In recent years, the term "Gap Year" has become a common phrase to describe the experience of teens taking a year out of school between high school and college. The idea is widely accepted for youth wanting to pursue a non-academic interest, travel, volunteer, or simply re-charge their love for learning prior to embarking on the intense and expensive four-year college experience. In the wake of "The Gap Year" movement, and for all of the same reasons, I'd like to propose a corollary: "Eighth Grade Out!"
This proposal grows from 20 years of working with this age group, first as as a public middle school teacher and then in my current role at North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens. When I used to teach eighth grade U.S. History, I encountered many adults who exclaimed, "Bless you. Junior high was the one experience of my life I'd never wish to repeat." While some teens do thrive in a junior high or middle school setting, in general we expect these years to be the nadir of productive learning in school. We sympathize with youth ages 12-14 who find these settings socially uncomfortable. I suggest we can expect more and do more for this age group than encourage them to wait and hope for a better time in high school. We can generate a meaningful alternative, outside of a school setting, for those interested in a different approach for one year. We can use our adult influence to normalize the idea of Eighth Grade Out!
Legally, Eighth Grade Out! would require a teen to register as a homeschooler for the year. Currently, all homeschoolers who demonstrate even a minor amount of responsibility and work for the year but wish to enter school for ninth grade are placed as they request. Therefore, we can encourage teens to develop their own programs for a year and assume very little risk that they would somehow "fail" and be ineligible for high school.
A year's program might begin with some of the academic courses and local programs already structured for teen homeschoolers, including events such as literature groups, theater projects, and outdoor education. A full year's routine might include a foreign language intensive, involvement with a local non-profit organization or museum, and other kinds of entrepreneurial work or family involvement. Imagine the possibilities in asking youth ages 12-14 what skills or knowledge they would most like to master and how they might want to pursue these interests.
Most teens who experience Eighth Grade Out! will look forward to entering high school on schedule, ready to appreciate the full slate of opportunities presented to them in ninth grade. A few might want to remain out of school, but that's a topic for another post.
In our current culture, most teens and families are not in a position to consider a year out of school, no matter the attractions. Most parents work, and most do not have a family dynamic that makes self-directed learning particularly appealing.
However, our culture does possess the infrastructure needed to make Eighth Grade Out! possible for anyone. It would just need to be expanded from the current summer and after-school opportunities that already exist. Imagine if camps, community centers, museums, and town recreation departments received funds and support to make activities available to all interested fourteen-year-olds for one year. Ideally, even school systems could offer some weekly activities and tutoring for middle school students interested in this option.
Somewhere along the 12-year stint of schooling, students need the challenge of answering, "What do I really want to learn? What kind of help do I need to pursue my dream?" Considering those questions is the seed for maturity. The declaration of an interest makes one vulnerable, and the pursuit of a passion is a chance to discover one's talents and limits. Some non-family support to think through these questions and also provide some structured activities is essential for this idea to gain any mainstream appeal. The same types of educational consultants, counselors, and organizations who promote "Gap Year" for high school graduates can provide support for Eighth Grade Out!
I am not proposing that all students take Eighth Grade Out! any more than Gap Year or Junior Year Abroad proponents suggest that all students choose those options. I know that I would not have embraced such an offer, and I see that neither of my two teenage children are inclined to have such an experience. Nevertheless, the impact of creating an Eighth Grade Out! option and having the majority of teens decline it would turn attending ordinary eighth grade into an affirmative choice. Allowing teens to "choose" school would invert the dynamic in traditional school where students could no longer so easily complain, "Do I have to be here? Can't I learn what I want?"
Many 12-14 year-olds are running out of steam for schooling, and a year to see what they will actually do with the time and space to take on their own interests can be life-changing. The vast majority will re-enter high school energized and thankful. Imagine a generation from now adults proclaiming that "Eighth grade was my favorite year!" We can make that happen.