Time at the Tidepools

A glimpse into the manipulative mind of a middle school teacher:

When my boys were younger we enjoyed exploring the tidepools during a minus tide.  I thought it would be fun to take 8th graders on a field trip to do the same thing, but then I imagined their reactions:  “We came here for this?”  “How much longer do we have to stay?”  “So tell me again why we’re here?”

Putting on my thinking cap, I pondered what would pique their adolescent interest and came up with two ideas for incentives:  competition and food.  And thus was born the Beach Scavenger Hunt.

I divide the class into teams and provide each team with a disposable camera, a small notepad, a laminated picture of sea creatures they might find in (or near) the tidepools, and a laminated card with point values for each item (starfish, seaweed, multiple types of crabs, etc.).  I tell them the team with the highest score (and the photos to prove it) will receive an edible prize.

This past Friday the tide was a lovely -2.9 feet, a perfect time for tidepooling.  The weather, however, was unbelievably nasty for May, even for the Pacific Northwest.  With a forecast of rain showers, a wind chill in the 40’s, and gusts of up to 20 miles per hour, I feared a total disaster of a day, filled with whining and pleas to go back to school.

Imagine my delight when instead of whining I heard cries of, “Hey, look at this!  Is that some kind of an eel?  How many points?”  “Mrs. Acuna, come see this! It looks like some kind of fish eggs!”  “Whoa!  Check out the size of that purple starfish!”  Spurred on by the heat of competition, the students quickly became engaged in slipping and sliding over the kelp and eelgrass to see what they might discover next.  Turning over rocks (and then gently replacing them), they snapped pictures of large bullheads, shore crabs, and limpets.  With their heads ducked against the sideways rain, they attempted to record on their notepads the name of each critter and its point value.

Undaunted by the weather, some students even ventured into the water to wade without removing shoes or socks, or even rolling up their pant legs. On the bus ride home, steam rose from wet shoes and jeans, the windows fogged up so badly the defroster barely helped, and we got a little lost trying to avoid a traffic back-up.  But the conversations were still laced with comparing scores and interesting adventures (“Elijah fell, like, three times!”).

When we return to school on Tuesday, I’ll hand out prizes. . .to all the students who participated, because they showed so much enthusiasm and such a willingness to ignore the weather and get into the spirit of the hunt.

And I shall pat my manipulative self on the back.

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Hanging By Our Fingernails

The countdown has begun – by both the teachers and the students:  “One more Monday!”  “Nine more class days!”  As the end of the year quickly approaches, emotions run high – and in more ways than you might think.

Certainly everyone looks forward to a break from school:  time to play, lots of hours to sleep in, relief from homework.  But for some teens it causes equal parts stress along with the joy.  It’s a big change in routine, and that’s not always a good thing.

For the teen who can’t yet drive, it means getting together with friends can only happen at the whim of a parent or another willing chauffeur.  Certainly there’s MySpace, Facebook, and texting, but none of them take the place of a good punch in the arm, or giggling together until you can’t breathe.  For middle schoolers, most social interactions take place at school or revolve around school schedules, and they know they’ll miss that in the summer.

Younger teens present a unique babysitting challenge for working parents.  Too young to get a job but too old to stay with a babysitter, many teens wind up staying home alone or in charge of younger siblings.  Usually they’re restricted to the house for their own safety and security, and boredom quickly sets in.  If they’re being paid to babysit the siblings, they’re not free to accept invitations to friends’ houses or to the lake for a swim.

For some teens, imagining a summer full of unscheduled time is a cause of stress.  Not knowing how to fill their hours can make them tense.  Even the anticipation of empty days stretching into the future might make them edgy.

Teens and pre-teens alike might be facing big changes as they look ahead to the new school year.  The transitions from elementary to middle school, or from middle school to high school, mean not only new locations and new people, but higher expectations and tougher assignments.  Anxiety about moving on can also color the end of the year.

I refer to this time of year as “Drama Season.”  Some teens resort to “bridge burning” activities, either because they know they won’t have to face their classmates again, or else to cover the pain of having to say good-bye.   Some get overly sensitive or extremely moody.  Some just quit doing schoolwork altogether, quite willing to face the consequences because “it’s almost over.”

If you find yourself in the middle of more outbursts than usual, consider the possibility that it’s caused by all those end-of-the-year feelings.  You can try helping your teen to verbalize his feelings, but it can be a tough task.  He’s likely to deny it’s his fault at all, placing the blame on you or on school or on being too overwhelmed by homework.  You’ll need all your best empathy skills.  Or maybe you’ll just need to give her some space and ride it out.  Keep in mind that teens don’t have much control over what happens once school’s out, so involve them in any decisions that you can.  Feeling like they have even a small amount of choice can help lessen the stress.

Summer’s coming!  Time to stock up on sunscreen, finalize those vacation plans – and ride out the storms that may come your way as the school year winds down.

Mount Saint Helens

On the way to school on May 18, my son asked why the 30th anniversary of the mountain blowing up was such a major event to adults.  My students echoed that sentiment:  “It happened so long ago – what’s the big deal?”

Sometimes when I get questions like these, my first reaction is to feel criticized and defensive.  I have to make a quick judgment regarding whether it’s a serious query or just an attempt to bait me.  If the questioner is serious and I react badly with a comment like, “You are just too young to understand!” or “Why do you always have to be so negative?”  I may damage the communication channel.

In this case I took the time to explain that when I was growing up, volcanoes were only found in exotic places like Hawaii, Iceland, and Ancient Italy.  To have one erupt practically in our own backyard was as bizarre as it would be to have Mount Rainier erupt, or to have the Pacific Coast hit by a devastating tsunami.

I went on to explain how sharing major events becomes a way of bonding.  The question “Where were you when. . .?” is always  good for several minutes of sharing not only memories but also emotions.   For my parents, such events include Pearl Harbor and The Day Kennedy Was Shot.  For my generation, the list includes Landing On The Moon and The Challenger Disaster.  For today’s teens (as well as the rest of us):  9/11 and The Day Michael Jackson Died.

It was a great moment for teaching about how adults think and feel, and I almost missed it.

Spring Fever

Jason and Amanda are in love and plan to get married.  They like to hug, hold hands, and gaze into each other’s eyes.  They make a cute couple – especially since they’re both 5 years old.

When I tell my 8th graders that adults view their relationships in much the same light as 8th graders would view Jason and Amanda, they get very offended.  At the ripe old age of 14, they feel they are mature enough to handle “real” love and relationships.

For some, it’s because their parents encouraged them to date when they were in 5th or 6th grade.  They thought it was cute to drive them to a movie, or out for pizza.  It is cute when they’re in the first flush of romance, but there’s nothing cute about the emotional devastation left behind after a breakup.  At 11 or 12 – or even at 14 – their emotions are all over the place as it is.  Their self-esteem bounces from high to low, and many times relationships become hotbeds of drama, insecurity, and possessiveness.

The junior high brain doesn’t help much (yes, there is such a thing).  Studies show that the back part of the brain, where ideas and impulses form, is way ahead of the front part of the brain, which is where reason and caution live.  So the voice that says, “You know what would be cool/hilarious/freakin’ awesome?” is much louder than the voice that says “You could get hurt/pregnant/grounded/dead.”  This can cause a teen to quickly progress from the thrill of holding hands and touching lips to – well, to bigger thrills – without any thought to the risks involved.

Dating – and breaking up – as a young teen can lead to all kinds of complications such as abusive relationships, sexual experimentation, isolation, guilt, depression, loss of friendships, and lower grades.  Even the simpler, less complicated relationships eventually end in a broken heart and a huge amount of self-doubt.

Young teens will always have crushes.  Boys will dream about being seen with certain girls; girls will write their first names with the boys’ last names to see how it looks.  And kids will pair off – today it’s called “going out.”    But that doesn’t mean they actually need to be going anywhere together.

Parents can help by setting some dating guidelines early, like “You can go out with a group but not on an actual date until you’re 16.”  Parents can also avoid the temptation to make too much of the relationship.  Don’t encourage the exchange of personalized jewelry, for example, or spend too much time asking about the “girlfriend” or “boyfriend.”  If your teen does get involved in a relationship in junior high, be casual about it.  Trying to prevent these things usually only makes them more attractive.  Pushing too hard to make them look like high school relationships puts undue pressure on the teens and can lead to disastrous consequences.

Take the middle road, sort of an “Oh, that’s nice” approach.   Ask a question or two, then let it go.  Be available if advice is needed, but don’t offer ideas like taking her flowers or inviting him to her birthday party.  Above all, don’t encourage them to go out on a date.  Hold on to this thought:  if they’re kissing and holding hands and so on in 8th grade – what will they be doing in 11th grade?

A Tribute to My Mom

When I was 11 years old, my mom and I were the best of friends.  When I was in high school, we weren’t quite as connected, but we were still close.  My friends loved to come to my house and chat with her, and some of them still call her “Mom.”  When I was in college, she would drive from Seattle to Portland and back in one day, just to attend a choir concert.  When I had children of my own, she fed and bathed them as babies, read to them (and listened to them read) as toddlers, and chauffered them to doctor and orthodontic appointments and back once they reached school age (she’s still doing this).

Now, I’ll be the first to say this is not unusual mother/grandmother behavior.  But if you knew my mom’s story, you’d realize she had no model for this kind of nurturing.  She was the product of a broken home during the Depression, and she and her brother were shuttled between foster homes – to the point where she attended thirteen different schools before she graduated from 8th grade. 

Yet my mother was married to my father for almost 44 years – until he passed away in 2003.  She managed to raise all five of us kids in a pretty normal home, where dinner was eaten at the table, and birthdays were celebrated with homemade cakes and freedom from chores.  She was a stay-at-home mom until I was 13, which meant she was always there to take care of us when we were sick, and she knew all of our friends and their moms.

Our family certainly wasn’t perfect – we have skeletons rattling around in our closets, just like everyone else – but my mom always seemed to be right in the middle of whatever we kids were involved with.  I’ve always known I’ve had her support, and she’s still  there whenever I need her (and even sometimes when I don’t, which is when we can still clash).  She’s also there for the grandkids, as she’s been for them since the day they were born.

Mothers’ Day may be over, but it’s never a wrong time to appreciate one’s mom.  And I certainly appreciate mine.

(She’s a subscriber to this blog – supportive as always!)

I love you, Mom!

Just the Facts, Ma’am

But – maybe not all of them.  Or at least – not all of them right now.

A parent told me the other day that her 16-year-old had conveniently neglected to tell her that the mom who usually drives the carpool was unavailable, so the teenaged son had driven home.  When this parent discovered what had happened, she confronted her daughter, whose only defense was, “I knew you’d be upset, so I just didn’t tell you.”  No doubt accompanied by an annoying shrug.

Teens will conveniently “forget” to tell you about the R-rated movie they saw at a friend’s house, or about the note from the teacher, or about the phone call reminding you about tomorrow’s ortho appointment.  At 8 a.m.

Is it lying when a teen knowingly withholds information because it will cause a parent to be upset and possibly “go off” again?  Not exactly, but it certainly seems sneaky. And even a little manipulative.

Consider it yet another opportunity for a life lesson.  First listen to the teen’s rationalization for not telling you.  Could be he’s got a good point about you going ballistic.  Then take your turn and explain exactly why that information would upset you.  Don’t assume your teen sees things the way you do.  Remember – he’s looking at the world from inside a bubble, so maybe all he knows is you get upset, but he has no idea why.

Then have a chat about facing conflict head-on.  In my house not too long ago, it sounded like this, “Next time, deal with me freaking out.  Because if I know you haven’t been honest this time, how can I be sure you’re being honest next time?  Trust is a huge issue, and once it’s lost, it’s really hard to earn back.”

BUT – the next time you get the whole story, and you feel yourself getting ready to blow, stop and take a deep breath.  Complain, protest, disagree, or issue consequences – but do it as calmly as you can.  If you can play it cool, you’re always going to get better communication than if you turn into raving maniacal parent.

This I know from experience.

Is This On?

I’m pretty sure that to my students I often sound like the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons: “Waa-wa-wah. Wah-waa-wa-wah” This is evidenced by the number of questions I hear after I explain something like a change in our schedule: “Instead of P.E. at the end of the day, today we’ll be having an assembly about bike safety.” As soon as I’m finished, someone will ask, “What’s the assembly about?” Quickly followed by, “We’re having an assembly? When?” And finished off with “Who’s having an assembly?”

Yet the other day during my birthday party, a strange thing happened. Two of the girls dashed out the door calling, “We’re going to see Mr. Acuna in the parking lot!” I turned to a visiting parent and muttered under my breath, “My husband’s got doughnuts.” A student sitting no closer than twenty feet away yelped, “Doughnuts?! I want doughnuts!!”

It will come as no surprise to hear that teens practice selective listening. Notice I didn’t call it selective “hearing.” Many times they hear us all right but choose to ignore us. Key topics will often penetrate, however, like money, food, and did-you-hear-about-what-happened-to. . .?

One annoying habit that reflects teens’ listening disability is when they reply to every question with “Huh?” I’ve found that if I don’t repeat myself – if I just wait while maintaining eye contact – usually my question will get answered. As in, “Where’s your assignment?” “Huh?” (pause) “Oh, I forgot it in my dad’s car.” Sometimes the “huh” is a stalling technique; sometimes it’s just taking time to gather one’s thoughts; often it’s simply a reflex.

Of course, part of the blame lies with that notorious Bubble.  Teens can be so caught up in their own private worlds, listening to their own thoughts going round and round, that they’re barely aware someone on the outside is speaking. One piece of advice: be sure you really have their attention before imparting important information. This will cut down on the need to repeat yourself. You can also refuse to repeat yourself, saying, “I’m sorry, but I won’t say it again,” or – my favorite – “You’ll have to ask someone who was listening.”

Either that, or get used to inserting key words into your requests: “Could you please do the 50-dollar dishes now?” “Shouldn’t you be starting your hot fudge homework?” “Did-you-hear-who-broke-up-please-pick-up-your-dirty-laundry?”