Saturday, February 5, 2011

How to prepare middle schoolers for college

Jay Mathews offers advice from some college admissions and education experts.  I strongly agree with many of these suggestions.
1. Notice what they enjoy doing, and help them do more of it. Take your hiker on the AppalachianTrail. Have the kid who is addicted to the Food Network bake something for the county fair. Arrange for the singer in your family to audition for a local choir.
“It doesn’t matter whether the activity is athletic, service, spirit, leadership, journalistic or academic,” said Potomac-based educational consultant Shelley Levine. “Anything will do, as long as they enjoy the activity.” Northern Virginia-based educational consultant Shirley A. Bloomquist said, “If it is history, there are many local places to explore and discuss. If it is nature and/or geology, enjoy an outing to Great Falls Park. . . . A student of mine, now at Barnard, had a book club with her father over many years.”
Embracing a hobby or pastime is the key to career success and life satisfaction, said Zac Bissonnette, author of the recent college admission guide "Debt-Free U.” He advises middle-school parents not to “let yourself or your kid get caught up in the rat race of mindless achievement. Take time to think, and take time to play.”
2. Make sure your child knows that B’s are fine in middle school and that fun is important. Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and an expert on student stress, said each student needs a somewhat different message. The overachiever should be told, “You don’t need to do three different extracurricular activities in middle school to get into college,” she said. The less-motivated child needs to hear, “Yes, you can go to college, but first that means passing your courses in middle school.”
[B's are fine for some kids, but what about the ones who could earn A's if they worked a little harder?]
3. Enroll them in Algebra I in the eighth grade. Middle-schoolers must apply themselves to high-school-level courses, such as Algebra I. Many colleges count them as part of the high school grade-point average even though they are taken in middle school. Parents should also ensure that their children have finished Algebra I by the end of eighth grade. “I’ve known dozens of kids who would have been up to the challenge of high school level algebra/geometry in eighth grade,” said Philadelphia-based educational consultant David Ginsburg, but they “didn’t have the chance to take it.”
[Mathews responds to a reader's comment that readiness for algebra is a "a developmental issue, not an ability issue" with this:
If you know of any research that supports your view, tell us about it. All that I have seen suggests it is much more a teaching issue than a developmental issue. We could have nearly every child ready for 8th grade algebra if we taught math properly in the lower grades, and had high expectations for all of those kids. Programs that take this seriously, like KIPP, have great success getting even disadvantaged children through algebra successfully by the end of 8th grade.]
4. Insist they develop some practical housework skills. This won’t seem to them to have much to do with college, which is good. You can say that’s the way you were brought up (warn Grandma to cover for you if this isn’t true) and that is the way it is going to be. You don’t have to tell them that if they have to remember to get the trash and recycling out on the curb every Friday and make Saturday breakfast for their siblings while you go cycling, the coping skills they develop will be invaluable.
Kathy Kuhl, a home-school consultant based in Herndon, said, “We taught and re-taught our children time-management skills and life skills: washing clothes, cooking dinner and managing money.” Her kids were self-sufficient enough to juggle a college workload while doing all the other necessary chores of life.
5. Flavor family trips with a bit of college atmosphere. “On the way to summer vacation at the Outer Banks, have lunch at the University of Richmond’s student center, with its stately Gothic architecture and picturesque lake,” Bloomquist said.
6. Encourage children who are curious about the world to take a foreign language. This can be with CDs or at school. Most middle schools do not require a foreign language but nearly all offer some classes.“Chinese or Arabic would be two to consider,” Bloomquist said. “Colleges are increasingly international in nature. Twenty years ago, Yale had one in 50 international students. Today it is one in 11.”
7. Character counts. Encourage its development. “The college admissions process doesn’t necessarily screen for this,” Pope said, “but parents should be fostering good character traits along with health and engagement.” Just how you do this with sullen tweens and teens is not always clear. Being truthful and practicing what you preach is a good start.
8. Do everything you can to encourage reading. David Storper, president of Bethesda-based Prep U Tutoring, said, “The common denominator among the very best test-takers is a strong background with books. This is usually a habit that starts at a very early age. . . . The problem that many students face is that they are only reading assigned books from school, which can be less than inspiring.”
So, he said, give books to kids that suit their individual interests. “Do not pressure them to read it,” he said. “Just give it to them. If they read, great. If not, try again in a few weeks with a different book.”
Plan a weekly reading night during which everyone finds a comfortable chair in the living room, popcorn at their elbows, and enjoys a book of their choice for an hour or so. Leave some good paperbacks in the car. Talk about the books you are reading.
If reading becomes a habit for them, that will, of course, make them look good to colleges. But it will have even more impact on the quality of their everyday lives and their children’s lives and so on. It is never too soon to get started on that.
[I would add that a steady diet of light-weight fiction reading is not ideal.  Background knowledge gained from reading nonfiction is essential in developing the critical thinking skills needed for college level work.]

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