Out to Lunch With 8th Graders

Choir at VB

Picture 14-year-olds at a banquet. You may be imagining spoons hanging off their noses or food flying across the table, or maybe yawns and queries of “How much longer?”

Last week I attended a luncheon with the 8th graders shown above. They were part of the entertainment, but  after singing (unexpectedly a cappella), they got to sit down for lunch just like the other guests.  They needed a little help figuring out which fork to use, and they didn’t all recognize the blue fan-shaped objects in front of their plates as napkins, but otherwise they handled it well.

Yet there were definite signs that they were 14-year-olds.  For example, two of the girls noticed teabags on the table but no hot water, so they attempted to make iced tea in their water glasses (tip: it doesn’t work).  The two boys entertained themselves playing tic-tac-toe on the program, while one of the other girls headed to the bathroom to clean the Caesar dressing off her shoe (“It wasn’t my fault!”).  One of the boys poured himself a small cup of coffee and, after adding two creams and two sugars, pronounced it “pretty good!”

Overall, I was proud of their ability to behave like young adults even as I was entertained by their antics. Middle schoolers are comfortable being children but at the same time really want to learn how to be grown-ups.  They can step it up when they need to, but they reserve the right to be silly if they feel like it. One of my secrets to getting along with this age group is to treat them like young adults but not to be surprised when they act like kids.

When the luncheon ended, I told them I was so proud of them that I was going to take them all out for dinner.  “Cool!” said one of the guys.  “Will we get to order dessert?”

A Peek Inside the Cyber World of Teens

You know about Facebook and Instagram–you may even have your own accounts—but what about Snapchat, Tumblr, or Kik?  How many YouTube celebrities can you name?  While some parents are blissfully (and frighteningly) ignorant about what teens do online, others may think they’re in the know (but aren’t).  If you don’t regularly access your teenager’s phone/tablet/computer, or if you have no idea how it even works, chances are you’re leaving your child vulnerable to more dangers than you realize.

I came across an article that I’d like to recommend, written by a young high school teacher who knows much more about the options available to teens on the internet than I ever will.  I encourage you to check it out (click anywhere on the picture to open the link):

For Every Mom

Photo via For Every Mom

Tell Me A Story

Getting a tow at LAX

Getting a tow at LAX

I woke up this morning to find pictures on Facebook of my son’s car being towed from LAX.  Later I will call him and say, “Tell me a story about your car,” and he will begin, “Okay, so I was at the airport. . .”  And pretty soon I’ll have all the details this mother’s heart craves.

It’s a habit that began years ago.  Instead of demanding that he tell me what happened, or peppering him with a dozen questions, I simply spoke the neutral, non-threatening words, “Tell me a story.”  That told him that I already had some info, so he might as well come clean.  If he didn’t know–or pretended not to know–I’d add “. . .about the broken light fixture” or “. . .about the email I got from your teacher.”  “Oh, yeah that,” he’d say. “Okay, so here’s the deal. . .”

I use this technique in my classroom when I come across two students fighting, or when I have a student whose homework looks suspicious.  “Tell me a story about why I saw you kicking him.”  “Tell me a story about why there’s no work shown on these math problems.”  If I meet resistance, I may give a little shrug to show it’s not that big of deal and add, “I was just wondering what happened here.”  Most students will capitulate at that point , and then we can move on the the next step.

But I don’t use it only for problems or negative situations.  It works just as well if there’s good news to share.  Quiet or shy students are put at ease because they’ve been invited to tell their stories in their own way.  I keep interruptions to a minimum, maybe just giving an encouraging “wow” or “mm-hmm” to keep them going.  Chatty, boisterous storytellers are excited to have a captive audience (though they don’t need much encouragement to tell their stories).  Whether they’re eager or reluctant, they get to be heard and I get to hear what’s on their hearts and minds.

Parents of middle schoolers sometimes complain that their kids don’t talk to them.  This can be due to a fear of parents “going off” (overreacting) or frustration because they can’t finish their story without being interrupted.  Students sometimes tell me they don’t think their parents are all that interested in listening to them.  Try taking a more relaxed approach and simply saying, “Tell me a story.”  You may be surprised at all you can learn, especially if you listen until the very end without interrupting.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a (Facetime) call to make.  My son has a story to tell me.

Speaking in the Second Person


ptc-3I hold student-led conferences, where I expect students to talk about their accomplishments and their plans to improve.  Most parents appreciate this, but sometimes they will address questions to me as if the student weren’t present:  “What do you think he could do to raise his math grade?”  “How is her behavior in class?”  I always direct the question to the student: “How do you think you’re doing? What’s your plan for improvement?”

This disappoints parents at first, but after I let the students speak and then chime in afterward with my input, they’re usually satisfied.  Sometimes I remind students of conversations we’ve had; other times I offer suggestions.  But I never talk about them with their parents as if they aren’t present at the table.

It’s a habit we get into when our children are babies, too young to understand what we’re saying.  As they get older, we adapt by s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g or using half sentences: “Did you take care of his. . .?”  There comes a point, however, when it’s just not okay to talk about them as if they’re not there, and that time arrives somewhere in elementary school.

If it’s a conversation about your kids that you don’t want them involved in, hold it when they’re not present.  If they’re in the room and it’s actually about them, include them in the conversation.  Allow them to tell their side of the story, and then involve them in seeking solutions where needed.

At the beginning of every conference, I remind my students that they’re in charge.  Since every conversation is about them, doesn’t it make sense that every conversation should include them?

21st Century Students

blg scrsAs I laid out the schedule for our upcoming PE unit on bowling, I told my class I would teach them how to keep score.  “But why,” asked a puzzled student, “when the machines will do that for us?”

While it sounds like a line from a science fiction movie, it’s an issue I face daily. As a teacher in a 21st-century classroom, I’m often faced with the question of how useful a skill is now and how useful it will be in the near future.  Debates rage in social media over whether we should be teaching cursive, but there are other issues: analog (clock face) vs. digital time; multiplication tables vs. calculators; keyboarding vs. voice (or just thumbs). . .

The list of no-longer-taught items continues to grow: dictionary guide words, the library card catalog, using encyclopedias.  But at the same time, the list of necessary new skills also grows: validating online research, uploading an assignment, creating presentations on PowerPoint/Prezi/Keynote, using the Help feature on a new app or program.

When someone says students should know how to write in cursive or read a wristwatch in case their electronics break down, I point out that few of us can saddle a horse, make bread from scratch, or milk a cow.  When our cars break down, we find a ride; when we run out of bread or milk, we buy or borrow some.  We never go back to “the old ways.”  Humans have an amazing ability to adapt and to cope.

There will always be an overlap of new skills with old; for example, sometimes I use Google to look up an answer and other times I ask SIRI.  Sometimes I look at an online map before I go and other times I just trust my phone’s GPS.  See how quickly new skills become old?

Yes, some day there may be an electromagnetic pulse that will stop all electricity and radio waves, like in sci-fi movies.  If that day comes, we will need to learn to live off the land, or use Morse code, or draw water from a well.  The “old skills” will become the new ones that everyone needs to know.  And we will adapt.

In the meantime, I’m going to sharpen some pencils and teach my kids how to score a strike.  For old time’s sake.

School Spirit is Alive and Well

Photo by Janelle Morehart
Photo by Janelle Morehart

Take 1000+ students in grades 5 through 8 from five different states, put them on a small college campus in Portland, and have them compete in events like knowledge bowl, basketball, and music—and you have LEST, the annual Lutheran Elementary Schools Tournament.

To adults it sounds like a nightmare—middle school kids in the library, the cafeteria, the gym, the classrooms—but it is a fun three days, and for many students it’s one of the most memorable times of those tumultuous years between ages 11 and 14.

It wouldn’t be such a good time without the preparation and expectations of teachers combined with the vigilance and chaperonage of parents.  Weeks before we left, I held classroom discussions about sportsmanship, being good guests, and school spirit.  Especially school spirit.

The reality is that our school spirit at LEST in past years has been rather lackluster.  While other schools in the gym were joining in cheers for their teams, ours was noticeably quiet.  I told them how it used to be in the past, with parents tossing bags of red hots and Big Red gum into the stands.  “Can we do that?” asked one excited young lady.  I gave permission, and in the next few days she gathered a crew to help her assemble the bags.  In Portland she not only threw bags at our fans, she had fun sharing them with other schools, too.

Because we have no cheerleaders, the 8th grade class has taken on the responsibility for leading cheers at the pre-LEST pep assembly.  Initially, it was a handful of brave souls, but in recent years it’s been the entire class on the floor.  This year the 8th grade upheld the tradition, leading cheers not only at the assembly but also in Portland.  They were loud and they were proud, and they weren’t ashamed to show it.

But they didn’t just cheer at basketball games.  They showed up in droves—parents in tow—at every event, from the drama production to the spelling bee to the choral festival.  Wherever I went, I saw students in red, cheering loudly for everybody from our school, whether they were classmates or not.  I had goosebumps more than once as I witnessed more school spirit than I’d seen in years.

Some good prep, a little pep, a few bags of candy, and a whole lot of “Our team is red hot!”–that’s all it takes to get middle schoolers wound up for a good cause.

We’ve got spirit, yes we do!  We’ve got spirit; how ’bout you?

wrsprt

Photo by Stephanie Pariseau

Super Bowl Weekend: A Good Time to Teach Sportsmanship

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Here in Seahawks territory, Blue Fridays are a big deal, and the students in our school proudly wear their Seahawks gear every week.

But there are a few dissenters, who also proudly–and bravely–wear their team shirts.  They know that while they may take some ribbing, they won’t face out-and-out hostility, because our rule is:  You can support your team, but you can’t bash anyone else’s.

Bad sportsmanship is good entertainment in today’s society, which is why it’s so important to teach emotional middle schoolers and teens what good sportsmanship looks like.  Whether it’s the team they’re on, or a college or professional team, teens need to know the difference between being a fan and being a bully.  Cheering for one’s team, “repping” their colors, and flying the team flag are all acceptable ways to show support.  Trash talking about the other team, defacing their posters, and calling the players names are not.

Teaching good sportsmanship goes right along with teaching common courtesy (holding the door for the person behind you), using manners (not burping loudly in a restaurant), and apologizing appropriately.  And it’s not enough to just teach it; adults need to model it as well.

As I always say, it’s part of our job to civilize ’em–and a big weekend filled with Super Bowl parties is the perfect time.

After we took the (staged) picture above, the nose-thumbing young man behind the Broncos fan patted his back and said, “Poor guy!  You know we love you–even if we don’t love your team!”

I’m pretty sure Russell Wilson would approve.  (Go, Hawks!)