tomorrow. Check. Test next week. Okay- I'll study for that next week. Now is the time to instill good habits, like working ahead and studying in increments to avoid cramming. I helped my son draft a study plan so that he'd spend 15-20 minutes a few times a week on some tough subjects even when he didn't have homework, reviewing his notes and reading ahead. We all know this not only ensures success, but it's a much more efficient way to study. But your kid doesn't know that. All he knows is that you are a wise, old person who is infused with genius. And really, that's all he needs to know, right? Check out these resources to develop your own study plan.

Go Conqr

Developing a Study Schedule

Step 5: Communicate

Teacher's have emails now. It's this crazy, modern thing that I still struggle to wrap my head around. But they have all assured me. SO many times. Please email. If you see something you don't understand, if you want to know how to help. Ask. Ever notice that when you ask a teacher what your student can be doing differently, they have five billion ideas and a buttload of websites you can visit? Teachers are teachers for a reason. They love learning and they love their students. Teachers want students to succeed. Let them help. It'll be a gift for both of you. And then follow-up. You're in this together, all the way to the end. For better or for worse. Let's focus on making it better.


My son came home today from piano lessons, plunked his backpack down, and promptly disappeared. We called him repeatedly for dinner and when we couldn't rouse him, I went to investigate. He was in front of the computer, head bowed, furiously typing.

"I was calling you for dinner. What's going on?"

His brow furrowed and he blinked several times in confusion. "Oh. Sorry. I was doing my social studies homework."

"Do you need help? Is everything okay?"

"Oh, yeah! This stuff is totally cool. Hey, listen to this, Mom..."

<Insert 10 minute diatribe about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict>

"Okay. Well, dinner is getting cold."

As my son exited the room, I pulled out my phone and began to furiously google the Oslo Accords. Because really, I need to keep up with this shit now.

Are you over the moon about this method for middle school?

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