8th grade: I don’t know what I don’t know

I don’t know what I don’t know. I think that’s what freaked me out so much about teaching “theme” to my 8th-graders. I know what theme is, but I don’t really know how to teach it.

I read all of the advice online. It was … fine. But none of it was concrete, and I hate teaching when there’s nothing concrete to attach it to.

I already knew that theme was subjective. It’s dependent upon the experience, background knowledge, and perception of the reader. I also knew that most online sources recommended framing theme as the message the WRITER wants the reader to take away from the work. But as a writer, I can tell you that I never once considered theme while writing. It’s all very confusing.

I’d been advised by teachers to let students identify the themes on their own. I’d also been advised to give them a few themes that I found in the book and let them provide proof that these were themes. I was told to give them scaffolding, but also told to let them seek their own truth. No matter what I did, there was no real answer.

The best tip? “Theme is very difficult for students to understand. Expect to teach if repeatedly through the year.” Thanks to my principal for that.

That’s the funny thing about teaching English — the hard, fast rules are few. The soft, fuzzy guidelines are many. There are exceptions, of course, particularly when it comes to grammar, where we have specific RULES that are simply not intended to be broken, which is what made it so ironic that in the same week that I struggled to find a formula for my students to determine theme, I watched two of my fellow soon-to-be English teacher butcher some of the only rules the language actually has. The first involved word choice (“upmost” instead of “utmost” — seriously, how is that a thing?); the second didn’t know the proper placement of quotes relative to end punctuation.

Uptight? Yes. But here’s the deal: education IS uptight. That’s how we all land on universally accepted truths. Without these, we can’t possibly do our jobs as teachers. There absolutely must be universal rules that we accept and follow. For example, if you’re a U.S. history teacher, you should teach that the Civil War was steeped in racism and slavery,  not northern aggression. If you’re a science teacher, you must teach evolution and global warming, not some creation myth (unless you’re looking specifically at myths and how people used these to make sense of things they didn’t understand prior to having access to accepted truths). And, if you’re an English teacher, you should teach — and model — some of the only truths we know: word choice and grammar. And if you can’t remember them, just do a quick internet search to find them!

Society currently has a problem with trying to find the easiest way out. Let someone else give us the answers, and we’ll just repeat them. As teachers, that means our job is two-fold: first, we need to encourage students to think critically before they accept information as fact; second we need to ensure we’re providing accurate information up front. I can’t teach you not to smoke if I have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. I can’t teach you not to say things like “upmost” if I’m writing it all over my white board and on social media.

I’m all for encouraging students to find the truth on their, but only to a point. When a truth is universally accepted, like word choice and punctuation in American English, I’m still old-fashioned enough to believe that truth should be handed to students. Study it, learn it, know it, and use it. There are plenty of other things to mess around with in English education, like theme. Conventions, on the other hand, simply aren’t open to debate.



8th grade paranoia

I remember 8th grade. It was 40 years ago, so 1979. I hated my math class, which is probably the only time in my life I ever said that about a subject I still cherish. I adored civics, which I believe is now called government or political science and definitely not approached in junior high. My science teacher was … well I don’t remember who that was. And homework, yeah, I think we had some.

What I remember most about 8th grade, however, wasn’t the subjects I was taught. It was me. What it was like to be 13. It’s like … nothing. Teenage angst was still a few years away. You had some responsibility that you needed to wield during babysitting gigs mostly. Physical appearance was important but you could only fight it so much (face it, middle school years aren’t pretty for most folks). I think I read a lot, at least when I wasn’t playing some sport or participating in another extracurricular activity. Eighth grade was full of staying occupied.

What I don’t remember was malice or anything that went beyond the surface level. If I seemed happy, I was. If I didn’t, I wasn’t. If I was confused, I was genuinely confused. If I was tired, I just needed sleep.

All of this comes back to mind whenever I encounter an 8th grade teacher who’s, hmm, how do I say this … MEAN.

We work with kids — kids with their own lives and their own self-centered existences.  They’re pretty surface. The distracting ones are simply distracting, not because they’re trying to get back at you or ruin your career. They simply have no abilty to focus. The ones who don’t have their homework either genuinely forgot it or genuinely didn’t do it (even if they lie about it, it’s just to save their own skin, not make you look stupid in yours). There’s nothing to see here that you don’t really see when you look head-on at a 13 year old. They wear their heart, brain, and everything else on their sleeve. That’s what they’re capable of.

Yet I still, at least a few times each week, hear about the 8th graders who are trying to pull a fast one on me. And all I can do is wonder, really? I remember exactly two of my 8t grade teachers, one because she was so terrible that they disbanded 8th grade algebra that year, the other because she was amazing and cared about us as people. Honestly I don’t think I ever gave enough of a damn about a teacher to actually connive against him or her.

Still, encounter teachers in the profession frequently trying to convince me that their students are doing just that. They’re out to get me.

Maybe times have changed and 13 year olds are full of retribution but I don’t really believe that. I think it’s more likely that a 13 year old occasionally gets lucky and the stars align to cover something up and the world positions itself squarely on his/her/their side. Maybe…

Or maybe it’s that a teacher like me — someone who’s new and wants to fast-track my learning by consuming the experiences of others — catches wind of the criticism simply because I asked a question or made a comment. Yeah, I get it, that kid doesn’t turn in his homework or sits in class and plays video games all day and I should be on him like stink on shit to ensure he can’t find the time. But if I do that, I’m pretty sure I’ll lose track of all of the other students, so I ask if other teachers have found a good way to handle junior in the classroom. That’s when I hear how it’s junior’s goal to thwart any progress I might make. “Watch that one,” they tell me.

I’m not buying it, at least not at this age.

K, in all fairness, there are plenty of veteran teachers who will take my question and give me a real answer and help me figure out ways to work with  a student who isn’t engaged and directly or indirectly takes the rest of the class down with him or her. Those are the teachers I love talking to. I can learn so much from them, like how to accept the fact that I’m not perfect, how to try new techniques and strategies to improve engagement, clues to watch for that might make my task more effective and easier.

The others? The ones who are convinced they’re the subject of some 13 year old’s evil plan? I can probably do without them. While I’m sure they bring amazing insight into their own classes, I can’t possibly imagine spending my days believing my audience is out to get me. Even a 13 year old has PLENTY of better things to do. I say this because I DO remember life 40 years ago. And I also remember never thinking twice about the person at the front of the room and how I could make his or her life miserable.


8th grade: The one with the socratic seminar

I tried a socratic seminar today. Not sure why — I’ve never been impressed with the idea of a socratic seminar before since they always look/seem so incredibly dull, but we had a topic that I really wanted to discuss and it felt very appropriate. So I said “why not,” and did it.

It was scary. Actually, the scariest part was getting up the nerve to try it. But I’m cool with making myself uncomfortable or I wouldn’t spend five days a week with 13 year olds.

My classes range in size from 21 to 30 students. Behavior ranges from asleep in my first hour to a complete zoo in 6th hour. The others are somewhere in between. I decided that for this first socratic seminar, I would blend the concept with a group discussion. Rather than have the whole class contribute, which I see doesn’t work for some of the students in each class who would rather I jam toothpicks under their fingernails than call on them to speak (I have no toothpicks, so don’t worry), I decided I would split each class into three large discussion tables. I assigned a group leader and provided a set of questions for the group leader to ask. I created my rules and explanation — what students could do and what they couldn’t. I also, at the last minute, decided that students should spend 5-10 minutes before the seminar preparing themselves for the discussion by filling out some guided notes on the topic. This was the best thing I did all day (that shows you how novice I am, BTW; a veteran teacher would know that students need this type of preparation before any discussion).

Our topic was pretty focused. It stemmed from something that happened in the book we’re reading at this point, where a 13 year old sports phenom is suspended from play by his mother. I chose this as the topic because my wildest class — the zoo — is full of kids who play sports. I figured this was one of the few ways we’d get a valuable, focused discussion into the mix that these kids would engage with.

We started with my 1st hour class, which is small and unbelievably quiet. I went over the rules, assigned leaders, let them go at their own pace, and allotted 15 minutes for the discussion, although I decided I’d go to 20, if they needed it. I walked from table to table as they spoke and listened in. They used about 18 minutes, interrupted each other frequently but mostly stayed on task. In fact, it was the first time I think I heard some of the students in that class willingly say a word about school. Overall, I was okay with it but we didn’t have as much time left in the class as I had hoped so when I tried to start out instructional section on “theme,” it fell apart. I made a note of that.

Second hour — my 30-person class. We started quickly and the students focused pretty fast. It’s an incredibly diverse class with different learning styles, abilities, lexile levels, and more, and each group required a full 10 students, but most experiments like this work with them. The seminar was no exceptions. My takeaway from this class was that the pacing was off and that I still wasn’t doing a good job of getting each student to contribute, but overall I was happy with how it went. I chalked it up as a success.

Third hour. This is normally a really big class but there were a lot of missing students today. For this class, I required each question be discussed for two minutes with no exceptions. It took longer, so I gave up on the “theme” instruction we were planning after the seminar. Still the two-minute requirement meant everyone participated. Everyone. No question. Even students who I didn’t think were doing anything more than going through the motion of reading the book actively engaged in the conversation. Students questioned each other, and conversation felt natural.

Fourth hour went well, too. They’re a high achieving class, but can frequently get sidetracked when they’re moved into casual conversation environments. This was no exception — a few of the best and brightest were distracted to the point of incapacitation. We did, however, finish early so we ended the hour with a group discussion.

Finally, we got to sixth hour, the one I fondly refer to as my “zoo” class. Everything about this class points to distraction. This is the class that I hate testing new ideas on because so many of them shut down at the thought of change. They were the only class to complain when they learned they’d be doing work in my class on computer rather than paper, the only class to be happy when I switched things up one week and asked for a paper reading log, even though it meant the students would need to complete the assignment a full day early. They’re the only class that wants everything to be familiar.

The class is also so full of “watch-me, look-at-me” types that I couldn’t separate the distract-ers and I had no fewer than three at each table of eight. Incidentally, creating a seating chart for this class is impossible. Even some of the really great students are incapable of remaining focused in here.

The experiment was meh at best for this class. It worked surprising well for one of the groups, possibly because their leader was this incredibly strong girl who is very capable of shutting down the clowns in the class. This exercise was no exception. Her group stayed on task the entire time. She is my hero.

The other two groups? Eh, not so much, but I can’t blame the leaders. It was an uphill battle that no one was going to win.

Overall, however, I never regretted trying the experiment, and we’ll keep working with the idea of the socratic seminar and ultimately build to a real one on a class-by-class basis. Some classes will be ready to try quickly. Others may take until May.

I felt like students got more out of this discussion than any other discussion we’ve had in class thus far. As I listened to each group, I had to restrain myself (not so effectively at times) from telling students how fantastic his/her/their answer was and how impressed I was by the depth of their thought. This, btw, NEVER happens when I’m running the show (depth of thought? Oh that’s out of the window).

Some students had incredible evidence from the book that they recalled to prove a point; one of my SPED students even grabbed a book to show other students the page he was referring to. Students who wouldn’t normally share a “why” were defending their ideas and beliefs publicly. I had one class about to start fighting, which I reminded them wasn’t allowed since this wasn’t a debate, but I was happy they were so truly engaged that they cared to sling empty threats.

The experiment worked far better than I would have ever imagined.

I also learned, however, that in some classes, I need to take a more active role in the discussion until we’re a bit more versed at respect. In my sixth hour class, for example, we’ll work with assigned seats during the discussion (it became weirdly handsy by the end for some of the students — all male, which I guess is what 8th-grade boys do. Hmmm.). I want to move to a bigger group, especially in that class, but my wallflowers aren’t going to have that, so I’ll need to determine how to make this work. Still, it’s only October, so there’s plenty of time.

Lessons learned (because I don’t want to forget):

  1. Add “don’t interrupt” to the rules. Bad oversight on my part.
  2. Ensure I’m overseeing each groups (if only there were three of me).
  3. Always have guided notes to work with.
  4. Pick topics that have a little controversy. That’ll be easy.
  5. Continue with timed questions — but bring a buzzer rather than rely on me shouting it’s time for the next question (a few groups moved on whenever they wanted to and it didn’t work so well).
  6. Hand pick the groups. That’s for 6th hour only.
  7. Work harder to find the right group leaders. Again, 6th hour. I can’t have my rockstar leader do everything every time, sadly.
  8. Try again in about two or three weeks … I think. If I can find the right topic.