I Don’t Want to Brag

Outstanding EvaluationWe were in the middle of a student-led conference, looking over the 8th grader’s self-evaluation, when I asked the toughest question of all:  “What do you think you’re doing well?”  The student froze in anxiety and stammered, “Um, I dunno.  Like, turning in my work, I guess?  I’m not sure, really. . .”  

Here was a student who had many A’s on her report card and high marks in behavior, yet she panicked when asked to say something nice about herself.  This scenario was repeated several times at other conferences, so I asked my 8th graders why it was such a hard to question to answer.

“We don’t want to sound like we’re bragging on ourselves” was the reply.  I tried to explain that being honest about your abilities and accomplishments wasn’t the same as acting superior to your classmates or putting someone else down.  They weren’t convinced.  It’s the same problem they have when they’re paid a compliment.  “It’s so awkward,” they say.  “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”  When I tell them they just need to thank the speaker, they complain, “But then it’s like I’m agreeing, like I’m saying, ‘Yeah, I know.  I am that good.'”

When you say something nice to teens, or you speak well of them in their hearing, don’t be surprised if their response is less than gracious – if, for example, they shrug or downplay it.  I sometimes supply them with the correct answer – “Just say, ‘Thanks, Mrs. Acuna'” – to let them off the hook.  

To which they’ll (un)graciously reply, “Thanks. . .I guess?”

 

 

Throwback. . .Classroom?

Respect HatHannah, my most frequent dress code questioner, had a valid question: “Why is it wrong for guys to wear hats inside the building?”   I told her I was sure that once upon a time there was a good reason, but all I knew was that it was tradition, a form of courtesy that isn’t always observed anymore.  I told her -and the class – how sad it is for me to see men with their hats on in restaurants and even in church.

I went on to discuss how much of what used to be common courtesy has gone by the wayside, which in turn has led to strangers screaming at each other in public, road rage, and bad sportsmanship at basketball games, among other unpleasant displays.

My students were curious about what other traditions have disappeared or are disappearing.  I told them that men used to stand up whenever women entered or left the room (it happens in almost every episode of Downton Abbey!).  In fact, I said, there was a day when students would rise to their feet every time an adult entered the room.  They were intrigued:  “Can we do that?”  I told them they could and cautioned them that it would have the most impact if they were silent as they did so.

They started it about a week ago and have kept it up, delighted and surprised at the reaction of teachers when they experience such a show of respect.  On Friday a parent volunteer came in and seemed embarrassed at the attention.  As I do with all astonished guests, I murmured, “Invite them to be seated.”  She did, and they sat, pleased with themselves.

I don’t know how long it’ll last, but secretly I hope it will become such a habit that they will forever be known as “That really respectful 8th grade.”

September 11

SofLTTIn my 8th grade class we spent a little time today discussing the events of September 11, 2001, a day on which none of them were any older than 2.  I led off by asking what they knew, only to discover some of them had their facts wrong:  “Some terrorists blew up the Twin Towers.”  “A couple of terrorists crashed their planes into the Twin Towers.”  A few of them knew the correct story, and most of them knew that the Pentagon was hit and another plane “crashed somewhere else.”

As I described my experiences that day, I strove to get them to feel what I felt – the fear, the uncertainty, the disbelief.  They were attentive, listening closely and asking good questions throughout, and I could see understanding dawning in some of their faces, especially when I pointed out that we didn’t know for days – weeks, really – where the next target might be.  I also described for them the eeriness of having no airplanes fly overhead for three days, as well as the wave of patriotism that swept the country.

But I know they don’t really grasp the significance of “9/11,” nor how it turned the world upside down for most of us who experienced it.  It was the same when I was their age and my mom would try to tell me about December 7, 1941.  It wasn’t until the events of September 11 took place that I could fully understand what our country went through when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

It’s a little disappointing that I can’t make my students comprehend on an emotional level what that day was like for me, but I have to admit – my prayer is that they never find out from firsthand experience.

Back to School Battles

tnwgWhether school has started or will be starting in a few days, chances are the battles have begun.  They may be about what can or cannot be worn to school, which backpack or binder fits into the budget, or what a reasonable bedtime is.

Parents of middle schoolers quickly learn that “Because I said so!” doesn’t win many arguments; in fact, it leads to more arguments – and more battles.  It’s at this point that parents throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know what to do with him anymore!  I just can’t win!”

Remember that line from the movie War Games?  “The only winning move is. . .not to play.”  It’s great advice for dealing with emotional, unpredictable, fast-growing middle schoolers.  Try to avoid as many battles as you can.  Instead, try postponing – “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you this weekend” – but do give a deadline so you don’t sound like you’re just putting them off.  Or negotiate – “You can have that binder, or you can have the shoes you wanted; make a choice.”  Or hold your ground – but use empathy – “I know how much you want that shirt, and I’m sorry I have to disappoint you, but. . .”  (Be sure to give a concrete reason.)

The trouble with loud, messy battles is that you can’t really win.  Just like in thermonuclear war, the winner suffers as much as the loser.  And too many battles can cost you the most valuable prize of all – your relationship with your middle schooler.

Don’t compromise your standards, don’t wimp out on your parenting responsibilities, and don’t spoil your children.  But try to avoid ugly battles that cause more harm than good.  And do everything you can to stay connected to your middle schooler, even when you have to cause some disappointment.

In the meantime. . .”How about a nice game of chess?”

It’s An E-Ticket Ride

rc

“She’s so emotional!  When I started talking about her new school, she burst into tears, ran to her room, and locked the door!”

It’s a familiar story at the end of the year, whether or not there’s a new school involved.  Middle schoolers are such emotional creatures anyway, and all of the emotions that come with endings and new beginnings bubble up and overflow.  The adults in their lives find themselves riding a roller coaster with blind turns, breathtaking climbs, and alarming dips.

The best thing a parent can do is to hold their middle schooler’s hand during the scary parts, high five them during the exciting parts, and try not to be caught off guard by the next outburst.

At our school, the 8th graders graduate in June and go off to either 9th grade at a junior high, or freshman year in high school.  Doesn’t matter where they go, they’re leaving behind all that’s been familiar – for 10 years for some of them – and heading into foreign territory.  Their comments throughout the year swing from “I can’t wait!” to “I don’t want to go!”  I tell them they should be ready to leave but sad to go, and they appreciate that I understand how mixed up they are.

That’s the parents’ job, too – to show they understand.  A middle schooler will appreciate a parent who shows empathy far more than a parent who belittles – or worse, who tries to change – their feelings.

 

All That Attitude

???????

When I mention that I teach middle school, two things happen:  1) I get blessed, as in, “Oh, bless you – that’s not an easy job.” and 2) I get asked how I  handle all that attitude.

But the reality is, I don’t get much attitude from students.  The eye rolling, shrugging, hair flipping, steely-eyed glaring – I see very little of it.  Correction:  I see very little of it directed at me. However, I do see it directed at other adults.  So why not at me in my classroom?

It’s not because I terrify them.  Spend an hour in my classroom and you’ll pick up on that, as the teasing goes both ways.  But I do demand respect, and that, too, goes both ways.  And that may be part of the answer:  I treat my students with respect.  Teens match their tone of voice to the tone being used with them, so I try to keep mine calm.  I can’t do it all the time – sometimes I’m too frustrated – but more often than not, I keep my cool.

The other part of the answer is a little trick I call “intentional ignorance.”  For example, if I’ve had to tell a student that she can’t play in a basketball game because of low grades, and she throws herself into her seat and glares at me, I will pretend not to see her little tantrum.  Unless she gets so loud that she’s disrupting the class, I will turn a blind eye to her antics until she settles down.  If she does get disruptive, I’ll (calmly) ask her to visit another classroom until she has herself under control.

Why don’t I have to deal with “all that attitude?” Probably because I choose to ignore it – and not to return it.

 

 

Emergency Info

sig

An informal poll of 7th and 8th graders confirmed what I’d suspected: many of them don’t know important emergency information, such as home numbers or parents’ cell phone numbers.  Even more don’t know their complete addresses. Some wrote the house number and street but neglected to list the city, while a few didn’t know any part of the address.

The phone number issue is an easy one to explain:  to reach home or their parents, most of them just bring up the number on their cell phones.  My question is always, “What happens when your battery’s dead and your friends don’t have your mom’s number in their phones?”  Being resourceful techno kids, they assure me they’d borrow a smart phone and look up whatever they needed.

So is it still important for 21st century teens to memorize phone numbers and addresses?  I vote yes.  Phones get lost or damaged, cell service isn’t always reliable, and internet strength varies from location to location.  In a crisis or an emergency, the only way to reach home or parents may be to give pertinent information to a helpful adult – information that can’t be given if it isn’t memorized.

It’s a skill expected of most 7-year-olds; shouldn’t it also be expected of kids twice that age?

 

 

“Don’t Read Mine!”

self-conscious

image-source: bluelife-jason.blogspot.com

Middle school is the Age of Extreme Self-Consciousness.  This was evident last week when I asked students to write a short paragraph about a person or event at our school that had impacted their lives.

After several minutes of discussion, they got to work and finished in short order.  As they handed in their papers, almost all of them said, “Don’t read mine out loud!”  Curious, I looked over the papers, expecting to find embarrassing stories.  No such thing.  They’d written about learning to play an instrument, or being hugged by a teacher on a bad day, or playing on the basketball team.

So why the reluctance to share?  Because at this age, the social rules are unwritten – and unclear.  They can’t predict what will bring scorn and laughter from their peers, so it’s easiest not to take the risk.

What they don’t see is that their peers are laughing because of their own discomfort.  They’re all worried about doing the right thing, and it’s safer to mock the efforts of others than to approve of them – and risk being mocked by someone else for doing so.  It’s a scary, anxiety-ridden spiral that few middle schoolers escape, so the safest move is to be as unnoticed as possible.

It’s important for parents to be sensitive to this self-conscious time and not to belittle their middle schoolers for their feelings.  Doing so only makes them feel stuck between the scorn of their peers and that of their parents.

Be respectful of the pain they’re experiencing.  They’ll be grateful.

 

We’re Just Not Friends Anymore

Girlfriends

Every year I counsel parents  and middle schoolers about the ebb and flow of friendships in this age group.

In lower grades, it seemed easier:  everyone who liked to play soccer would get together on the field at recess.  Those who preferred the Big Toy would hang out there.

Everything is different in middle school.  Because kids mature at different rates, friendships change – often without warning.  Friendships are based on common interests, because “If you like what I like, that validates my choice.”  And boys who aren’t interested in sports or girls – or girls who aren’t interested in make-up or boys – will find themselves adjusting their friendship circles.

Middle school is also when the whole class is no longer invited to birthday parties.  Some middle schoolers are allowed to have their first boy/girl parties, which creates all kinds of social calamities as feelings get hurt when one’s not invited.

It helps to remind middle schoolers  that this is a difficult time everyone goes through, but things usually get better in high school, where there are more clubs and teams to join.  Most teens find their niche (or their “group”) by the time they’re 15 or 16.

My advice to parents is to step out of “Problem Solver” mode and work more on “Good Listener” mode.  Give lots of empathy – “It’s hard when things change, isn’t it?” – but don’t feel like it’s your job to make the bad feelings go away.  Middle schoolers need to feel they’ve been heard and understood, and then they can move forward in dealing with feelings and social issues on their own.

Friendships change like the tides – it’s a parent’s job to be the anchor.

Faking Nice

Be Nice

I’ve always said that civilizing students is part of my job.

While discussing how to improve classroom relationships, one of the girls said she didn’t feel the need to be friendly to girls she didn’t like.  “That would be like faking nice,” was her argument.  I explained that the world revolved around people “faking nice” to each other.  In the adult world, “faking nice” is another term for courtesy, tact, and manners.

For instance, when a senior citizen meanders down the supermarket aisle ahead of me, I wait for an opportunity to smile and go around.  It wouldn’t do either of us any good if I yelled at her to move faster.  And when someone greets me with a cheery “Good morning!” before 10 a.m., I refrain from biting his head off and instead reply with a terse “Morning.”

Learning to be genuine without hurting others’ feelings is an important social skill, despite what teens may see on reality TV.  But “faking nice” doesn’t come naturally; parents have to teach – and model – appropriate social behavior.  It’s helpful to point out to your teen when you’ve said something contrary to what you were thinking, and then have a discussion about why tactful responses are kinder than hurtful ones.

(By the way, if you run into those judges from American Idol, please tell them I’d like to talk to them.  Thanks!)