Adjusting to French College or Middle School

I remember teaching my first 6ieme class in France. 15 fresh young faces – surely they were too young? – staring up at me, expecting wisdom on this, their first day of Middle School. 

“I’m sorry,” was all I could offer them.  “I don’t know where the canteen is either.”

This September, many of your children will be making the transition from primary school into middle school. This article has details about the French education system, but the main principles will be the same no matter where you’re going to school. It’s exciting, but it’s also scary, and hard, and intimidating. Especially in French schools, it seems, where the jump from CM2 (grade 5) to 6ieme (grade 6) feels huge, and without preparation. French schools tend to put a lot of emphasis on grades, and your 10 and 11 year olds can feel like they’re expected to hit the ground running right from Day One. The new routines and rules, a new environment that’s bigger and less personal, the increased workload, a new grading metric, new skills to master, the need to be more independent, feeling more anonymous, and on top of that, many of them will be navigating new friends, lost friends, and shifts in their social circles. It’s a LOT! 

We can’t really blame an 11 year old who feels lost, overwhelmed, or not up to the challenge, can we?

So how can you help them navigate this new environment with confidence and set them up for success, even as you yourself might be feeling overwhelmed? It’s mostly about being patient, and giving them the space, and time, to rise to the challenge. 

The First Period

The first period of the year – up until the Toussaint Holidays at the end of October – will go by in a blur of forgotten textbooks, missed assignments, stressful homework, and lower-than-expected grades. If you can make it to the first holiday in one piece, you’re doing all right! 

The first period of Middle School should be about learning how to be in Middle School. That’s it. That’s the only job. If you’re in a great environment, your teachers will recognize that too. For the first time, they’re moving between classes, having to remember which books to bring where, and getting to know 6 to 10 new teachers, styles, and classrooms instead of one. 

Homework, achievement, and grades do not need to be the focus right now, even if your child is feeling pressure from their teachers.

How can you help? Talk to your new middle school student about what you expect from them – and what you don’t. Make sure they know that forgotten assignments, or a lower than expected grade, won’t get frustration or disappointment from you. Talk through what the goals are every day, and what a successful day in their first period of Middle School looks like. 

A good day at the beginning of Middle School is a day when you didn’t get lost, made it to every class on time, had the right books in the right class at the right time, didn’t get completely lost by the subject matter, had time to eat lunch and pee, and had some friendly people to talk to during the day. That’s it. That’s the goal.  Celebrate those successes. The rest will follow.

Be Patient: Grades Are Not the Priority (Not Yet)The French system puts a lot of emphasis on grades, and on ranking students within a classroom. When you get your grades posted on whatever internal internet system your school is using for grades, agendas, and homework, you’ll often see the moyenne (average), lowest, and highest grade posted so you can place yourself within the ranking, and inside the classroom, there is a lot of comparison and competition. 

They don’t matter yet. They don’t really matter until 4ieme or 3ieme, when they are preparing for and taking the Brevet. Even though 6ieme is a transition year in a very practical sense, it is not a transition year in the French curriculum, and that’s done on purpose. France’s curriculum is cyclical, taking three years in each cycle to learn, practice, and consolidate knowledge and skills. Cycle 3 includes CM1, Cm2, and 6ieme – which means that in their classes in 6ieme, students are reviewing and consolidating skills they’ve learned over the last two years. The transition into Cycle 4, with new knowledge and skills, begins in 5ieme – once they have had a chance to acclimate to Middle School, learn the new systems and higher standard for their work, and develop their confidence and find their place. It ends with the Brevet exam at the end of Middle School, allowing for three years of classes to prepare for that exam.

For a lot of 6ieme students, a sudden drop in grades in the first 1 or 2 report cards is to be expected, and the grades on the first few report cards are not an indication of future success. Eventually, they stop being distracted by the new routines and friends and environment, and they have time to practice the new skills. They figure Middle School out. Their grades go back up. 

If you’re not ready for that drop, it can be scary. Parents can misinterpret that as laziness, or a lack of dedication. You can try to solve the problem with consequences, or more homework, or tutors, but at the beginning, that won’t really help. Kids can misinterpret it as a lack of intelligence, and lose confidence, think it means they aren’t as smart as they thought they were, or disengage because they think they can’t do the work anyway. 

 If you are prepared for it, you can work that into that list of goals and the picture of what a successful day looks like that I mentioned earlier. Give yourselves and your children time to practice and master the new skills they need in their new school, take the pressure off the grades and achievement, and as they build up their new knowledge and confidence, you’ll see those grades come back up naturally – maybe in the second report card for some, maybe not until the beginning of 5ieme for others, but whatever the pace, that time is built into the program and the curriculum, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.  

One thing at a time.

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