Actual transcript of a conversation that perfectly illustrates everything wonderful and frustrating about working with 6th graders:

Actual transcript of a conversation that perfectly illustrates everything wonderful and frustrating about working with 6th graders:

Scene: Me, with muffin in hand, walking over to check on a student’s homework.

Student: Is that a muffin? I thought you were trying to eat less sugar.

Me: I am, but it’s just a muffin.

Student: I bet it has a LOT of sugar.

Me: I’m not going to worry too much.

Student: You should worry. Sugar is not good for you, I know because YOU told us.*

(*In a lesson on nutrition that we’re required to teach as part of a wellness program)

Me: How about I don’t tell you how to live your life, and you don’t tell me how to live mine.

Student, increasingly shrill and outraged: You tell me how to live my life ALL THE TIME! Every day. It’s LITERALLY your job to tell me how to live my life. You get paid to do it!

Me, increasingly defeated: Well you’re not being paid to tell me how to live my life.

Student, even shriller and more outraged: Well, I’m doing it pro bono, which is a word I know because YOU told me it. I’m doing it out of love, did you ever think about that? Because I CARE about you.

Me: That’s… actually really nice. I promise I’m eating mostly healthy, I appreciate you worrying about me. Now, do you have your homework.

Student: What homework? You NEVER told me we had homework.

Scene

 

 

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Holiday Foods

I don’t know if this is true across all elementary schools, but it certainly is in ours: the day before a long vacation, we wear pjs, watch a movie, and eat a ton of food. The food, for my classes at least, is usually always the same: snacks and desserts. Popcorn, chips, fruit, cookies, brownies. I ask for volunteers, generous parents send them in.

This year, I wanted to do something different. Like most good ideas, it came to me at 3 am apropos of nothing: ‘What if we had a taco bar?’ Or something similar. If instead of the usual, we picked a theme and got creative, had a whole lunch instead of just a post recess gorge.

So I broached the subject with the kids. They loved it! We had just finished up a great discussion about allegory in literature and how it connects to metaphor. I was so impressed with their thinking and eager to reward them by talking about something fun.

I laid out a few parameters: It couldn’t be anything that really needed to be served hot or cold, either for taste or health purposes, and it shouldn’t just be a suggestion of the usual things, like desserts. We’d do desserts, of course, but let’s come up with a theme! We had ten minutes before math class started, so I asked for suggestions. Tons of hands went up.

I called on the first kid. “Soup.” He stated. I paused. “Remember, it can’t be anything that needs to be hot, or cold. Soup at room temp wouldn’t be very good!”

Next kid. “Sushi!” A longer pause. “Well, room temp sushi could possibly make us sick, so that won’t work.”

Third times the charm, right? No. Of course it isn’t. “Cookies.” A long, sigh filled pause. Based on facial expression and body language (and I am really, really good at reading those), they were not trying to be funny. Other kids were nodding enthusiastically.

“Ok guys, listen again- something that maybe we could pick a theme of, like all foods of a certain type. Not just things we’ve already done. So I see a lot of hands, I want all of you to be sure you’re not just naming different types of desserts, right? You’re all sure? Ok.”

Fourth kid. “Cupcakes.” Forget the pause, I straight out yelped. “Gah! No! Are you listening?? That’s a dessert. Ok, Sasha, I’m going to call on you next. Before you talk, I want you to be absolutely sure that you are not just going to say the name of a dessert. Are you sure? Ok…”

“Cake.”

“SASHA! SERIOUSLY! WHAT IS HAPPENING!”

“Wait!” She called out, “Listen… different types of cake.” I put my face in my hands.

“Call on me!” Chris yelled. “Mine isn’t dessert!” I stared at him. “Please let this be a real suggestion.” I begged.

“A hot pot!” He crowed. Several kids oohed in agreement, nodding excitedly.

“A hot pot.” I said. “As in, a pot of near boiling oil for us to cook meat in?”

“And vegetables!” Ruth added.

“A hot pot.” I repeated. “In the classroom.”

“Oh, that might be hard, huh?” Chris mused. “Maybe brownies?”

I laid my head on my desk. “I give up. It’s time for math.”

And that, in a nutshell, is sixth grade: The ability to reason about allegory in literature, but being unable to think about the fact that cookies are dessert and hot pots are, ya know… hot.

Eventually, we came back to the discussion and did get some real suggestions. Someone said Mexican food and I nearly wept with relief.

“Yes! Exactly! And we could all bring in Mexican dishes, including desserts. Perfect! Next suggestion!”

“Italian food!” “Great!”

“Indian food!” “Sure, yeah.

“German food.” “Ok, that one might be tricky. I think most of us have had Mexican food and Italian food in the past month, but how many of you regularly eat German food? That might be too specific.”

“Algerian food.” (It’s worth noting here that none of them are Algerian.) “Ok, maybe no more ‘country or group’ followed the word food suggestion, ok?”

“Norwegian food.”

Head on desk.

Tell Me Everything

Once a week my class pairs up with a first grade class to read books. It’s one of my favorite traditions, and the older and younger kids all really love it. It’s also a chance for me to interact with first graders, which is always an adventure.

Today one little girl brought a non-fiction book about fish to read with her buddy. They were near my desk as I answered an email, so I could hear my student patiently answering questions about fish. Do they blink? Do they have eyelids? If they don’t, how do they close their eyes when they sleep? My student patiently answered as best she could, including to say she didn’t know and maybe they could do more research together in the library. I smiled to myself, so proud of my student.

However, after awhile they hit a point where my fifth grader was all out of answers. Which was when I looked up from my computer to see a tiny person staring at me solemnly. As soon as I made eye contact, she demanded “Tell me about goldfish rectums.” In a heavy Russian accent, which made it even better.

I stared back at her as I decided where to start. “What do you want to know?” I asked. “Everything.” She answered.

Thus followed a detailed discussion of the digestive system, fish eating habits, and official terminology of body parts. Always an adventure.

The Dangers of Volunteering

A few times a year, we do school-wide activities where every student participates in mixed groups. It’s fun, but a lot of prep! This year’s activity involved painting rocks, so we needed nearly 600 roughly palm sized rocks. Needless to say, the preparation and storage for this was daunting. When we realized we needed to move 6 large buckets full of rocks from the first to second floor and down a long hallway, I immediately volunteered my class.

The reason I volunteered? Steven.

Let me tell you about Steven. At 11 years old, he is 5’4″. His shoulders are wider than some of his peers standing side by side to each other. When he walked in the room on the first day, my first thought was “Is this someone’s Dad?” He is also an incredibly helpful kid, willing to volunteer for any job. Perfect for rock lugging.

Of course, I didn’t expect him to do it alone, but I figured other kids could handle it, so I asked for volunteers.

Some background about elementary students and volunteering: They will volunteer for anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you say “I need volunteers to”- every hand will go up. I’ve tried to get them to realize they should wait to hear what is being asked. Otherwise kids go on errands to find teachers they don’t know, in rooms they’ve never been to. I always tell them one of these days I’m going to ask for volunteers to clean the restrooms with their own personal toothbrushes. It never works.

So this time, I explained, “Don’t raise your hand until you hear what I’m asking, ok? I need volunteers-” Every hand went up. “Guys.” I said. “Listen. I need you to carry buckets of rocks, very heavy buckets, quite a long way. This is not a joke. It’s literally buckets of rocks.” All hands still up. “They’re heavy. Please don’t volunteer unless you know you can carry very heavy things!” All hands still up. Since we were doing morning work, I added another caveat. “And you can only volunteer if you’ve finished page 127.” A few hands went down, including Steven’s. “Except for you.” I told him quietly. “You can still volunteer.”

In the interest of fairness, equality, and hopefully teaching some a lesson in forethought, I picked a mix of gender, size, and strength. For 6 buckets, I sent 10 kids. Then I waited.

A few minutes later, a trio of girls walked back in to the room empty handed, shaking their heads. Next Ethan, one of my bigger, taller, but not quite Steven-sized boys walked in. Or rather, waddled in, carrying the bucket between his bowed legs and swaying side to side so he could move it. After he put it down outside the room, he went and laid on the rug with his eyes closed for several minutes, breathing heavily.

Next, two groups of two came back, each carrying a bucket between them. One group managed to carry it, the other was dragging it down the hall where it made a horrible scraping shriek on the linoleum.

Then Steven came in, walking with a normal stride, standing tall, a bucket in each hand, arms held up so the buckets swung at his side. Ethan raised a fist from where he lay on the rug. “All hail Steven.” He said weakly. Steven smiled shyly, then walked up to me.

“Um, Riya is still in the hall with her bucket. Can I go back to help?” He asked. “Riya has one bucket by herself?” I asked, alarmed. Riya is the tiniest person in the class, but also arguably the most stubborn. I didn’t even actually call on her when she volunteered, but apparently she went anyway. He nodded. “Yeah, why don’t you go back.”

“She won’t let you help her.” One of the girls who came back empty handed called. “We tried!” Steven shrugged and left anyway.

A few minutes later, he walked back, his arms literally full of rocks, more than half a bucket’s worth. He placed them in the other buckets, then turned to look back down the hall. In the distance, Riya appeared, tiny arms straining, a look of grim and slightly terrifying determination on her face as she dragged her bucket, now nearly empty, down the hall. “She wouldn’t give up her bucket.” Steven explained as I walked over to stand next to him. We watched as Riya finally made it to the door, and then silently walked into the room, head held high. “Good job Riya.” Steven told her. “I told you I could do it.” She answered.

Moo Contests

Kids are weird. This is one of those truisms that holds the world together. The sun is bright. Night follows day. Kids are weird.

In my class, the latest weirdness is moo contests. What is a moo contest? It is exactly what it sounds like.

Two kids get on all fours and face each other. On the count of three (often counted by an enthusiastic third child crouched beside the competitors banging a small fist on the floor for each count, like some kind of tiny boxing ref), the kids begin mooing. The goal is to moo the longest. The winner is lauded with cheers, hugs, and pats on the back, at least until they are challenged by the next moo-er.

This has led to interesting conversations about lung capacity, volume in relation to duration of the moo, cow behavior, and sound waves. Sometimes more scientific thinking happens during the odd times like this that happens during actual science.

 

We’re All Gonna Die in the Desert

One of the big themes of fifth grade social studies is “Why do people move?” We study colonization, the American Revolution, growth of the colonies, and Westward Expansion. At this point in the year we have made the transition from kids yelling “No taxation without representation!” whenever they don’t want to do what they’re told, to yelling “Manifest destiny!” and then stealing each other’s seats.

Part of the Westward Expansion unit looks at pioneers, wagon trains, and the journeys west. We have a whole simulation we do where kids are assigned a character with a history and family, grouped together and required to complete tasks and assignments that show what life on the trail was like. It’s a really engaging, informative way for them to learn. It also reminds me to be grateful that 11 year olds are not actually in charge of life or death situations.

One of the first tasks is deciding what to bring. They are given a supply list that includes bulk weight units (bwu). They have a limit of 1,000 bwu to fit in their wagon, so they really have to prioritize and think logically. Which they can’t. Leading to decisions such as…

– Only sugar as a food source- 30 lbs worth of sugar.
– Bringing a grand piano, which took up nearly 1/5 of the total weight, because “entertainment is important!”
– Packing not one, but two bed frames and mattresses. After being explicitly told that they would not fit in the wagon, and would need to be set up and dismantled each day. Because “I need two beds, because I am NOT sharing with my sister.”
– Nearly bringing an entire table and chair dining room set. Nearly because when he was asked if he could think of a reason why he wouldn’t need this (by which I meant, you’re on the damn Oregon trail, just sit on a log!) he said “Yeah, you’re right. My character is single and has no kids, so it would be pretty pathetic to be sitting there at the table all alone!”
– Arming to the teeth with 12 rifles. I was really confused why he had so many on his supply list, and was trying to get him to explain the decision to me. Eventually I realized he was thinking that when he ran out of ammunition, he would need a brand new gun. I blame video games for this sort of thinking.

Then, off we set, riding west towards our new lives, with minimal food, almost no water, and a plethora of unnecessary furniture.

One of the first decisions is deciding which branch of the trail to take. When given the choice between a short trail with known dangers and possibly even more unknown dangers, and a trail that is reliable but longer, the kids unanimously picked danger. The trail is literally called “Burial Grounds trail” in the simulation. The visual on the map has a skull and cross bones.

Unsurprisingly, the simulation several days in had every wagon train hungry, with limited supplies, and in the dangerous wastelands. “Well,” said one little guy drily, “We’re all gonna die in the desert.”

We didn’t all die in the desert, luckily. Each group worked together, realized they needed to change their priorities, and they’re all progressing happily along the trail now. I love this unit because I think situations like this really let kids go beyond the textbooks, and understand that real people had to make real decisions like this- or else die in the desert!

These Are My Big Girl Pajamas

Last year, our superintendent retired and a new one was hired. At the end of the year, the new hire (let’s call him Mr. S) went around to all the schools to meet the new staff. He came to our school on field day, which is a huge outdoor K-6 event. It’s a blast. Last years took place on a bright sunny day after a week of rain. I had been leading parachute games, and over the course of a few hours had sat, laid down, and slid in the mud left behind on the fields. I was in cut off jeans and a t-shirt, and pretty thoroughly covered in muck. When I met Mr. S, I had to wipe my muddy hand off on my muddy jeans to shake his hand. He was a very good sport about it, and in my defense I was one of many scruffy, muddy teachers.

The next time I ran into him was this fall. It was a cool, rainy day, the kind where you wake up and think “No, I do not want to dress like a professional.” Luckily for me my school is ok with that, so I pulled on a giant sweatshirt and my comfiest jeans. When I ran into Mr. S at school that day, I cringed slightly at my outfit, even though I knew he was aware that our school has a very relaxed dress code.

The next time, I assured myself, I would be dressed like a grown up. A professional, even! Unsurprisingly, that was not the case.

It was pajama day. Kids love to wear their pajamas. They always want to have an official pajama day on the last day before a vacation. Every time, I remind them that technically, they can wear PJs whenever they want! But the fun, of course, is in all of us wearing them at once. For the first PJ day this year, I wore sweatpants and a flannel shirt. This was not enough, according to the kids. Those were merely comfy clothes, NOT pjs. Next time, I upped my game. I borrowed a fuzzy blue two piece flannel PJ set from my mom. It even had stars and moons on it! I wore it with my head held high.

Towards the end of the day, I went to pick my class up from art, which they had gone to straight from recess. I hadn’t seen them since before lunch, since my assistant had them while I was in a meeting. As I waited at the art room door, I ran into Mr. S. We chatted briefly, exchanged pleasantries. I saw him notice my unusual outfit, but put on a polite, understanding smile. “Pajama day?” He inquired. I nodded and started to explain.

Before I could, however, the art room door opened and my class filed out. Unbeknownst to me, they had all changed out of their PJs for recess, and not had time to change back yet. Every single one of them was in regular clothes.

So there I was, face to face with the superintendent of schools, wearing pajamas for no discernible reason. I decided trying to explain would only make it more awkward. So I smiled at him, and walked away with as much dignity as an adult woman wearing pajamas at work can muster.

The kids, needless to say, were very entertained by the whole process.