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.

Jumping Off Bridges

A couple weeks back, I was leading lines of kids from the gym to their buses at the end of the day. A jacket was left on the floor. “Whose is this?” I asked, pointing to it. After a short pause, two second graders literally flung themselves at the jacket, smacking into the floor and each other, then wrestling for it.

“WHOA!” I yelled, and they separated from each other, but continued to yank the jacket back and forth between them. I held my hand out for it, and they reluctantly surrendered it. “Who does this belong to?” I asked again. One of the boys raised his hand. “Mine.” “But he told me to race him to it!” The other cut in quickly. “Did you think that that was a good idea?” I asked him. “But he told me to!” The little one insisted.

Using the oldest metaphor in the book for this kind of scenario, I asked him, “If he told you to jump off a bridge, would you?” I meant this as a rhetorical question, but he got a thoughtful look on his face and cocked his head to the side.

“Hell yeah!” He answered. “That sounds awesome!”

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.

 

New Year, New World, New Weird

As part of our unit on Colonial America, we have the kids imagine its the year 2090, and Earth is not in good shape. We ask them to imagine they are given the option to board a spaceship to go to a new, relatively unknown planet. Would you do it? Would you leave your family and friends, the life you know, and risk a dangerous journey to a place you know very little about? Is it worth the risks to have a new, better life? Some really great discussions come out of this, and it’s a lot easier to empathize with and understand the early colonists this way.

We also ask them what they would pack for the journey, emphasizing survival over personal belongings. The results are, unsurprisingly, hilarious and disturbing.

Inevitably, some students insist that yes, they do need their football/iPad/hair straightener/favorite book to survive. Others argue that they could fit an entire generator in a suitcase. They need to make these discussions as a group, so things get heated.

With my last class, they really understood that this was theoretical. This new class has a much more heightened sense of imagination, apparently, because I had to keep reminding them that this was entirely pretend. It didn’t actually matter what color the jacket you packed was, or who was going to get to share the two tents that you brought. None of this was real!

Here are the highlights from this year.

In one group, a small girl walked up to me and casually asked if a colonist could kill the other colonists for food. Her group tried to argue that once she killed one person, the others would stop her. “I’ll kill everyone at once.” She rationed. They pointed out the meat wouldn’t last, and she replied “Why do you think I packed so much salt? I’m going to preserve you.” Through the whole discussion I kept trying to wrest the conversation back to the realm of more school appropriate and less downright horrifying, with limited success. At this point I had to say “Cassie, you may not turn your classmates into jerky.” “Theoretical jerky.” She answered.

In another group, someone was arguing that they should bring purse dogs. Thinking I misheard, I asked him to clarify. “Small dogs that fit in purses.” He answered. After a long pause I could only ask, “Ok… why?” His reasoning was that they could breed them and trade them for other supplies. “People love purse dogs.” He said. Luckily one of his group members started talking about the dangers of invasive species, saving me from having to talk someone out of bringing chihuahuas on a spaceship for trade purposes. (That sentence right there is why I love my job.)

After leaving that group, I overheard a heated discussion about bringing a baby. “A human baby?” I clarified. They nodded, and again I had to ask why. “We’ll need more people.” a very earnest boy explained. “Otherwise when we die our colony is gone.” Knowing I was treading into dangerous territory, I explained “Well, the people in your colony could get married and have babies.” He narrowed his eyes. “You said our colony was only the people in the class.” “Well, it’s imaginary, and you could imagine there are other people-” A girl next to me cut me off. “Kyle, I told you. If we want the colony to continue you have to marry one of us.” He turned beet red and yelled back, “I’m not having children with you, I told you already!”

I guess the moral of the story here is that even when you’re imagining it, thinking about marrying your classmates is weird. And even when you insist it’s imaginary, talking about eating your classmates is weird.