Hormones Are Not an Excuse

Being a sixth grade teacher is weird in so many ways. The one that I’m reflecting on today is the fact that I deal with a group of people who need my help because they lost a tooth, and need my help because they have their period. It’s a strange sense of vertigo to realize that these two milestones that literally mark the end of childhood and beginning of adulthood happen simultaneously, often to the same person.

And as I write this I’m realizing that as strange as it is for me, it’s even more poignant for them. So I guess I should say that being a sixth grader is weird. Again, in so many ways!

Last year we had them watch THE MOVIE, as they all call it. All about puberty and changes and all that fun stuff. This year we went over it in even more depth, with even more overly scientific terms, and cartoon images that were even more graphic and detailed. Plus the added bonus of discussing conception and fertilization. Last year was a one day lesson. This year’s spanned four days. A colleague referred to the curriculum as “Girl parts, boy parts, how they go together.”

Last year I felt so proud of myself for getting through it without too much awkwardness or discomfort on my part. Last year was nothing. After this year, I don’t think anything will ever make me feel uncomfortable again. Until you’ve showed a detailed model of sperm fertilizing an egg to a group of 11 and 12 year old girls, you haven’t really lived. Some people go sky diving to get a rush. This is a lot cheaper.

(My favorite part of this was when one girl yelled “Woo, that worm is the winner!” when the first one reached the egg.)

One thing that came up a lot in our long, ongoing, and incredibly detailed discussions was that for a lot of the questions (Why do we get acne? Why do we have crushes? What determines when puberty starts? Why do you get emotional around your period?) the answer was ‘Hormones’.

Yesterday I met with a student about her behavior on the bus. For the past few weeks, she’s been having some ongoing issues with another student. She freely admitted she hadn’t been as nice as she could have been. “Ok, I’ve been mean to her.” I asked her why.

She was reluctant to give the reason for the original argument, but did let me know this bit of info: “Well, I got my period today.” I waited for her to explain more. I stared at her. She stared back at me. “Ok, but this has been going on for a few weeks, right?” I asked. “Yeah, well, my period!” She said happily. More staring.

“I’m confused how you getting your period today made you mean to her three weeks ago.” “Well, hormones, you know.” She informed me knowingly.

Sixth grade, everybody.

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Why You Don’t Discuss Race With Second Graders

We have reading buddies once a week, so second graders come into the class to read books with my kids. After they finish reading, they can play a game. Today one of my boys and his second grade buddy were playing chess, while another fifth grader and his partner looked on.

I missed the first part of the conversation, but came by in time to hear one of the fifth graders saying that chess was racist because it was black against white. Before I could speak up that this a) wasn’t accurate and b) not a subject you discussed with 7 year olds, one of the little ones piped up. “What’s racist?” He asked.

The two older boys stared at each other for a second, then at me with something like panic. Before any of us could say anything, the second little boy announced “I’m black.”

He is not. He is definitely, definitely not. He has sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and very fair skin. The fifth graders, again, looked at each other, then me with a mix of confusion and panic. Again, they were interrupted. The same boy said, in the same definitive tone as before “I’m not black.”

“Gabriel is black.” The other little boy said, looking over to where Gabriel and his buddy were drawing together. “Yes, he is.” Said one of my boys, clearly relieved to have something he could answer clearly. Gabriel is definitely black. Then the same little boy leaned in and said quietly to his buddy, “Is Gabriel black?”

The other second grader interrupted again. “Are you black?” He asked his buddy. “No, I’m Chinese.” My student answered. “Black Chinese, or white Chinese?” The little one pressed. At this point, his buddy put his head on the table. The little one patted his hair gently, and moved his chess piece.

Chicken Mysteries

On Friday I was checking in homework packets. Kids sometimes write notes to me on the cover sheet. Things like, “I had trouble on the math, can we go over it together?” Or “My mom helped me with the spelling.” Or “I hated that article about whales. You should never assign it again.”

When I noticed writing on one student’s cover sheet, I assumed it was for me. Then I read it. It said “Why chicken on the median.” Then below it, in all capitals NEKCIHC. Which, you may have noticed, is chicken backwards.

Was it a code? Did the chicken stand for something? Was it about math? We had been studying median and other data points. Was it a joke? Median like median strip? Some veiled reference to a chicken crossing the road?

Hoping to clear this up, I called the student in question over. Before I could say anything, he saw the writing, snatched the packet off my desk, and said under his breath “Oh, not again.” Then he looked up at me. “This… this isn’t important. Don’t worry about it.” “What is it?” I asked. I wanted to know. “It’s not for you.” He said solemnly.

Things got even weirder when he went back to his seat. He leaned over to another student and said, quietly but loud enough for me to hear “We have to be more careful.”

I am now obsessed with finding out what the heck this is about.

The Answerers

When you teach, you start to see patterns in how kids answer questions. There are categories, and every kid falls into one.

The Rambler– It does not matter how short the answer is, this child will make it into an epic monologue. “What’s 3 x 3?” is answered “Well, you see, what I did, was I multiplied it, I multiplied the 3, and then I multiplied it by another 3, because that what it says on this paper, so I said to myself, I’m going to multiply that, and I did, and I got 9, which is the answer to this problem, which is 3 x 3.” If you are trying to get through a lesson before the subject ends, you do not call on this kid.

The Jokester– This kid is out for laughs, and you can’t blame them. Sometimes you need it. Other times, you want to throw things at them. For example, the student that responded to the question “What do we call polygons that look different and don’t fit into categories we know?” responded not with ‘irregular polygons’, which was the correct answer but “Michael Jackson.”

The Accidental Jokester– This is the kid whose answers make you want to laugh out loud, but you can’t because they aren’t doing it on purpose and you don’t want to make them feel bad. For example, the child who, when discussing political maps and asked who created the boundary lines between states, answers “God?” and you need to quickly turn your laugh into a snort and pretend to have a cold while the other kids eye the accidental jokester to see if he is genuinely answering this way, or trying to screw with the teacher.

‘I Didn’t Hear the Question’- The Blurters– Their hands are up before you even finish asking the question. Sometimes before you even start. You will need to ask them “Do you have a question?’ frequently, at which point they will shake their head, put their hand down, and shoot it up again as soon as you say a syllable. Often the answer leaves their mouths followed closely by the realization that they actually have no idea  what was asked. Like my old friend who answered a question about American government with “Ballroom dancing!” followed a heartbeat later by “Wait. What was the question?”

‘I Didn’t Hear the Question’- The Delayers- Similar to above, but when they are called on, the realization that they have no idea what was asked comes faster. You’ll say their name and they will say “Oh. I just… I thought… hold on…”

The Questioner- No answer is ever as good as another question. The questions themselves come in all shapes and sizes. Some are simple clarification, some can sidetrack us into off topic but often great discussions, and others are completely, utterly unrelated. “How many moons does Jupiter have?” How do we know any planets have moons? When will we have the technology to send people to Jupiter? What would Galileo think about it? When is lunch?

The Surprise Participant– This is the kid that never, ever raises their hand. When they do, it’s like a beam of light shines down on them and angels sing. They have finally participated of their own free will, and not just because you called on them and made them! Then if the answer is wrong, you feel like a jerk for not accepting it.

The Humble Ones-  These kids are never convinced they are right. Even when the answer is right in front of them, or one that can’t even be wrong (what’s you favorite food?) they preface the question with “So, I’m not sure this is right but…” Often lumped in here are the humblebraggers- “I don’t know if this is right, but I’ve read like 100 books on the subject and my paper on it was accepted by a prestigious academic journal so…”

The Old Faithfuls- They know the answer. You know they know. Their hands aren’t always up, but they participate when they need to. These kids feed on desperate teacher energy. The times when no one at all has correctly answered. When the clock is ticking, when everyone has apparently forgotten something you know for a fact they all knew yesterday, when you feel the desperation rising. You can meet that kid’s eyes. They will raise an eyebrow, just long enough to let you know they have the power, then they will sigh, raise their hands, and answer with devastating correctness. At which point the rest of the class will say “Ohhhh, yeah…” like they knew all along.