Sunday, September 25, 2011

The essential nature of 8th graders

I was responding to another teacher who asked about my teaching awards and about working with 8th graders. By the time I was done writing my message, I realized it was a blog posting...

I taught in Walla Walla, WA and won the state Excellence in Education award and then won the national Milken Award. That was a life-changing time in many, many ways. But... the way I won the awards was using the following philosophies, maybe they will help you. First of all, even Socrates complained about 14 year olds and how they wouldn't listen etc. I realized if they hadn't changed in a couple thousand years then I wasn't going to change the essential nature of 14 year olds. So instead of trying to change who they were, I changed the way I taught to match their personalities. At 14 they

  • can't do anything alone. Everything, even going for a drink of water, requires at least one buddy.
  • need to sprawl. Their bodies are growing so fast and the hormones are going up and down constantly they just really cannot sit in a desk for extended periods.
  • know everything and adults know nothing. When my daughter informed me that I was brushing my teeth wrong (according to her, not according to the dentist) I really got a lesson in knowing "nothing."
  • believe they are adults. Period. They do.
  • have to know why they need to know something.
So I created a whole curriculum which required them to work in partners or groups for nearly everything. We did stuff big, like poster paper on the floor instead of notebook paper on a desk. I played dumb (because I am an adult and I know nothing) and let them teach me everything. Everything!

And for the last two points keep in mind that I taught the most ancient of ancient history. To be honest I don't think I ever learned about Babylonia or Mesopotamia so I really had to sit in their seats and think how this could be relevant. I used to sit in their seats metaphorically a lot and think why should I care about... If I couldn't picture the teacher convincing me I should care then I knew they would be lost.

So my curriculum was Lehmann Enterprises. I "hired" them as unpaid interns (remember they think they are adults) the first day of school and all of the content was taught through work-based products. They created advertising, did live news shoots (which they had to script), made travel brochures, ran an election in which the whole school voted about Sparta or Athens... The content was embedded in what was being advertised, or being shown on the news, or what was in the travel brochures etc.

When your history students are sneaking out of other peoples classes to advertise for Sparta so the 6th graders would vote for Sparta and not Athens; when 8th graders are hurrying down the hall and saying "Can we start before the bell rings?" when they still as adults talk about Sparta vs. Athens, or false Buddha images, or their Century 21 BC ad... You know you created something compelling for them. And talk about learning, and unintended lessons Wow!

They learned the history and didn't even know they were learning it... Which is why the whole "teach to the test" movement of the last 10 years has made me crazy. If you make learning really interesting and compelling they will learn everything they need for the dumb test and a lot, lot more. Instead we are making school so incredibly boring that they hate learning. And... they do worse on the tests! Makes me crazy, crazy, crazy!!

Whew! That's a lot! But you asked so I got on my soapbox. The main thing to remember is you are not going to change the essential nature of 14 year olds. They are who they are.

1 comment:

  1. Too true. Everything. I remember to this day that at 14 I thought that I was the smartest, coolest and best person in the world, especially next to adults. It is with utter sense of dread that I await my own children turning 14! Luckily I still have a few more years!