Why I Like Middle School

As a middle school teacher, I am frequently blessed–literally! When I mention what I do for a living, invariably the reply will be, “Oh, bless you!” I usually smile in agreement but can’t resist adding, “I actually love middle schoolers!”

Here are six things to like about middle schoolers.

  1. Energy level   Oh, they can be slugs, especially when there are chores to be done, but when they’re excited about something, they are crazy energetic. The day I assigned skits to teach the Beatitudes, the volume of their voices (and laughter) reached a fever pitch. When I give them a choice of which movie to watch, the discussion can get pretty heated. I took my 8th graders on a bowling field trip, and they couldn’t sit down between their turns because they were so wound up.
  2. Inquisitiveness  I was trying to teach a lesson on the Bill of Rights but kept getting sidetracked by their questions. Some were thoughtful–“What kind of crime deserves the death penalty?”–and other showed their limited life experiences–”So is it legal for someone’s army dad to stay in their house, or is that considered ‘quartering a soldier?'” Though they often seem self-centered, their awareness of a bigger world out there is growing exponentially, and they want to know how it works.
  3. Playfulness   Though they’re on the brink of full-blown adolescence with adulthood just around the corner, they’re still happy to behave like little kids. Their selfies are full of silly faces and goofy poses. When faced with a large open space, they’ll take off running or doing cartwheels. And they’ll do almost anything for a donut!
  4. Sense of humor   They still love a clever knock-knock joke, but their humor is also becoming more sophisticated. While it may take them a moment to get a funny anecdote (again, because of limited life experience), they’re flattered that you’d tell it to them. Bathroom humor is prevalent in middle school, but they love to experiment with sarcasm and puns.
  5. So Much Growth   The young man in the photo grew at least a foot between the beginning of 6th grade and the beginning of 8th, and his voice went from squeaky to deep (with the predictable cracks). But it’s more than physical growth: mentally, they’re making the abstract leap. “Last night I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking about how long eternity is!” Emotionally, they’re all over the place, but they’re developing feelings like compassion and empathy on a more adult level. Spiritually, they’re questioning what they believe and why.
  6. Passion to Love–and to Not Love   Nowhere is this more evident than in relationships with parents and other family members. On the one hand they still crave approval, but on the other they can be extremely critical. “My parents really care about me” can happen in the same sentence as “I wish my parents would get off my case!” They hate getting up early for school but love being able to hang out with their friends all day. “Are you serious!?!” can express both excitement and frustration–sometimes together, like when I tell my class we’re playing dodgeball in P.E.

Middle schoolers present a unique set of challenges to the adults in their lives, but for those who love and appreciate them, the joy of watching them unfold like blossoms in spring far outweighs the struggles!

School Spirit is Alive and Well

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?


Photo by Stephanie Pariseau

Super Bowl Weekend: A Good Time to Teach Sportsmanship

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!)

“You Know What Would Be Funny?”

jasvcoSee that middle schooler?  He’s a nice kid, as is the one next to him–and the one on the other side of him.  On their own, none of them gets into much trouble.  But put them together and leave them unsupervised at, say, the mall?  Now you’ve got huge potential for trouble.  Somebody asks that fateful question–“You know what would be funny?”–and suddenly they’re trying things as a group that they’d never do alone.

Part of it is physiology (see Blame it on the Brain), but another part of it is a version of “gang mentality.”  Notorious for acting first and thinking  later,  two or more teens hanging out together without adults around will gather courage from each other.  I’ve heard students tell of stealing bowls of Halloween candy from porches, throwing popcorn in movie theaters, and riding bikes off roofs.  I’ve seen photos of girls dressed in goofy outfits in dressing rooms and heard their confession of running out and leaving the mess behind, laughing at how angry they’d made the store personnel.

While sometimes it’s just harmless fun, at other times it can be outright dangerous.  Young teens have been know to sniff, drink, or ingest dangerous substances, as well as set fire to, blow up, or even microwave crazy items.  Afterwards, of course, they suffer remorse (and possibly bodily harm), but at the time it seems like such a great idea.

Parents who drop off their young teens without staying with them–or at least tailing them at a discreet distance–are putting their kids at risk.  Hang around and be available, and you’ll find that your presence is often enough to head off trouble.

Think of yourself as a cross between Jiminy Cricket and the Secret Service.

Vacation Spoilers

Jon Stepping on David

A mom complained, “It used to be fun taking my kids on road trips, but now my 13-year-old daughter ruins everything.  She is on her phone the whole time!  When we ask where she wants to eat, she says, ‘I don’t care,’ then complains about wherever we go.  I get so tired of her sulking and making everyone miserable!”

Adolescence can be like an unwelcome passenger on a family vacation.  Though the benefits of traveling with teens are many – they can find the nearest Starbucks on their phone and heave suitcases out of the car – they may not help willingly, preferring instead to whine or grumble (“Why do I have to do everything?”).  Their bad moods can bring everybody down as they pick on siblings and act like nothing will make them happy.

Here are some helpful tips for frazzled parents:

1. Declare “No-Phone Zones.”   This can be 30 miles or 30 minutes, but do negotiate rather than dictating.  And be sure you participate, too!

2. Ignore bad moods.  I saw parents do this recently at a motel breakfast.  Their daughter, who was around 13,  sulkily slouched against the wall, not participating in the family chatter.   When she finally slid over and joined the conversation, she was welcomed and immediately included.  Which brings us to the next point:

3. Ignore good moods.  Don’t say, “Now isn’t this nice, when you’re actually being  happy?”  It will then become a matter of pride for him to prove that he is not happy; in fact, now he’s twice as grumpy because he’ll say you are picking on him!

4. Take the back seat.  Siblings get tired of sitting near each other, and the view from the back is boring.   Switch with your teen if s/he is old enough to be in the front seat; this will also give the back seat crew some of your attention.  If you’re flying, consider one parent sitting with each child instead of parents in one row and kids in another.

Take the middle road with moods and the back seat on the road (or in the air), and you may find that Adolescence isn’t so hard to travel with after all.


Silly Fish Chasers


Last month while I was in Hawaii, I found a lovely snorkeling spot where I could float quietly and gaze at the pretty fish below.  But my peace was shattered by five boys around the ages of 11 or 12, splashing by and calling to each other, “Try to touch the rainbow one!  There he goes!!  Over here, guys!  Aw, you missed him again!!”

I swam away, annoyed and amused at the same time.  What seemed like common sense to me – stay quiet and you’ll see more fish – was either unknown by or unimportant to the boys.  The truth is, for boys (and girls) of that age, it’s all about having fun with the gang.  They give little thought to how their behavior might impact others (it’s that Bubble again), and even less thought to the consequences of their actions.  They’re often loud and rowdy and oh-so-annoying to those around them.

It’s good for parents to recognize this behavior as normal rather than immature, and to let it happen – within reason.  For example, if there’s bullying or too much aggressiveness, it’s time for an adult to step in.  When their boisterousness gets out of hand, ask them to either quiet down or move farther away.  Keep your tone light and casual and you’ll get the best response:  “Hey, could you take your noisy selves to the other side of the yard?” is more effective than “Why are you being so rude?  Either quiet down or I’m taking your friends home!”  The first is likely to get a “Sorry!” and a quick move, while the second – which will embarrass your child and cause defensiveness – will probably get you attitude.

I could’ve glared at those silly fish chasers, said, “Excuse me!” loudly and sarcastically, or chastised them, but because I was a stranger, I wouldn’t have gotten good results.  Instead, I joined my sons – now all in their 20’s – sitting calmly on the beach.   Not long ago they were those rowdy boys out in the water, and while I don’t exactly miss those days, it is hard to realize how quickly they’ve come and gone.

Just like that poor rainbow fish.

Two’s Company; Three’s a Gang

FeetI’m not referring to gun-wielding, colors-wearing gang members.  I’m talking about three or more middle schoolers hanging out together and uttering those fateful words: “You know what would be funny?”

It’s not an outright dare, but the challenge is implied.  And where one teen would never be brave enough, and two might talk each other out of mischief, three will egg each other on until they’ve convinced themselves to go through with it. Not only is there safety in numbers – “They can’t catch all of us!” – but there’s also bravado, which is scary at an age when good judgment is outshouted by the desire for fun.

Brain researchers will tell you that the part of the brain that says, “Let’s try that – it sounds awesome!” is overdeveloped compared to the part that says, “Don’t do it – it’s dangerous!”  I see the bigger problem as the parents who overestimate their teens’ ability to do the right thing when surrounded by friends, so they drop them off unsupervised at the mall or the movies or the skating rink.  “She’s a good kid; I can trust her,” they think.  And she probably is trustworthy – until she’s with a group of friends and peer pressure takes over.

Smart parents will realize that independence needs to be granted in small increments as teens mature.  Instead of dropping off a group of middle schoolers, go with them.  You don’t have to tag along behind, but they should know you’ll be keeping tabs on them.

And that could mean the difference between “You did WHAT?” and “You did well.”

Now What?


Three things you can count on beginning December 26:  overflowing trash, the end of Christmas music on the radio,  and middle schoolers whining, “I’m so booooooored!”

For a non-driving young teen, these days away from school stretch endlessly, even with so many ways to connect electronically with friends.  Their misery multiplies if parents have to work, leaving them home with only the TV, computer, and game system for entertainment. Many parents don’t want their kids spending all day in cyberspace, but they don’t know how to prevent it.

While screen time isn’t totally avoidable, parents should still sit down with their teens and agree upon limits for gaming time and for allowable TV shows and websites.  Just be aware that limits are  hard to enforce from the workplace, especially if there aren’t siblings to police each other.

One good option is to leave a list of chores to be completed before getting on any electronics.  Here’s your chance to get bathrooms scrubbed, floors vacuumed, and bedrooms cleaned! (If you come home from work to find chores unfinished, just pack the computer/game system power cords to work with you the next day.)

Be aware that sometimes a complaint of boredom is a way of guilting you into giving permission for an activity you don’t usually allow, like hanging out at the mall for hours.  Don’t let your guard down; teens are manipulative creatures!

My personal favorite solution for Christmas Break Doldrums is to share time with another teen’s parents.  Send yours over to their house for a couple of days, and then return the favor.   This way they get a break from home – and you get a break from the whining.


After the Invitation (Before the Conflict)

christmas-party-invitations4Here’s an end-of-the-year refresher course to help you enjoy holiday celebrations with your teen/preteen:

Expectations 101
Go over your expectations for dress, behavior, language, and acceptable topics of conversation before a family gathering.  Don’t assume teens already know what’s appropriate.

Bubble Trouble 102
If your child is over 10, he’s living in his own bubble.  Much of what you say sounds like those adults in Charlie Brown cartoons.  After you tell him the coming week’s schedule, be prepared to tell him again.  And don’t be surprised when the day comes and he says, “Wait, what?  Nobody told me about that!”

Gratitude  103
She won’t be thinking about Grandma’s feelings when she opens Grandma’s gift and says, “Red mittens?  With my pink coat?  I don’t think so!”  It’s part of that same bubble trouble.  When it happens, don’t overreact; try a gentle reminder, like “I think you meant, ‘Thank you, Grandma,’ didn’t you?”  Or catch her alone later and explain how she hurt Grandma’s feelings, then ask how she’s going to make it right.

Cell Phone Etiquette 104
Don’t want to be looking at the top of your texting teen’s head at the party?  Discuss before you go why it’s not polite, and work with your teen to set some limits.  Instruct him to explain to his friends that he’ll be at a party and unavailable.  Try agreeing on a time – and a time limit – for checking texts: “Leave your phone in the car, and two hours after we get there, you can go out to the car and text  for 10 minutes.”  (Agree on a consequence if he stays out there too long.)

Before you leave for your holiday gatherings, spend at least as much time prepping your teen as you do deciding what to wear, and everyone will have a better time!

Mixing Generations

Handshake2This week I took my middle school choir to sing at a retirement home.  Having learned from past experience, I prepped them before we went, reminding them that nobody is born with white hair and wrinkles and walking with a cane.  I pointed out that these elderly people were once young basketball players and cheerleaders who joined choir or band and argued with their parents about chores and what clothes they could wear.

We sang some of our concert pieces and then we invited the residents to suggest Christmas carols that we could all sing together.  When someone suggested “White Christmas” and my accompanist had to admit he didn’t know it, one of my choir members piped up, “We can just sing it without the piano!”  Though some of them barely knew the words, they sang with gusto, and the audience joined in.

When we had finished, I encouraged my singers to go and wish people a Merry Christmas.  I’d warned them ahead of time about arthritic fingers, so they knew they should shake hands gently.  As they scattered around the room reaching for hands and chatting with the residents, I could see them gaining confidence and growing more comfortable around strangers many years older than themselves.

It’s not unusual for teens to say they never want to get old, or to call senior citizens “creepy,” but if we teach them to see beyond the effects of aging and connect with the person within, their discomfort can change into acceptance – or even friendship.  As with many things, we just have to provide education and opportunity.