Podcast: Transitioning into Middle School – What You Can Expect

In our ongoing “Listen and Learn” podcast series, Director of Enrollment Management and Admissions at Punahou School Maile Uohara, spoke with Case Middle School Assistant Principal Chase Mitsuda.

Each “Listen and Learn” podcast aims to provide valuable information and insights about our school and programs for prospective families. In each episode, we’ll be inviting guests from our school community to share their knowledge and experiences with our listeners. 

You can find Punahou’s Team Up podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast and Google Play.

Podcast Transcript

Maile Uohara: Aloha. My name is Maile Uohara and I’m the Director of Enrollment management and Admissions at Punahou School. I’d like to welcome you to our Listen and Learn podcast, where we aim to provide valuable information and insights about our school and programs. In each episode, we’ll be inviting guests from our school community to share their knowledge and experiences with our listeners. Today I’m delighted to have you meet Chase Mitsuda, one of our junior school assistant principals and current middle school dean of faculty and curriculum. Chase will be talking us through the developmental stages of middle schoolers and how our middle school addresses the needs of those in sixth through eighth grade. Chase, welcome to our Listen and Learn podcast. I’d love it if you could share a little bit about yourself to our listeners before we start off with our questions.

Chase Mitsuda: Sure. Thank you, Maile. Honored to be here. I’m a very proud Punahou alum and now a parent as well, and also a former teacher and now administrator. Just seeing the school from all these different angles has been such a blessing and just keeps reminding me about what a wonderful community that I’m a part of and honored to be able to contribute to every single day. 

Maile Uohara: And I am so excited to have you here to sit down with us to talk about your jam or your wheelhouse, which is going to be all of the middle schoolers. And I would love it if you could share and describe to the listeners what is that developmental change that our students go through or probably any middle schoolers go through around the time from fifth grade moving on to sixth grade and really what parents can expect during that time. 

Chase Mitsuda: Yeah, middle school is such a big transition for so many people, not just the kids but for parents as well. I mean this budding adolescence, this time of discovery, this time of exploring oneself and middle school, as you talk about it being my jam, and I can speak for our middle school colleagues, that middle school is such a unique time. It really is their jam. You have to be an educator that’s very, very comfortable with a lot of differences and changes and things that are happening because that’s what’s happening with the kids. But it’s just such a wonderful place to be because they’re at a stage in their life that they have really high capability to be able to do things independently, but are still seeking these boundaries and this guidance and really moldable and really, really just great kids. So it’s a really wonderful place to be. 

Maile Uohara: It’s at that time I feel like, where they’re trying to learn how to be a little bit more independent but still crave that connection to parents to have that guidance or from their teachers. And so it’s an interesting stage, I think even for them as students or as children. 

Chase Mitsuda: Yeah, for sure, I mean, that’s really when we look at how we designed their middle school, it is for this opportunity for them to have this growing independence and to explore some of the things that are their interest or they may not even know they’re interested in yet, and be able to be close by with adults to give them that sense of security and safety, but also providing them with a little bit of a push to go and fly and try different things. 

Maile Uohara: So when you say how we designed the middle school, keeping the developmental stages or that growth trajectory that they’ll go through from sixth to eighth grade, what are some of those considerations or thoughts that you put through and thinking about, well, we’re doing this for sixth grade, but when they get to eighth grade it’s going to look slightly different. What are those design considerations that have gone into designing our middle school? 

Chase Mitsuda: So one of the primary principles of our middle school is this team concept to make a large school like Punahou be more intimate, be more, smaller in a lot of different ways. And the team concept really provides that because we have a team around 93 kids on each teams, three teams in sixth grade, four teams in seventh grade, and four teams in eighth grade. And those teachers that teach those kids all know them really well and they all have a sense of belonging because those teachers connect with them very, very concretely with them. 

Maile Uohara: So when you talk about team, visually speaking, it means that we have a group of students that basically are just on one floor or one area of the building. Is that correct? 

Chase Mitsuda: Yeah, so team space is a space in which is an open area that is connected by four core classrooms. So math, science, social studies, English, all share one team space, and all those teachers share those 93 kids and they meet every cycle to talk about those kids, celebrate them, but also any concerns that come up along the way to really give them that sense that it’s their nest or their home. So it’s a place for them to have their home base so that they can come back to, know that the teachers not only can teach them but also really care about them. 

Maile Uohara: So when you say they meet once a cycle or maybe once a week to talk about the students, what does that look like? I mean, what is it that they’re talking about like Johnny did well today or it seems like he’s been a little off. What have you seen in your class or what does that kind of manifest itself into? 

Chase Mitsuda: So the meeting with the adults, we call them the student care meetings and they’re really in care of the students and anything can be brought up. Our counselor, our learning support specialist, our dean as well as the teachers all sit down around a table and we talk about children and really about what their strengths are. If they’re seeing something in the class like, oh, I noticed that one of our students is having trouble in this area, do you see anything like that in your class? Or do you see something where it’s really beneficial for having them do group work together? And what can be beneficial in my class because I can learn from what you’re doing in your class. So it’s really a collaborative time to be able to have holistic caring for any individual student.

Maile Uohara: Then on top of that care, do you also have advisory or one teacher that’s almost paired with a student or how does that work out too? 

Chase Mitsuda: Yes, during their middle school years, they will always have an advisor. And this is another way of making this big campus feel smaller where a class size is usually around 24 kids, but an advisory in seventh and eighth grade is usually around 16 kids, 15 to 16 kids, and they meet with that advisor every single morning regardless of what their schedule is, drop every morning, every morning at 8 – 8:10 a.m. And it’s much more than just attendance. They’re really getting to know these kids during that time. The frequency helps the casual just how you’re doing. How was your weekend? Oh, I noticed that you had a baseball game this weekend. How’d that go? All those things that really build the relationship piece is what is done now. In sixth grade, we’ve started making those communities even smaller, so they’re groups of 12. And we realized that the fifth to sixth grade transition is very significant, it really shows this movement from elementary school to middle school, and we felt like there needed to be a little bit smaller ratio for there to be more advisors on a team. So instead of six advisories per team, there’s eight advisories per team now in sixth grade.

Maile Uohara: I’ve had the pleasure to sit in some of those sixth grade advisories – in one class in particular – and it’s been amazing to me to just see at the beginning of the school year that connection that the advisor is able to create amongst those 12 students. And I could really see how over the course of the year, but also throughout middle school, how that really deepens relationships amongst the students themselves, but also with that teacher, they’re finding that trusted adult that we always want our students, or at least me as a parent also want my child to have is like I know I can talk to one person and I feel, and I see that happening just by observing that class, whether it’s through the activities or the guided questions that are happening. But it’s actually really great to see that. 

Chase Mitsuda: And the research has shown if they have a trusted adult and a trusted peer that they can connect to, their success in school goes way up. And advisory is a way to intentionally design for that possibility to happen. We also are intentionally mixing students in the advisories, so it’s not just the same students that they may have in English class, but also having a mix of kids that they could also be exposed to and learn from. So it helps to see students in different light during advisory and also the teacher in a different light. So they may know their teacher as their English teacher, but in advisory it humanizes them a lot. They’re just a caring adult who really cares for them. And there’s not a grade associated with advisory or any sort of that academic type of pressure, but it’s really, these are the skills that are going to help you now, and also forever, these transferable skills of being able to have these interpersonal relationships be part of a community to have belonging. These are the things that are going to last with them hopefully for a long time. 

Maile Uohara: One of my past colleagues used to say that the motor school years are some of the most important developmental years in a child. What would you say that we do to address this unique developmental stage and guide them through this season of their life? I think I heard part of it is the advisory or the team spaces, but is there anything else that comes out or jumps out to you that we do in particular on a daily basis to really care for this stage that is so important to students and the stage that they’re at in their overall lifespan? 

Chase Mitsuda: In line with this growing independence that is developmentally appropriate where you see students starting to branch a little bit off from that parent relationship and going more to their peer relationship, really try to develop those peer relationships during the course of their time in the middle school and realize that that’s important and also intentionally making it so that the team space is designed where there’s always an adult close by, but not always an adult right next to them.

Maile Uohara: What does that mean exactly? 

Chase Mitsuda: So an example can be at lunch. So at lunch oftentimes students are eating in their team spaces in seventh and eighth grade and they like to eat in their team spaces and be with their friends and their peers. And at the same time, because there’s so many glass windows in the team space, the teacher could be sitting right in their classroom, they can see the kids and they know what’s going on, but they don’t necessarily have to be right with them. And having those interactions right there is a trust that’s being developed between the adults and the kids where you don’t have to be supervised all the time and we can trust you to make the best decisions. So another example is when they walk to class, we no longer escort them to the class. We do so in the first couple of days because our schedule is complex, but after that, it really is up to the kids to be able to get to their classes on time. 

Chase Mitsuda: And as you know, Punahou school doesn’t have bells. And so the independent scrolls in that nature too. And to add on to that, they have a rotating A through F schedule. So the Monday isn’t always a Monday schedule. It depends on the schedule. And these are examples of how we trust kids to be able to make these decisions because later on in life there’s not going to be a bell to tell you to go to your next meeting or a bell to tell you to do the next thing. They have to be able to do that for themselves. Now they can set reminders using technology and different things like that, but it is more up to them to be the ones that are responsible. So this being responsible for themselves and their own learning is something that we intentionally develop during the middle school years so that they can be not only prepared for the Academy, but beyond that. 

Maile Uohara: So what I’m hearing is that students, they start to learn how to self-advocate for themselves. They learn how to organize themselves, time management. But what I’m hearing is also you’re saying that we’re scaffolding that for them too. So we don’t just expect them on day two to just understand it all, but we scaffold it for them, so through their years with us, they’re learning those skills. 

Chase Mitsuda: Yes. And we do that especially in the beginning of the year, but also throughout the year. So one of the things that we learned from the pandemic actually was that the transition into middle school isn’t always easy regardless of whether there’s a global pandemic happening or not. And students need to be explicitly taught how to navigate the complexities of school. So our first two days of school in sixth, seventh and eighth grade are just two days of truly orientation. We’re not diving into content, we’re not going into the nuts and bolts of the actual coursework itself, but we’re helping them navigate their different spaces and not only their physical spaces, so where to go for a class, but also the digital space of our learning management system, which gives them a lot of the scaffolds that you talk about in terms of having their schedule all in one place, having their assignments all in one place, having directions all in one place, having links to resources all in one place. 

Chase Mitsuda: So it’s there for them, but at the same time, we’re not always going to guide their hand and say, click on this space to go there. You have to know where to go to be able to get the resources that you need. Now the teachers do an outstanding job in trying to make this as predictable as possible for students. So we have course guidelines and expectations that are consistent throughout our middle school. So the courses don’t look drastically different based upon the teacher you have, but there’s some fundamental things that you can expect as a student to see on everyone’s page. So it feels similar and the things you can get to is similar. But what is nice about having the learning management system of canvas now is that students also write in their planner. So that act of writing the planner is important, but let’s say they are unclear about what they wrote in their planner, they go to Canvas, they log in, they can see, they can look up their assignments, they can also see the explanations of going to assignments. Sometimes the teachers post the notes of what happened in class, so the resources are more readily available and they’re readily available when the teacher is not there. And we’re very cognizant about how a lot of the work that they do at home is without the teacher there and they have to ask their parents about what’s going on. Well, the parents can say, have you checked Canvas yet? Have you checked the resources that are available to you first so that you can look at how your teacher would like things done? And I think we found that to be really helpful.

Maile Uohara: And I think that’s where, again, it goes back to that idea of giving them scaffolding to learn how to become independent, how to manage their time and organize themselves, but scaffold with the help of your teachers, of your adults. Thinking with my parent hat on, what could I expect as a parent during these three years in middle school? I would imagine my child would change drastically over that time, but what could I expect as a parent during these three years? 

Chase Mitsuda: So in line with what we talked about earlier about developmentally appropriate for this age group is that you’ll have this wanting and desire for independence and just know that that is perfectly normal. I mean that they’re going to be pushing a little bit away.

Maile Uohara: What does that look like though? 

Chase Mitsuda: So that’s maybe drop me off a little bit further away before I get to my friend’s house or to Kahala Mall so that I’m not seen with my parents, I’m not seen with you. And that’s one of those things where they want you to still take them to the mall, but they don’t necessarily want you to be hovering over them for a lot of it. And that goes the same with schoolwork as well. They want to be trusted and at the same time, so they’re going to push back and I got this right, you’re here. I got this, don’t worry, I got this. How will it go today? Fine, I got this. But if you can ask them to talk about specific things that they had done during the day, it can kind of push them more to really highlight the stuff that happened during their day that they may not think to share. So I think asking them to tell stories because middle schoolers also like to talk about themselves at times when given the proper venue. So just giving them that opening to have those conversations and a time and space could be really helpful. 

Maile Uohara: As a parent, what would your advice be on the best way they can support their child? What I heard just now is just ask them questions, give them that space. But is there anything else cause I could imagine even myself as a parent or others transitioning from elementary school where you really want to be involved in almost sometimes tell them what to do too, where now you’re trying to scaffold to allow them to become more independent. What is the best ways that parents can support their child through this stage of their life in preparation for high school and beyond? 

Chase Mitsuda: So that word independence keeps coming up. Even though they’re growing in their independence and this is burgeoning independence, they’re not completely independent yet and they’re not able all the time to make the best decisions for themselves. So an example of that is their learning environment at home. They may think for themselves, my best learning environment is with the TV on with my phone out so I can still text with my friends while I’m trying to do my algebra homework. We know that that is not the best way to do the homework because the brain doesn’t multitask. It just switches tasks between different things you’re doing and you need to prioritize what they’re doing and to create a more distraction, less environment for them is something that a parent can help with and designate, okay, here’s a space where I know you’re going to be able to do your best work. And it may not be completely silent, but at the same time it’s not filled with distractions. I think technology is a big part of adolescence and kids always want to have what is latest and greatest, whether it be a phone or a watch or all that because it helps them to be able to express their independence. But like anything, it’s time and place. When is the time and place to use those devices to best service whatever they’re doing. So I think what would be helpful for parents to do is to set aside time for them to use those devices appropriately and also set aside time in which it should not be a part of their environment because it’s going to just be distracting them.

Maile Uohara: What would you say in terms of social dynamics that happen during the middle school years, are there changes that parents could see during that time and how, again, best to support their child through those changes possibly?

Chase Mitsuda: Because they’re still exploring themselves and the world around them. They’re going to go through probably multiple friend groups. They may meet one friend group and really like them and also hang out with them. It doesn’t mean that they’re not friends anymore, but they may be going towards a different friend group and try that out. And they may have multiple different friend groups or they may just have one friend. And all of these different parts of exploring those friendships are a normal part of adolescence. 

Maile Uohara: And would you say that ties into, because they’re also at a stage where they’re exploring different interests too, or diving into their passions or exploring new passions and through that come new friendships? 

Chase Mitsuda: Definitely. So as they get more involved in their classes and they see, well, I’m also interested in that. I see someone else is interested in that, that’s a connection that they may not even know that they had in the past. We have clubs in the middle school, so many relationships built through clubs. Sports start in seventh and eighth grade with ILH sports. So those connections happen as well. Some of my best friends in my Punahou years were met through sports. So that happens. So these different environments help to lend itself to meeting new people and you can still stay friends with those who you’ve had before, but you’re also just expanding those circles. 

Maile Uohara: If you had to give advice to parents of a fifth grader now going into middle school or say, I have a middle schooler right now, what would your best advice be for them and how to best support their child or what they can expect during these years? 

Chase Mitsuda: Being a parent of a middle schooler myself, this is something that I’ve had to work on, it’s to listen more than you speak and really hear what your child is telling you about what is going on. And oftentimes the first thing that they tell you may not actually be the issue or the thing that it is. That’s what they’re feeling at the time. That’s what they’re expressing to you. But oftentimes it has another avenue or something else that can be illuminating for you as a parent. But what I’ve found is that if I try to solve the initial problem right away without fully hearing their story and without fully hearing from them, then I may be jumping to a conclusion that actually isn’t really what the issue is. And there are times in which it’s not that you have to solve anything, it’s more about they want someone to listen and understand where they’re coming from and really try to understand where they’re coming from and not always just relate it to themselves in middle school. Because when I’m having conversations with my daughter, I think to myself, well, it wasn’t like that when I was  in middle school. Well, times have changed a lot. She’s not me. So her experience is her experience and listening helps to authenticate that experience and validate it without any judgment around it and know that your kids are going to make some mistakes. I mean, that’s part of adolescence and it is actually the time to make mistakes so that they learn. We don’t want them to make really big mistakes, obviously, but when they are making mistakes to get the guidance in a way that’s going to be helpful for them to be able to know how to do better the next time. That’s helpful. And this goes back to this desire to be independent with the guidelines. If there’s clear expectations of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. I believe that the kids will try to stay within what those guidelines are. It’s in the absence of expectations or guidelines where they’re not sure what this independence means. And they may be explore far beyond that, and that may not be what’s best for them.

Maile Uohara: And I think what’s nice about our environment, going back to what you said at the beginning, is that we have an environment that allows them to strive and explore that independence, but in a safe way with those trusted adults around doing all of that.

Chase Mitsuda: And we really try to, in designing our curriculum, is to expose our students to a whole bunch of opportunities. And we move to an enrichment coursework in which students can try different things because they have a rotation that’s designed for them. And this allows students for those who may read a description of improv theater, for example, and say, oh, that’s not for me. I don’t know. I’m never going to be an actor or an actress. Well, improv theater is much more than that. It’s about interpersonal communication. It’s about empathy. It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s about being able to have fun with your peers in a different way. Much of improv theater is games and things that they play, and life skills. And because every student in our middle school takes improv theater twice throughout their middle school journey, they are going to benefit from that. And so they may not know that they would benefit from that, but we are strategically putting things in place like Woodcraft, culinary arts, design, tech and engineering.

Maile Uohara: In the long run, all of these exposures is what will give them that foundation to know a little bit more about themselves over time than what they expected. Chase, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been such a pleasure sharing with our listeners a little bit about what you could expect in middle school and those years as parents, but also how we can best support our students. So thank you so much. It’s been such a joy to have you here. 

Chase Mitsuda: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Maile Uohara: Thank you.

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