Middle Schoolers Are Funny


Middle schoolers get a bad rap.  “You teach middle school? My heartfelt sympathy to you.”  If I’ve heard it once. . .

But I like them.  Seriously, even on days when they drive me crazy, I find them fascinating.  They’re just waking up to the world around them, and they have questions and insights and observations that can make me stop and think – or make me stop and laugh.

Over the years, I’ve written some of them down, such as when Taylor gasped, “Mrs. Acuna!  Are you saying I’m a pyromaniac?” (She meant hypochondriac.)  Or when Adam said, “Wow, you must be psycho!” (He meant psychic.) (Though the other may have merit.)  Then there’s Emma, who was sure chickens had four legs.

One year when
a student  prayed for the police to catch the cat burglar in his neighborhood, the rest of the class seemed unusually alarmed.  I didn’t understand why until one nervous girl asked, “Somebody actually steals cats?”

Two tales from this past year stand out.  One was when John began his presentation with, “I did my PowerPoint on Stoneface in England,” and the other when Amelia shared that her grandpa was out of the hospital and in rehab, after his stroke.  I saw many raised eyebrows, so I had to quickly explain that he was not a drug addict; he was in physical rehabilitation.

I probably should stop telling people how much fun middle schoolers really are.  The way things stand now, I have great job security.

A Week of Funnies

When I mention that I teach junior high, people cluck their tongues and offer their sympathy.  Or else they tell me that I will receive a special blessing someday.  I nod and look down – mostly to hide the twinkle in my eyes.  If only they knew. . .

During this first (almost) full week of school, I’ve realized how much I both use and appreciate the humor happening every day in my classroom.  Some of this week’s highlights –

  • Austin asked if he could switch his days for Art and Study Hall.  When I saw the eager look on his face, I said, “You just want to be with your friends, don’t you?”  Grinning, he admitted that was his motive.  “Then nope,” I replied.  “But – but – but,” he protested.  “Don’t call me a ‘butt’!” I retorted – and the class roared.
  • The students knew the capitals of Germany and Japan, but not Canada.  I protested, “Canada’s our next door neighbor!”  One student asked, “Are we friends with them?”   When I said we were, someone else asked, “On Facebook?”
  • We were sharing stories from Fair Day (when we get out of school early to head to the Western Washington State Fair in nearby Puyallup).  Taylor said she and a friend were on the Pirate Ship ride when a girl behind them started complaining that she might throw up.  Taylor said, “I put my hood over my head and hunched down as far as I could!”  (The girl never did throw up.)
  • And lastly, one of the fish in my aquarium is swimming at a funny angle and having trouble staying afloat.  Some of the girls have named him Alfred and are feeling very sorry for him.  After they left the classroom on Thursday, I found notes taped to the aquarium telling “Alfred” he’d had a good life and they were going to miss him when he died.

No need to feel sorry for me  – I get to spend the day with captive audience members (who laugh at my jokes, if they know what’s good for them), who are also stand-up comedians (or sit-down, as the case may be)!

“There’sNothingToDooooooooo. . .”

I see it all over Facebook:  “I’m sooooo booooored.  Somebody text me, pleeeeeeeeease……..”

Right about now the “What-can-I-do-I’m-so-bored” syndrome should be setting in.  Whether they live in the Pacific Northwest (where they are complaining about the cold) or anywhere else in the country (where it’s apparently too hot), non-driving teens are finding their summer days dragging on.  It’s too early to get excited about going back to school to see their friends, but they’ve spent so many days at home that il dolce far niente – Italian for “the sweetness of doing nothing” – has worn off.

A break from school doesn’t have to be a break from learning – but summer learning should be fun!

Reading is always an educational activity, but many teens will say, “I don’t like to read.”  I say, “Hogwash” (which always gets a reaction).  Every teenager will read if offered a book on a topic they find interesting.  I ask students if they would read books about:

  1. How to earn $100 by doing chores, or
  2. Cheat codes for their favorite video games, or
  3. Foolproof methods for getting A’s in school.

Most of them assure me they would read such books.  At which time I point out it’s not reading they object to; it’s reading stories.  (And if I dig a little further, I can sometimes even find stories they’d actually like to read: “A man getting eaten by a shark?” “A 12-year-old who living on his own in the wilderness?” “Two girls stranded on an island with three babies?”)

In addition to reading, fun learning options might include sudoku, crossword, or jigsaw puzzles, or Mad Libs with a friend or family member (all can be found online).  Learning to cook (or trying new recipes) is good for honing reading comprehension, math, and  problem solving skills.  Family trips can include lessons in history, geography, or sociology, as well as instructions on how to be a savvy traveler.

Encourage your teen to be a learner by offering trips to the library or to Barnes and Noble (sweeten the deal with a trip to the Cafe).  Explore topics that might be interesting, and don’t give up at the first shrug and “I dunno.”


Alive! Awake! Alert!

Some teachers can’t wait for summer and the chance to be away from kids, but I’ve never been one of those. . .

I’ve just returned from a 10-day mission trip, spent with about 20 adults – and almost 60 teenagers (many of them my former students).  Every day began with breakfast at 8, followed by a morning of planning lessons for VBS (Vacation Bible School).  Around 11 we’d pack our lunches and head to our village, where we’d lead VBS from 12:30-2:30 and soccer camp from 3-4:30, with only a half-hour break in between.  We’d head back to camp for dinner, followed by more planning, some evening activities, and campfire.  Because of the long hours of daylight, it was hard to get to bed before 11:00.  The next day we’d start over again.

Because this was my 6th year on this trip, I knew Wednesday would be a tough day.  The newness was wearing off, fatigue was setting in, and Friday seemed a long way off.  I gathered my team of 28 around a picnic table and explained why this day might be the hardest.  Then I said, “I have some words for you: drowsy, yawning, fatigue, exhaustion, sleepy, tired. . .” At this point Kai, one of my college-aged leaders and a seasoned veteran, hunched over and quietly rolled off the bench.  As everyone laughed, I thanked him for helping me to make my point.

I then went on, “Let me give you some new words:  Energy!  Enthusiasm! Excitement!  Pushing through! Stamina! Peppiness!”  They got into the spirit and called out more words: “Fun! Happiness! Joy!”  Their eyes got brighter, they sat up straighter, and most began to smile.  I told them it was a mental trick – if they dwelled on how exhausted they were and kept thinking in terms of, “I’m so tired – when can we leave?” they’d make themselves truly miserable.  But if they thought in more positive terms – “I’m having a good time; I can do this” – and focused on what they were doing rather than on how they were feeling, they’d be surprised at how much better the day would be.

They took the lesson to heart, and we had a great day.  In the heat of the afternoon, red-faced, sweaty, and obviously in need of some rest, Erika, a 15-year-old team member, kept repeating one of our camp songs, “I’m alive. . .awake. . .alert. . .enthusiastic. . .”  She wasn’t singing loudly nor energetically, but neither was she complaining.  I smiled at her effort.

The lesson here is that teens can be taught to have more positive attitudes.  Have a discussion rather than issuing an order – “You’d better improve that attitude, Mister!” – or whining at your teen – “Why do you always have to be so negative?”  And be sure you’re modeling the attitude you want in your teen!

And here are some words for you as you parent a teen: Encouragement! Patience! Understanding! EMPATHY! (You knew I’d get it on the list. . .)

My Superhero Powers

Did you know I have superhero powers?  That’s right!  Using just one finger, I can lift a student out of his seat and transport him clear across the room!

I love demonstrating this at lunch.  I’ll say to the kids I’m eating with, “Pick somebody for me to use my powers on.”  When the victim is selected, I’ll stare in his direction until I’ve made eye contact, and then – with a serious look on my face – I’ll point at him.  He’ll raise his eyebrows and point to himself, mouthing, “Me?”  At which point I’ll rotate my hand and beckon with the same finger, often adding an ominous nod for effect.

It never fails:  he will immediately untangle himself from the lunch table and head my way.  When he’s close enough, he’ll ask, “Am I in trouble?”  Seizing the moment, I’ll reply with, “Why?  Do you want to confess?”  Only then will I smile, as the poor victim lets out a whoosh of air and says, “Dude, you scared me!”

Most of my students will tell you that my pointing and “looking” at them is scarier than if I were to yell.  I’m pretty sure none of them would ever consider ignoring me.  What fascinates me is why they find it so scary.  I don’t lose my temper or yell at students, and I’m known for being fair and reasonable, yet even when their consciences are clear, they’re filled with foreboding when I point and beckon.

If I were to analyze it, I’d probably discover their reaction is rooted in respect and relationship and a desire to please rather than to disappoint.  And once in awhile I do have to use my powers to reprimand someone.

But most of the time I do it for fun, and the victim enjoys a laugh along with everybody else!

I’ve Got a Bridge to Sell You


All right, I confess.  Sometimes I have fun at the expense of my students.  But guess what?  They love it!  Case in point:

“Mrs. Acuna, look! The word ‘gullible’ is written on the ceiling!”  I’d stepped into the hall to talk to the principal, and when I entered the classroom, this was the greeting I received.  I, of course, refused to look up, no matter how hard my 8th grade algebra students pleaded.  I told them, “It’s a matter of trust – and I don’t trust you!”  They found this response hilarious.

With my peripheral vision, I could see a piece of paper stuck on the ceiling, and I knew without reading it what it said.  I left it there, enjoying the joke as much as the kids.

In the afternoon, my classroom filled with 7th graders arriving for biology.  One of them asked, “Why is the word ‘gullible’ stuck on your ceiling?”  I related the morning’s escapades and then added, “Do you know what Mrs. Varvil told me?  She said in the past it got so bad with people harassing other people about the word ‘gullible,’ they took it out of the dictionary!”

“Seriously?” asked Ali, with a puzzled frown.

“Well,” I said, “only in dictionaries published after 1985.  Mine were published in 1992.  They’re right behind Taylor, if you want to look it up.”  As Taylor grabbed a dictionary and began flipping pages, several students piped up:  “But – how can they take a word out of the dictionary?  What if people still want to use it?”

“Oh, you can still use it,” I assured them.  “You just can’t find it in the dictionary.”

Kayla, who’d moved around the table to look over Taylor’s shoulder, exclaimed, “Here it is!  It’s in this dictionary!”

“Really?” I said, sounding surprised.  “What does it give as a definition?”  As Kayla looked back down at the page, I caught Monica sending me a knowing glance.  As far as I could tell, she was the only one who knew what was going on.

“‘Tending to trust and believe people, and therefore easily tricked or deceived,'” Kayla said.

Looking her straight in the eye, I said, “Exactly.”

As realization dawned, she said, “Oh!  You!!”  Though she tried to look mad, a sheepish grin spread across her face.

It took about 10 minutes to explain the joke to the rest of the class.


Road Trip!

I am between trips at the moment, having just returned from a whirlwind 6-day trip to and from Southern California with my two oldest, and preparing to leave on a 10-day mission trip (2 days’ driving each way) to British Columbia with vanloads of high schoolers.

My boys have been road trippers since their car seat days, so we learned many tricks to keep them entertained.  Unfortunately, everything changed when they hit middle school.  They were never reluctant to go, but the dynamics in the car were altered due to the addition of a passenger called ADOLESCENCE.   Dealing with their unpredictable moods was tricky enough at home, but in the small space of a passenger van it could become a real challenge.

If you’re traveling with teens, the two most important things you can buy are car charger adapters for their electronics, and an inverter, which is a box with regular outlets which plugs into your car’s lighter.

Then don’t worry too much if all they do in the car is listen to music, text, watch videos, and play video games.  We made a simple rule:  when Mom called out, “Scenery!” everyone was expected to look up and make appropriate oohing and aahing noises.  Because our youngest could play his GameBoy for hours, we did designate half-hour breaks, giving him fair warning that they were coming up:  “Ten more minutes. . .five more minutes. . .shutdown time!”   He often went to sleep when forced to turn off the game.

Stops for gas were also stops for snacks.  Dad would hand over the credit card, and Mom and boys would traipse inside the store, where each boy could pick one drink (in a recloseable bottle, preferably) and one snack.  Nothing keeps teens happy like food and sugar!

And when they DID get moody, I employed the usual trick of pretending not to notice.  Unless they began sniping at each other, and then I’d step in and try to impose a Cone of Silence.  They always staked out their favorite spots in the van, but sometimes I’d trade with someone and let him sit up front for awhile.  A change of scenery can do wonders, and the view from the back seats gets pretty monotonous.

Getting everybody to agree on a fast food place wasn’t always easy.  If someone was unhappy about the choice and decided to sulk, we’d just let him.  Everyone knows you can’t cheer up a sulky teen (you DO know that, right?).  He could eat or not eat – no skin off our backs (and we’d save money if he grumpily ordered just a milkshake!).

When I head out this weekend with 50+ teenagers, I will provide Activity Baskets for each van.  In each basket (dishtub, actually) the teens will find coloring books and crayons, crossword puzzle and sudoku books, pens and pencils, decks of cards, and a small handheld game (Yahtzee, Solitaire, etc.).  At first they will ignore the baskets, but as the second day of 10 hours of driving begins, they will be thankful for the new diversions.

On this last trip with my two oldest, now 20 and 22, they slept, helped drive, texted, took charge of the music, and read – one  Hamlet and the other Prince Caspian. How cool is that?

Clean-Up Crew

This past Friday was Clean-Up Day in the 8th grade, which meant cleaning not only cubbies which held personal stuff, but also scrubbing tables and counters, cleaning the white boards, and straightening and cleaning the bookshelves.

It’s amazing to see the differences in students’ cleaning abilities.  Some of this is due to personality types:  the compulsive kids will scrub at every little spot, aiming for perfection.  The more laid-back will give a swipe and call it good.

Some of it is due to training.  If they’ve had experience with cleaning at home, they know how to wipe in smaller and smaller circles until they’re down to the last spot.  If they’ve had no experience, they won’t even notice the dust gathered in the corners.

The trickiest part is to keep them focused.  It’s not unusual to find a rag left in the middle of a half-cleaned table.   When I call out, “Who was working here?”  someone will invariably say, “Oh, I was!  I forgot!”  This is usually because someone across the room was doing something hilarious – or at least worth witnessing.

But when it’s all done – and the Picky Mrs. Acuna has given her final approval, there’s a group sense of satisfaction as they look around the room and remark, “Wow!  It’s never been this clean before!”  The students take pride in what they’ve accomplished together, and in a job well done.

Sadly, for some students this is a new feeling, because they’ve not been given the opportunity to do housekeeping chores at home.  Or else their efforts have been so criticized that they’ve only experienced a sense of failure.  Not only do chores create a sense of accomplishment, but some studies show that students who do chores at home are more successful in school.

It can be a major hassle for parents to get teens to help out around the house, and it’s a hard battle to fight after a long day at work.  But there are some tips and tricks that can help, and we’ll discuss those on Wednesday.

(By the way, those same students who felt such a sense of accomplishment in the morning dribbled orange soda on the table tops and left empty cups and plates on the counters later in the day.  One small step at a time. . .)

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.