When I started the Little Middle School back in 2012, I thought it was going to be easy for all of us.
In Georgia, the requirement for homeschooling is 4.5 hours a day, and we had five scheduled (allowing 30 minutes for lunch).
I figured that we would spend each morning doing written work, and then by lunchtime each day we'd be ready to do special projects, have adventures around the city, or just read interesting books.
However, when I got my first crop of middle schoolers, they did not conform to my expectations. Shocking, I know.
Some of them were already well-versed in the middle school material and needed different stuff to work on.
Some of them were far behind in a particular subject area (and quite adept at hiding it).
In some cases, they saw me as a threat or adversary -- and saw every assignment I might give them as an opportunity for subterfuge or at least token resistance.
In short, they were human beings with their own strengths, weaknesses, and habits.
And the "one-size-fits-all" materials I had chosen fit no one.
So I had to take a more radical approach. I had to reevaluate all the materials there were to choose from and actually gauge their efficacy with real people. I had to teach the students how to work independently, how to think deeply, and why they should want to.
But most of all, I had to actually listen to them. I had to pay attention to their particular needs, wants, and interests - individually and as a group. In that first year, I had to learn what kids really want out of middle school.
Since that early beginning with a few intrepid guinea pig families, we have come a long way. We have actually found some strategies that work, and how to invite the buy-in from students that actually makes the strategies work.
And when I say "work," I mean that not only do the students learn stuff, but they become engaged learners. They take ownership of their own education in surprising ways.
In middle school, students are developing skills even as they are acquiring knowledge. To express ideas with clarity and eloquence is a skill that transcends traditional Language Arts. Likewise, the strong attention to detail and logic that allows one to execute an algorithm correctly is a strength useful beyond mathematics. In our curriculum, the three R's are the engine that allows students to acquire knowledge in various subject areas.
That said, we cover a lot of ground that doesn't fit neatly into a particular subject area. We work hard to uncover limiting beliefs that interfere with our ability to get work done. Students learn about the "game of school" and what it takes to be successful, understanding why academic achievement is valuable but not allowing it to dictate our worth as a person. We aim to send kids to high school with strong self-knowledge and confidence in their ability to tackle any academic challenge they encounter.
- Casey von Neumann, founder
We frame mathematics as a series of puzzles of increasing complexity, and believe that solving those puzzles should be satisfying and even fun. We teach students that they are fully capable of doing well in math and even enjoying it, but that may require rebuilding their foundation from the ground up.
Through daily practice within their zone of proximal development, students learn to pursue a topic until they have truly mastered it. Knowing what mastery looks like is critical to their success, and having this knowledge means that students can effectively self-teach and move at their own pace. We have had students make years of progress in a semester and move beyond even the accelerated track; we've also had students who have had years of struggle finally start to grasp concepts with confidence.
Some students work out of just one textbook; others require supplementary materials in a variety of media. Materials and resources include Singapore Math, The Art of Problem Solving (along with the companion app, Alcumus), and Khan Academy.
Each daily math session ends with the sharing of "struggles and successes" from that day's work. In doing this, we are eliminating the stigma that students associate with being at different levels and helping students to develop a growth mindset. They can all see that, regardless of whether we are ahead of grade level or not, we all face challenges when we're learning something new.
The typical middle school social studies curriculum is to focus on one continent at a time to study its geography, history, economics, and government. This fractured approach makes it very difficult to see the big picture. For instance, the Roman Empire, at its height, straddled three continents; to limit it to the context of just one is a huge distortion.
Our approach instead is that students study a complete course in world history over their years of middle school, incorporating economics and geography. In addition, we are constantly integrating current events into our work and relating themes across geographic areas or eras.
Social studies presents an excellent context for students learning how to interpret what they read and hear. We constantly practice pulling out the main points, taking notes, and summarizing, teaching these skills explicitly (and relentlessly).
We use an integrated, mastery-based approach to science that covers the four major threads: the nature of matter, life science, physical science, and earth and space science. Our goal is to clear up misconceptions left over from elementary school and prepare students emotionally and intellectually for in-depth study of science at the high school level. As in social studies, students learn how to take notes in a lecture setting and summarize what they've learned; they also practice creating diagrams.
Middle school science students usually have one of two problems: They either think they know everything because they're "into science" or they shut down in class because they're "not into science." Both issues get in the way of learning. We tackle them head-on and split the classes as necessary in order for everyone to get what they need.
The curriculum we use, developed by Bernard Nebel, de-emphasizes vocabulary and minutia in an effort to help students grasp the big picture. We believe this approach is much more likely to yield enduring understandings.
We do a lot of writing across subject areas. Students first learn to master the sentence (if necessary), and then focus on developing strong paragraphs. Once this skill is well established, we write five-paragraph essays and experiment with other forms.
We have seen that student writing improves most quickly when they can read pieces written by their peers. We deconstruct each other's writing (with the permission of the authors, although sometimes anonymously) to uncover what elements successful pieces have in common. This leads to dramatic gains for all students without a single red mark upon a page. That said, we do explicitly teach revision and editing, making a game out of how clearly and concisely we can express our ideas.
Obviously, reading is an important component of language arts. Students and teachers keep a public record of the books they read over the course of the year, both fiction and nonfiction. We also read and discuss short stories, poems, and songs; we find that these forms eliminate the "Did you do your reading?" accountability problems and allow us to discuss themes, motifs, tone, symbolism, and other literary devices more deeply and intelligently than we can when we read longer works.
Another aspect of our language arts program is public speaking. While we don't require frequent formal presentations, our class discussions are our playground. We challenge students to reduce vocal tics and filler words, to answer only the question being asked, and to eliminate superficial responses (e.g.,"It was cool/good/okay/fine.").
Each day begins with a music session, where we play and sing a variety of pop and folk songs from different eras. The music is carefully chosen to be age-appropriate and musically accessible. Students can choose to play percussion, electric bass, mandolin, guitar, ukulele, piano, bells, melodica, and more. Of course, everyone is invited to sing. We have found that starting the day with music greatly benefits the unity of the group, and they also surprise themselves with the level of skill they attain on the instruments. This leads many students to practice together in their free time.
We also listen to a few musical pieces each week and have impromptu music appreciation lessons on composers and artists from classical to jazz to pop.
Students attend art classes two to three days per week, studying with a local artist to complete works in a variety of media. In addition, we study Betty Edwards' classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain in order to put aside our preconceptions and draw. In the process, we develop a new way of seeing and perceiving that challenges our assumptions about the nature of talent, what it takes to learn a new skill, and what it means to be an artist.
Because many kids will play sports or do other physical activities outside of school, we focus on social interaction, exercise, and fun rather than specific sports or skills. We usually make it to the park at least once a week and frequently take walks around the block and the neighborhood. We also occasionally do body awareness activities like yoga and meditation.
We frequently consider the ideas discussed in Mindset by Carol Dweck and Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin (two books that I highly recommend parents read along with their children). TED talks, podcasts, radio shows, magazines, books, and websites at the nexus of multiple subject areas are studied, shared and discussed.