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A New Freshman in High School

It’s that time of year- the countdown has officially begun! 

The first day of school is just here and for those students entering their freshman year in high school, this is no ordinary first day of school. The first day of high schools marks an important life transition in so many ways. How is it that so much can change in just few months between eighth grade graduation and the beginning of high school? Students who once felt that they could commit to memory every deadline and exam date often find that they drop the ball on small assignments, forget to study for an upcoming test, or encounter unforeseen conflicts between schoolwork and extracurricular commitments. These experiences speak to the accelerated pace, significantly heavier workload, and emphasis on inquiry based learning that students encounter in high school.

In this month’s article, I will offer some key suggestions and words of advice to students and their families in navigating this exciting and challenging transition.

As students enter high school, my hope is that they approach the challenges they face with what I like to call a “growth mindset.” This approach to learning is based on the research findings of Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford. Dr. Dweck’s research has shown that students who attribute their academic successes to hard work and persistence perform better in the long run than students who attribute their success to being “smart” or “talented.” Indeed, contemporary neuroscience tells us that the brain is more like a muscle that gets stronger when we exercise it. Students who have a growth mindset are not afraid to try hard problems and fail because they understand that like lifting weights, exercising their brains is what builds intelligence.

The growth mindset approach underpins another important transition students will face in high school. My colleagues and I have observed that many of our students at the high school level struggle with critical reading, both on standardized exams and in the classroom. As students learn about literary devices, syntax and essay structure, I find that many students mistake the elements of good writing for the meaning of the text itself. At the high school level, students are expected to use what they know about effective writing to support their own opinion regarding the meaning of the text. That means students need to have opinions about what they are reading. A great way to support this development at home is to choose an article or current event to discuss around the dinner table each week. Students need to be encouraged to take intellectual risks and express opinions that may be unpopular; this will support their success in the classroom setting and foster their capacity to read critically.

Last, but not least, an article about transitioning to high school would be incomplete without a note on time management and organizational skills. Each year, most students receive a planner directly from school. And most students will use this to write down homework—that is, if they use it all. I cannot overstate that proactive planning is often what separates the top students from the rest of the crop. Don’t just write down your assignments; write down WHEN you are going to complete them.

Beyond time management skills and hard work, my hope is that Insight students learn to meet the inevitable challenges on their academic journey with greater patience and self-confidence, rather than with a “grit your teeth and bare it” kind of attitude. What the top universities in this country are looking for, as explicitly stated in their application questions is intellectual vitality and curiosity. That means: work hard, but don’t forget to have fun while you’re learning. High school may just be starting for Freshman, but it will be over in a flash—enjoy it!

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