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

 

 

Advertisements

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.

Moving On

The end of last year was really hard. Harder than previous years, for a few reasons. I started out teaching third and fourth grade, then moved up to fifth and sixth. I didn’t get any of the same students for the next loop, but it meant I saw my former kids all the time. So out of the 100 kids at this grade, I had 50 of them. In the four years with these kids, I got engaged, bought a house, got married, became a mother. I really became an adult, and hit so many milestones. These kids were with me for them.

It’s hard to move on after two years with a group no matter the situation, but it’s especially hard when they leave the school. When my fourth graders moved on, I still saw them all the time. Granted the sixth graders moved across the street, but it still means I see them far less. So visits from my former students have been so important since school started.

When the first day of school ended, I looked up to see one of them in the door. “Hi,” she said. “I need you.” And she started to cry. Turns out she was just feeling a bit overwhelmed by the transition to middle school, but was totally fine. Other kids have popped in throughout the week. Sometimes they wave from a distance. Sometimes they run to me and hug me. On one occasion, they snuck in while my current class was still here, and sat on the rug with them. It took 3 minutes before I even noticed. Yes, they timed me. So far every day I have seen at least one former student.

I love these visits, but I know they’ll taper off soon. And that’s good for both of us. They need to start feeling like their new school is home. I need to start feeling like my current class is where my heart is. It’ll happen on both ends. It always does. But the transition is hard.

A colleague and I were talking about it in the staff room yesterday.

“We go into it knowing it has to end, that it won’t last, but it’s still hard to say bye.” She said.

“And we want them to be happy, and like where they are now, but I don’t want them to forget me.” I said.

“I know I’ll love the new ones just as much eventually, but right now I just really miss the old class.” She said.

Then another colleague leaned over and said “Until you said class, I assumed you guys were talking about exes.”

We laughed, but that analogy really works.

So here’s to a new year! To teaching fifth grade again (I’ve found I like the 5/6 loop more than the 3/4 one.) To kids who don’t yet smell like sweat and cheap cologne, complain about hormones, and roll their eyes at everything. To a new group, and all their quirks, charm, and uniqueness.

I love my job.

Heritage

This time of year, both teachers and students start thinking about next year. The kids are asking older friends and siblings about each teacher, watching us in the halls with our classes- and we’re doing the same to them! It’s strange to think about having a new group of kids after what feels like so long with the current one.

Last week, a student in the grade I’ll have next year stopped me in the hall.

“You’re Puerto Rican, too, right?” He asked earnestly, gesturing at himself to indicate that he was.

I am not, in fact, Puerto Rican. When I explained that I wasn’t, he looked alarmed.

“But you’re Mexican, or Dominican, or something Spanish like that?” He pressed.

When I answered in the negative again (apologetically, as he was clearly distressed), he let out a deep sigh, covered his face with his hand, lifted it to eye me closer, and then pinched the bridge of his nose in a surprisingly adult gesture, sighing again.

“Ok,” he said firmly, clearly having come to some sort of decision, “Well if I get you next year, we’re just gonna tell my mom you are.”

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.

Ant Problems

We had a class breakfast last week, and in the ensuing chaos of twenty-three 12 year olds eating and drinking, some juice was spilled. Multiple kids attempted to clean it up, but only ended up smearing it across an even greater surface of the counter. Within an hour, sugar ants were busily crawling across it. We cleaned it up, but by then the damage was done and a line of ants kept scurrying across the counter.

That afternoon we had reading buddies, and the second graders of course noticed the ants. One little girl quickly pointed out that I could just poison them. I explained that they were there for the spilled juice, and that I didn’t want to use poison if we could just do a better job cleaning up the juice.

“You could put the poison in the juice bottle!” She suggested enthusiastically.

“Well I really don’t want to use poison, and the ants won’t be able to get the juice in the bottle anyway” I replied.

The little girl looked meaningfully around the table at each of the sixth graders she sat with. “It’s not for the ants.” She said to me. The sixth graders looked at me and each other, but the little one was already back to her book, head resting gently on her very alarmed looking buddy.

After the second graders left, my students asked “Did she suggest you poison us because we didn’t clean up the juice?” “I think she did.” I answered. “But I promise not to poison any of you.” Nonetheless, the juice was thoroughly cleaned up after that.

What I’m Doing With My Life

One of the first students in this morning was Evie, who immediately strode purposefully to my desk for the following very important conversation.

Evie: “What did you think of Kanye’s contacts?”

Me: Blank stare

Evie: “At the met gala? His contacts??”

Me: “Oh, I didn’t watch that.”

Evie: “It was all over social media!”

Me: Blank stare, slowly sipping my tea.

Evie: “What are you even doing with your life?”