Making the Jump to Middle School

If you’re a grade 5 student at Shanghai American School, one of the most exciting events to happen all year is likely the opportunity to finally eat at the big kids’ cafeteria. “It’s part of the various transition activities and preparations we undergo (throughout the year),” explains Puxi campus grade 5 teacher Colleen McCabe. Students engage in Meet & Greet sessions with middle school admin, teachers, and students, get the opportunity to speak with middle school counselors, and tour the middle school facilities. And yes, part of all that includes FINALLY getting to eat in the middle-and-high school cafeteria. 

Welcome to our two-part series about the transitions our students undergo between elementary, middle, and high school. In this first part, we take a quick peek at what happens in the last year of elementary school to help grade 5 students get ready for the next phase of their school life. 

“We want students to mentally commemorate the fact that this is the final chapter. Of course, it’s still an actual year of elementary school and we want to honor that fact, but we’re also preparing them for what’s going to be expected of them when they move up,” explains Davey Neil, grade 5 teacher at SAS’ Pudong campus. “That means spending time on and reinforcing themes of responsibility, accountability, and perseverance,” adds Colleen. 

Teachers throughout the elementary school years work with students socially and emotionally to ensure learning dispositions and soft skills are being cultivated and nurtured so that, by the time a student reaches grade five, these dispositions and skills are firmly in place, and they’re well-prepared for the academic demands of middle school. “It’s really important that, by this point, students have some independence and a good handle on skills like keeping themselves organized, predicting consequences for action or inaction…” says Davey. “By then, they should also be able to easily engage with more desk work, as well as more collaborative work. They’re not going to be able to just be the quiet kid at the back of the class.” 

So much of what goes on at SAS is collaborative in nature, so it’s crucial students learn how to be skillful communicators and effective collaborators, “and a big part of our role as elementary school teachers is to help these students develop into confident human beings that demonstrate those skills,” explains Davey. “So that they are well-equipped for middle school, then high school, then college, then the real world.” 

These are just some of the things that go on behind classroom doors to ensure that graduation into the middle school is as smooth as possible. Outside of that, the middle school administrators and counselors work just as hard to make sure incoming grade six students have a soft landing. 

A lot of meetings and communication go on between the elementary and middle school teams, particularly in the last third of the school year, with scheduled visits from grade six teachers, the administrators, and the counseling team. “There is a very strong degree of intentionality in everything that we do. We spend a lot of time thinking about classroom composition for example, making home bases, ensuring we communicate the dynamics we’ve noticed to the middle school team. We work hard to ensure there is a healthy balance in the classroom—whether that’s between personalities and energies, genders, native speakers…—so that when students show up in August, they’re walking into their new environment feeling comfortable and confident,” says Davey. 

And as the year winds down, the elementary school helps students wrap up this period of their lives via a series of events like The Rise, a transitional ceremony that celebrates the achievements of the students during their elementary school years, and wishing them well for the journey ahead. “This is when the changes the students are about to embark on start to hit them. We start getting more questions about middle school, and some may express more anxiety about starting in a new division, but ultimately, most are very excited,” says Colleen. 

It should be reassuring to the graduating fifth graders then, to know that their fellow middle school Eagles are as excited as they are to welcome them into their midst. An initiative called WEB Crew, made up of older middle school students, undergo training before school reopens every year so they’re best positioned to help incoming newbies get settled quickly, and are around post-orientation to answer questions, assist them in navigating their first year as middle schoolers, and generally be a beacon of support. 



Read part two of the series: Making the Jump to High School

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