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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

Perspectives / Getting Somewhere

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      One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," in which a hiker mulls over the choice he made at a crossroads in a yellow wood. Why did I start down one leaf-strewn path rather than down the other? he wonders. Was it really the road "with the better claim"? Will I ever return to try the other way? He doubts it. And finally, Did my decision make a difference? That answer he knows will be "yes," but he will only know for sure "ages and ages hence"—in other words, in hindsight.
      As they start on their lifetime journey of learning, kids may seem content to skip carefree down the yellow brick road. It's often the adults who voice worries. In his book The Way of Transition(DaCapo Press, 2001), William Bridges enumerates families' concerns for their children, which he describes in a series of multiple-choice questions: (A) "Will my child get lost—and end up nowhere? (B) Will he squander his talents—and end up nowhere? (C) Will he fail to get a good-paying job—and end up nowhere? Or, (D) Will he get frustrated, take up drugs—and end up nowhere?"
      Adults know that their own cross-country route to wherever they are at present has often not been straightforward, Bridges writes, and they fear their children will meander. Some, like the Tiger Mom we have been reading about lately, want to draw their kids a map and drag them down what they view as the right path. Other parents might be so involved with their own circumstances that they cannot ease the way for their children.
      This issue of Educational Leadershipaddresses the topics of transitional stages for students on the K–16 formal school path. These are periods of mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical change, when kids have enormous potential for growth and when choices—whether made by families, children, or schools—have implications for their future choices.
      Many of the authors write from a developmental viewpoint, emphasizing that kids reach milestones at different times. Children of the same age dramatically differ academically, socially, emotionally, and physically, they note. All approaches must take into consideration not only the variability of children but also the variability of their needs. To neglect their emotional development in favor of the academic is not likely to be beneficial, and vice versa. Here are some of their other insights.
      Don't rush progress. In "Are We Paving Paradise?" Elizabeth Graue traces the evolution of kindergarten from its focus on children, to its emphasis on outcomes, to its current focus on literacy and math. The early childhood parts of kindergarten are losing ground. She believes a more ecological approach to kindergarten must provide time to build teacher-student relationships and incorporate both academics and play. The kindergarten experience should include all dimensions of development.
      Balance challenge with engagement. Fourth grade is a pivotal year, in which students commonly face increased academic demands, Mike Anderson writes. Teachers can smooth the transition by introducing these new challenges in ways that are in line with 4th graders' developmental characteristics: incredible energy and emotion, industriousness and curiosity, increased awareness of the world around them, and heightened anxiety and sensitivity. He offers strategies that teachers can use to establish the safe, supportive classroom environment that enables students to perform at their best.
      Teach students to navigate. Middle years are crucial to high school success, when students are developing skills needed in the larger world and discovering the direction they want their lives to take. So why, asks Rick Wormeli, would anyone leave the transition into this phase to chance? Certain mind-sets can help educators guide their students on the path from elementary to middle school, including understanding students' concerns about belonging. His article offers a wealth of practical strategies.
      Seek to understand. Understanding the nature of brain development in adolescence helps explain why adolescents can vacillate so often between mature and immature behavior, writes Laurence Steinberg. Early and middle adolescence, in particular, are times of heightened vulnerability to risky and reckless behavior because the brain's reward center is easily aroused, but the systems that control impulsive behavior are still relatively immature. Assignments that require teenagers to think ahead, make a plan, and carry it out may stimulate the maturation of brain systems that enable more self-regulation.
      Help kids back on the path. A number of our authors remind us why it is important to provide multiple paths for students who struggle (Beck, Holcomb-McCoy, Frank, Hamed, Rance-Roney, and Rodrigues). Robert Balfanz describes Diplomas Now, a model that reduces dropout risk and raises achievement in some of the most challenged high-poverty schools. An early-warning system alerts teachers as soon as students begin to demonstrate off-track behaviors. The program also incorporates teams of young adults to serve as coaches for students.
      Keep the journey in perspective. Michael Thompson describes the anxiety he sees among high schoolers as they go through the rite of passage called "the college application process." Families obsess over whether a child will get into a particular elite college when they should care most that the teenager grows up to be an independent, productive, loving adult. Teachers can play an important role by helping kids sort out college options and by supporting young people through this rocky transition.
      Then, when they arrive at their next crossroads, they will be ready. They will have already been somewhere.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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