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Transitioning to French "Collège" (Middle School).

By: Rebecca Gulka

Teens Group Co-Leader


I remember teaching my first 6ème 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 ("Collège" in the French education system). “I’m sorry,” was all I could offer them. “I don’t know where the canteen is either.”

 

This September, many of your children would have made the transition from primary school into middle 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 6ème (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 they are 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 moyen (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 4ème or 3ème, when they are preparing for and taking the Brevet. Even though 6ème 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.

 

Good to know: France's curriculum is cyclical


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 6ème – which means that in their classes in 6ème, 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 5ème – 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 6ème 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, lose confidence, think it means they aren’t as smart as they thought they were, 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 5ème 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.


Skills That Will Actually Help Them

So, if grades aren’t the priority, what will help them in their new environments?

There are specific skills and mindsets you can encourage and help them build that will set them up for success in a way that a focus on the number of hours of homework and grades will not. Over the years I have been teaching students in CM2 and 6ème, as they made this transition, I have noticed 5 main skills that can make a huge difference in both achievement and confidence for students.

  • A Growth Mindset

Focus on improvements and the process rather than results and grades. If you child gets a 9/20, focus on the fact that it’s higher than the 7/20 they got last week. If they write an essay that’s too short, remind them that it’s longer than the last one they wrote. Focus on those improvements, and the fact that those improvements can continue.

  • Self Awareness

An awareness of how they learn, what strategies work for each student, and what they need to do when they are studying can make the difference between frustratingly wasted study time and real progress.

How? By being explicit about what study methods or strategies you’re helping them find, and checking in about what is working and what isn’t.

  • Self-Reliance

Being able to solve their own problems instead of waiting for a teacher or a parent can make all the difference to a new middle-schooler.

How? Don’t do the work for them, even when it’s tempting! Ask them, “What can you do about that?” or “What’s your plan?”, and direct them to resources and tools they can use. Don’t let them off the hook when they blame someone else or shrug their shoulders – there is almost always something they can do to advance or solve the problem. Putting that power to problem solve and affect the outcome can be frustrating at first, but so empowering in the long run.

  • Time Management:


For many middle-schoolers, this might be the first time they have to manage their own time, or have enough work to do that it’s necessary. There is a lot of homework, and it’s easy to let it pile up and get overwhelming.


How to help? First, by insisting on good use of a large, week by week (those day by day ones are awful) agenda that allows them to plan out their week, not just their night. Students need to be able to take control of their agendas and their schedules, instead of relying on teachers to fill out the digital ones. They need to be able to use the agendas not just as a list of due dates, but as a way to plan out their homework and other commitments.

A planning session on Sunday nights for how the week will look goes a long way to developing habits and control.

  • Self-Advocacy

This one goes hand in hand with self awareness. I have worked with students who handed in blank papers at the end of an hour, telling me that they didn’t know they were allowed to ask for help. Who were too afraid to tell me they needed the dictionary that was sitting on my desk, or didn’t know they could tell me that they couldn’t see the whiteboard well. Students need to be able identify what they need and ask for it.


How? When you are working on those self-awareness skills, you can help your student identify which things they identified they can do on their own, and which things they need to ask for or talk to their teacher about. A student who can ask for what they need is one who is much more likely to get the help, support, and resources they need.


The transition into Middle School is a challenge for everybody, and can be incredibly difficult for some. But, with a focus on those five learning skills, and clear goals and patience while making the transition, I am confident that your children (and you!) can make it a successful milestone.



*This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 edition of the Message magazine, which is mailed to all members who live in France.

 
Photo by Rebecca Gulka

About the author:

Rebecca Gulka is a qualified teacher who's been teaching in International and French schools for 15 years. She has spent the last 5 years living in France with her husband and step-son, and has recently started Teaching With Class, an online school focused on English Literacy and Language Arts.

 

All images by Wix unless otherwise noted. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Message.

3 Comments


Kat Moioli
Kat Moioli
Nov 11, 2022

Great article. I cant wait (not!) lol.

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KB
KB
Sep 22, 2022

Looooove this. So true and well described. Bravo Rebecca!!

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Shan James Saindrenan
Shan James Saindrenan
Sep 22, 2022

This is such an informative article! I am definitely bookmarking it for the (dreaded 😅) day that my son moves up to Collège.

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