Monday, April 27, 2009


Teaching 6th grade in the heart of glorious springtime is, in my personal and very biased opinion, an act of sheer grit. I feel like a Textbook Warrier, blindly plunging forward through the slings and arrows of outrageous twelve-year-old mood swings. No, I don't rescue anyone from burning buildings or create bridges or solve international issues, but I do try to preserve fragile self-esteems, foster lasting social skills, and teach kids to walk in the other person's shoes as much as a developmentally self-centered adolescent possibly can.

When I reach this point in the year, I utterly cease to matter to the kids. This is really as it should be, because their energies need to be spent on dealing with being kicked out of their lunch tables or having to put on shorts in front of everyone in gym class and coping with the mean status someone posted about them on Facebook. They are all sorts of twitterpated with each other, hormones raging and tank tops everywhere. It's a wonder that they ever even look to the teacher at all. In the midst of that, I have to make sure to cover Greece and Rome, and get through two more novels while focusing on good grammer, proper writing skills, and the English Language Arts MCAS.

We wrap up the year with activities that are empowering: a big project on Greece that uses all of the Multiple Intelligences, so everyone can be successful at whatever piece best expresses their talents. We also read the novel Homecoming by Cynthia Voight, about a 13 year old girl who safely guides her brothers and sisters from Rhode Island to North Carolina after their alcoholic mother abandons them in a parking lot. I want kids to recognize that they can do anything when they have to.

Most importantly to me, though, is a project I call "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man/Woman." This is modeled after a project I had to do in 10th grade English called Task Force where kids have to choose 25 out of 50 activities and put them into a binder. The activities are all designed to bring focus to exactly who they are right now, what they believe, how they feel about themselves, and what they anticipate in the future. The idea is that these will become a keepsake of the start of their adolescence so they can look back in five years, and ten, and twenty, and see who they were then and who they've become since. The activities include things like creating a collage from their favorite magazine clippings, listing their favorite bands and their favorite songs and why they like them, a letter of appreciation to a parent or caretaker, a list of the Top Ten Things about Twelve and the Top Ten Things about Eighteen, and a letter to themselves at age 30. The kids really put their hearts into these (most of them, anyhow) and it's amazing how much they reveal. I promise to keep them private, and they agree to be respectful of each other's work and those who might not want to share their feelings. I like to envision them when they move their stuff out of their parents' house for the last time, coming across their project in the back of a closet and meeting their twelve-year-old self for just a moment.

It comes along in the middle of May, right when we're all cooked and the summer is nipping at our heels. They work on their projects at home and some days in class, and we often go outside for writing or reading time. Once the squealy girls get over the spiders and ants, we all seem to have a pretty good time, and it keeps it all centered on them. Plus, my energy wanes significantly at this point in the year, so the less attention they pay to my distraction, the better for all of us.

I love my work, and I feel good getting up every morning and knowing that I am meaningfully contributing to my tiny corner of the world. I won't say I've never shown up on a Friday morning hung over from watermelon margaritas, but I do try to keep plugging away. Definitely more challenging when I'd rather be sitting on my front porch swing.

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