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?

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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!)

When a Red Sweatshirt Makes a Big Difference

swshirtsLast week our 8th grade class sweatshirts arrived.  With a big “15” containing everyone’s name on the back, the shirts are seen as a symbol of class pride and unity.  As we headed outside for a class photo, one student looked around at the sea of red and said, “This just feels so cool.  Like. . .we all just belong together.”

The desire to belong is a basic human need, but it’s especially strong in adolescence. Teens seek places where they can “belong together,” and it’s critical that they find positive experiences, such as singing in the choir, rather than negative ones, like joining a gang.

Teens who are part of a soccer team, an orchestra, a robotics club, or the cast of a play are less likely to be involved in risky behaviors.  Search “positive benefits of extracurricular activities” on the Internet and you’ll find dozens of articles saying students who participate in after-school clubs and teams do better both inside and outside of school.

Of course balance is important, and parents need to be alert for overcommitted kids, but finding a niche where it’s possible to make new friends and share common goals is a must.

By having an identity as part of a group, teens gain a sense of value that can carry over into other areas of their lives.  The “uniform” can be a dress shirt and tie, a team T-shirt, or even a class sweatshirt–whatever it takes to mark them as “belonging.”

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Precious Cargo

I see analogies for adolescence everywhere.  51NS2e04OML

On my drive to school I often pass a line of flatbed trucks, waiting to transfer their cargo of shipping containers to freighters.

The containers come in assorted sizes. Though all are basically the same shape, their contents are very different–and invisible.  I can’t judge what’s inside by the color or condition of the outside, nor do I know anything about their final destinations.

Each contains something of value to someone.  One might have items of obvious worth, like jewelry or expensive china.  Another might have a less glamorous but equally important load, like batteries or light bulbs.  Regardless of monetary value, each has a purpose.

I consider the journeys ahead of them: some will have smooth sailing, arriving undamaged and in good shape.  Others will hit storms with big waves, arriving battered but more or less intact.  Some will make the trip in record time, while others will suffer unexpected delays.  But they all should get there eventually.

In this analogy I am the truck driver, entrusted with precious cargo for a short time.  I get only glimpses of the contents inside each crate–a passion for math, a tender heart, a gift for encouragement–before I send it on its way.  My flaw is that I get so attached to my cargo that it’s hard to let it go.

Maybe at 8th grade graduation this year I’ll affix a sticker to each of my students that says “Destination:  Adulthood. Please handle with care.”

A New Year With Your Teen

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I’ll say it again:  I love spending my days with teen-agers.  Maybe I am a little crazy (which helps when dealing with teens), but there are so many things to enjoy about them!  Here are some helpful resolutions to get your new year of parenting teens off to a good start:

Remember that they’re halflings.  They’re starting to look like adults in a taller, gangly, hairier way.  Sometimes they even sound like adults, especially when they question you in unexpected ways (“Why do we even go to Aunt Lulu’s house when you complain about her all the time?”)  And they certainly want to be treated like adults, except on their birthdays or when there are chores to do.  But the reality is they’re still a work in process, and a good portion of what you see is still a child, clinging to childish behaviors and attitudes.  You and I know some of those never go away; admit it—you still want your own way as often as possible.  It’s how we deal with those attitudes that changes, and that’s what you need to teach and model to your teen.

Have more Seinfeld moments.  In other words, laugh about nothing, but laugh together.  We laugh often in my classroom.  Sometimes it’s me being funny, like when I respond to a cry of “Unfair!” with “That’s MRS. Unfair to you.”  Sometimes it’s the students: “Your grandpa is in rehab?  Is he a drug addict?” (No—he had a hip replaced.)  Think about your best memories with good friends and how many involved laughing—possibly until you couldn’t breathe.  Create some of those memories with your kids, and you’ll treasure them long into their adult years.

Make more eye contact.  Check your own screen time before ranting about your teen’s.  When you’re in a conversation and your phone buzzes, ignore it and maintain eye contact.  You’ll make a huge statement about how much you value what’s being said—and who’s saying it!  Close your laptop, put your tablet to sleep, or mute the TV when your teen is talking to you, and you’ll get better results when you expect the same behavior.  Require some meals be device-free, whether at home or in a restaurant, and be the first to model turning your phone off (not just silencing it).

Dethrone the homework god.  No, I don’t mean your teens should stop doing schoolwork (all of my teen readers just groaned), but do try to keep it from becoming the Most Important Topic, the one all your conversations center around:  “You’ve been home for seven minutes; why haven’t you started your homework?” or “You’re just sitting there doing nothing; don’t you have any homework?”  Yes, grades do matter, but everyone needs balance in their lives, including students.  Make an effort to communicate that you care about more than just homework.

Do more. . .and less.  Listen more, play more, negotiate more.  Nag less, criticize less, yell less.  In short, practice more positive responses and fewer negative ones.  Your teen is watching you and learning from you how to be an adult.  It’s more important than ever to model respect, kindness, patience, manners. . .all the behaviors you hope to see in your child as an adult.

Listen with your heartphones.  When your toddler threw a tantrum, you knew whether she was mad, scared, or just tired, despite what she said.  Tune into that frequency with your teen and try to see what’s behind his outburst.  There’s a good chance that the attack (“Why do you always pick on me?”) is masking embarrassment, frustration, or just a horrible, no good, bad day.  For best results, under-react:  say nothing for several seconds, give a non-committal “Huh,” or offer food.  Often whatever it is will blow over, but if you suspect there’s a bigger issue, allow some recovery space and then gently make your presence known.  Be ready to listen without interrupting or judging.  Communicate how much you care.

Stop and smell. . . whatever.  From the time your child was a toddler, you’ve been dreading the Adolescent Years, and now that they’re here you can’t wait for them to pass.  Teens are impulsive, loud, moody, smelly (Axe Spray can be even worse than sweat), unpredictable, exasperating—and fascinating.  So much change happens so quickly—both inside and out—that you’ll want to take mental snapshots to remember it all when they’ve gone off to college or moved out.  Because when that day arrives, you’ll wonder where the time went.