Eighth Grade Out!

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, I’d like to propose a corollary: “Eighth Grade Out!” 

This proposal stems from the work I’ve done with teens and families over sixteen years, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense intuitively as well. 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. How can you choose to work in that setting?” We are all familiar with the changes and growth of early adolescence, and how most teens give their academics only the focus needed to earn the grades they desire. Many teens need a year or two to catch up with their peers, and others are simply too antsy to sit still. Hoarding all these teens in one age-segregated building may be someone’s idea of making society safe for the rest of us, but it hardly makes sense for most of these youth.

I have been working with teen homeschoolers for sixteen years, and I have discovered that these families and networks have created valuable opportunities for their children to grow up calmly outside of the system. They organize sophisticated homeschooling co-ops, museum days, week-long trips and conferences, and all sorts of learning groups. Formal academic curricula are readily available in addition to the systems people generate for themselves. Many teens who utilize these options choose to enter high school, ready and even excited for the experience of rigorous, classroom-based learning. (Many choose to remain homeschoolers, but that’s a topic for another blog post.)

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 home-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 teens 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 twelve-year stint of schooling, students need the challenge of answering, “What do you really want to learn? What kind of help do you need to pursue your 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, structured support to think through these questions and provide some non-family and non-school based activities are essential for this idea to gain any mainstream appeal.

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 teenaged 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 inverts the dynamic in the traditional school where students could no longer complain, “Do I have to be here? Can’t I learn what I want?”

Many 13-15 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.