Experimentation; or What I Talk About When I Talk About Loving Middle School

(A bit of background info; In Maine we have the one-to-one laptop program.  This means that all middle school students in 7th and 8th grade have a macbook which they use for the school year.  However, I’m pretty sure former Governor King never had this use in mind when he commissioned the program.  Then again he was an educational visionary.)

On Friday I looked up from some papers I was grading to see one of my students leaning in for what looked like some open-mouthed smooching with his laptop.

Me: What are you doing?

Student: (looks up sheepishly) I wanted to see if my braces are magnetic.

Me: Really?!

Student: Uh huh!  They are!  (Leans forward and locks lips with the magnetic border around his screen.)

Needless to say, every kid in my class with braces got leaned in for a smooch of their own.   This is why I love middle school.

You say dumb, I say pre-frontal cortex

A couple of years ago I did some professional development work around brain-based teaching.  One of the things I learned about adolescents is that their pre-frontal cortex, or the part of their brain responsible for long term planning and decision making, is still developing.  Talk about an “ah ha” moment.

Today, on a field trip, I watched a student run straight through a foot-deep puddle.  “I didn’t think it would be so deep,” he reflected while staring down at his drenched pants. “Don’t worry, ” I told him.  “Your pre-frontal cortex is still developing.”  Not really.  I mostly just shook my head and gave him that wide-eyed teacher stare.

The lack of development in the pre-frontal cortex is why, when I assign a book project and give the students three weeks to do it, so many of them get this gleam in their eye.  Great, they’re thinking, I don’t have to worry about this for three more weeks!

This relates to writing YA because I find that I read a lot of posts about what adults think teenagers would or wouldn’t do.  It’s important to remember that most teenagers have a brain that is different from our adult brains.  Things that make perfect sense to adults, do not necessarily compute in the world of a younger person.  Adolescents often make decisions based on their emotions; more specifically the emotional state they’re in the moment a decision is required.

Sometimes the results are heroic, amazing, tragic, disastrous.

Sometimes your pants get wet.

Recommendations from students

Every so often I end up with kids in my class who geek out on reading as much as I do.  We talk books and swap recommendations.  It’s always interesting to me what YA books kids like and which ones I like.

I’ve posted before about my reticence to recommend books with a lot of sex, drugs or booze in them, even if they’re really good.  But occasionally it happens the other way; where a student recommends a book with a lot of smuttery.  This is always an interesting moment.  Really?  You wanted your teacher to read this?  And discuss it with you?

I just read Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins, which I LOVED.  This was a student recommendation from a few years back.  The student has since moved away, so I’m not worried that he’ll show up and want to discuss the story of the demon who overtakes a high school student’s body with the main objective of experiencing sex and masturbation.  (Full disclosure; the book is about a lot more than that, but those are the smutty parts.)  I guess I’ll take it as a compliment that a 13 year old boy thought I would like this book.  He was right.  It’s smart, and well written and a bit naughty.   And apparently it appeals to middle school students and their teachers.

I don’t love “I love boobies”

One of the latest “cool” things to do if you are in middle school (particularly if you’re a middle school boy) is to wear one of those livestrong knock-off bracelets that says, “I Love Boobies.”

I know the money goes to a great cause whether it’s worn by a breast cancer survivor or a smart-ass thirteen year old, but it irks me none the less.  It brings out a side of me that’s not my favorite.  We’ll call her “tired, inflexible, and mildly inappropriate teacher”.    Tired inflexible teacher wants to walk up to each little middle school punk and say, “Really, you love boobies?  Really?  What do you love about them?  Please tell me why you’re so inclined to wear that bracelet here in class?  What is so great about boobies?”

Or better yet, “Boobies are great, aren’t they?  But you really don’t know why yet.  Take that damn thing off until you do!!!!!!”

Or even better, “Does your mother know you wear that bracelet?  She must be so proud that you’re honoring the fact that you were breastfed?  What a devoted young man you are!”

How to get kids reading

At the beginning of the school year I like to have a book talk with my students -where I share a bunch of the YA books I’ve read over the summer.  I find it’s a good way to model some different ways to talk about books instead of the usual;

“I liked it.”

“It was okay.”

“It was dumb.”

So I talk about plot and characters and genre, stuff like that.  Sharing the books I read is always a bit tricky, because some of them are books I can’t really lend.  I tend to read more YA aimed at the 14-17 set, and I teach 13 year-olds.  I didn’t used to think there was a big difference but there definitely is in terms of the big 3!  That’s drugs, sex and alcohol.  Much more of these in the older YA books.   I found this out the hard way when I lent my copy of Looking for Alaska to a student, only to have her father march the offending book (full of drinking and experimenting with oral sex) into my principal’s office.

My parents never censored what I read.  So I suppose I was a little surprised at his horror.  But I understand.  (After all, my parents also used to take us to nude beaches.)  Some kids are more sheltered than others and some parents want more control over what their kids read.  (As a side note, I think the way sexuality is explored in Looking for Alaska is brilliant and not at all gratuitous.  Great book -read it!)

So even though I don’t necessarily lend the stuff I read, I do talk about it and always make sure to mention that it’s available at the public library.  Because even though I can’t lend the physical book out, there’s nothing more enticing to a 13 year old than being told a book is “dangerous”.  Or that the content is too risque for their teacher to lend out.  I pat the book lightly, talk about how good it is, and then slide it to the side and watch them stare hungrily at the forbidden fruit.

I had this experience this year with Matt De La Pena’s book Ball Don’t Lie.  This book has great voice and a story that most of my suburbanite kiddos would find somewhat shocking, exciting, and enlightening.  I was especially excited because it has a male protagonist and a basketball focus.  So it sits on my “special” shelf where I hope it will entice some of my more reluctant readers to go get a library card.

Back to School

When I rule the world Halloween candy will not appear in the supermarket in August, just as Back To School ads will not appear on television in July.  Until then, we’ll all have to suffer.  It’s also around this time of year that the media feels the need to inundate us with stories about the latest studies showing that there are absolutely no correlations between anything about teachers and anything about test scores.   The latest one I heard about was that the amount of education a teacher has (masters, phd, etc) does not correlate with student test scores.  When will the world wake up and realize that good teaching is not and never will be quantifiable?

Good teaching is much more like a recipe than an equation.  It’s like the recipes my Great Aunt Bert used to “share” when she would leave out key ingredients, or change quantities so that you could never make yours as good as the original.

A recipe for a good teacher includes:

A lot of love mixed with structure and boundaries.

Limitless energy and enthusiasm.

A true passion for learning as well as imparting new information.

Patience and more patience.

A sense of humor whisked in every step of the way.

And a dash of charisma.

(Content knowledge and advanced degrees are optional and can be added at any time.)

Correlate that with your damn test scores!

Spell-check Hall of Fame

Spelling can be one of the dreariest parts of teaching, and for some kids, one of the most dreaded parts of learning.  It just seems to be something that you do well, or you don’t.  Using spell check correctly is also a skill, believe it or not, and does not replace a fundamental sense of how to  spell words correctly.  Take as evidence; two of my most recent “spell-check gone wrong” moments.

“The scientists were worried that the clones they created might go rouge and destroy the rest of humanity.” -No one likes a clone gone rouge.

“The doctor was unsure of the patient’s dingoes.”    I would be too.  Where were the dingoes?  Chewing at his leg? Were they rabid? -Still not sure what the student intended?  This one took me a while too.  Diagnosis, not dingoes.

love it.

Voices from the middle

I’ve been getting some really great feedback on the voice in my new novel; The Freegans.   The voice in this case, is that of a 16 year old boy, so I take it as a really high compliment when someone says that my thirty-four year old female self has really captured that voice.

A lot of writing is about listening and observing and some of my greatest listening and observing comes at work.

Me: So we’re almost done reading this novel and since it’s the end of the year we probably won’t start another one.

Student: So what are going to do?

Me: I thought we might to a short unit on reading poetry.

Student: Who invented poetry anyway?

Other student: (heavy eye roll)  Somebody with absolutely nothing to do and no life whatsoever.

Euphemistically speaking

I’m teaching my 8th graders what a euphemism is, and it must be the Friday before vacation because my personal censoring device has been temporarily disabled.

Me: So a euphemism is an expression people use when they want to talk about something that makes them uncomfortable or embarrassed.  Do you know what the three most common topics that generate euphemisms are?

(silence)

Death, sex, and going to the bathroom.

(more silence)

What does it mean if you say “number two”?

(nervous giggling, mostly from the boys)

How about “making out”?  Or “getting it on”?  Ooh, or remember that old show the Newlywed Game? (ok, here I’ve gone off the deep end.  That show is before my time.  There’s no way a 13 year old is going to know what I’m talking about)  They used to call it “making whoopie”!

(Do you know what is sounds like when 20 adolescents simultaneously slink down in their seats and wish they were dead?  I do.)

Do you have a favorite euphemism?