Friday, May 31, 2013

Boys Let Go of Childishness...Eventually

After teaching for 20 years it comes as no surprise to watch boys show-off in social situations in a middle school. Each day boys are engaging in impulsive and even childish behavior when confronted by girls who “like” them. In some ways, boys just can not help themselves and their erratic behavior since, “the typical teen girl has a stronger connection between the areas of the brain that control impulse ... and judgment” (Vargas and Goldberg). Lacking this judgment, boys show off in the most obnoxious of ways when the girls they like are nearby.

We can agree, girls and boys are indeed different, but when it comes to connecting with someone they like, girls are wired to be more thoughtful at an earlier age...and boys are, well, not. This difference in development explains part of the reason why most girls support each other when it comes to their current heartthrob, and boys, well, don’t.

Boys yell at other boys.
When rumors circulate that a certain girl “likes” a certain boy, plug your ears. The boys, baboons in cargo shorts, are about to yell. Usually, they shriek obnoxious jokes or joyful sounds that are sort of a cross between a grunt and a malfunctioning tuba.

Boys shove and push each other. 
When “the girl” they like is near the boy, stand back girls! Boys will swing fists and collision shoulders. From a distance, some may fear a fight is breaking out, but the boys will be laughing and snorting and butting each other into lockers like young rams. The girl, barely acknowledged, is disappointed that the boy did not talk to her and usually walks away.

Boys Meltdown. 
When confronted by a girl delivering a message that their friend is interested in him, or (worse) the boy is confronted by the girl herself, boys will do one of two things--grow really quiet (which means panic) or they make a stupid comment (which also means panic) sandwiched by various stuttered fragments of thought.

Girls Retreat for Reinforcements.
By comparison, when approached by a boy they like, a girl will retreat in the opposite direction. Maybe it isn’t a full out sprint, but they will burrow behind a trusted friend. The friend can read this signal and will usually rally for her gentle friend. She will take control and address the boy, thereby confusing him with talking. Disoriented by words, the boy, turns to the trusted confines of the men’s room or the water fountain. This is a great example of the “girl code” of which I have only heard about and never had access to myself.

Girls Put Stock in Scouting Reports. 
Girls like to send a representative out into the wild to scout out any sense that the boy could possibly somehow be interested. However,this tends to be difficult for the girls to ascertain since most boys are (again) distracted by talking--the sounds of words being formed by the lips--and girls know this. It is a part of their scouting report. And this is why the greatest-kept secret between boys and girls must be revealed here today. Boys, if you could only talk to a girl so much angst could be avoided. If you have trouble talking to THE girl then talk to her friend. The reality is that the friend’s opinion of you is very important part of the equation.This friend is scouting you out and the report she totes back to the troops will reflect kindly on you: “HE TALKS!”

In the end, it takes the great patience and perseverance of girls to help the boys let go of some of the childish ways carried with them from 6th grade and into 8th grade. Until someone tells a middle school boy what to do or somehow coaxes him to transform the energy of grunts and collisions into articulate and thoughtful conversation--then the social time in a middle school will remain a jungle of loud, obnoxious, and boisterous boys clinging to the sweetness of childhood. Just remember, girls, it isn’t their fault.

Works Cited
VARGAS, ELIZABETH, and ALAN B. GOLDBERG. "The Truth Behind Women's Brains." ABC News. ABC News Network, 28 Sept. 2006. Web. 31 May 2013.

Monday, May 27, 2013

LGBT YA Novels & Facing our Humanity

If a teacher stays in the game long enough, he or she is bound to encounter what feels like "everything." As a matter of fact, a cliche exists between experienced teachers and those new to the vocation--we already did that years ago. 

When new ideas or initiatives are rolled out to a staff, it is inevitable that a teacher within the group will note that the pendulum is just swinging back to something already tried a decade ago. Maybe, to a certain degree, this was true. Maybe, for decades, education was stuck pin-balling from one polar idea to another.

As politics and society go, so goes the climate in education.

Yet, something new is happening--the emergence of Gay, Lesbian, Bi, and Transgendered YA literature. If you would have asked me in the mid-90s if I thought I would someday be previewing and reading LBTG YA novels because students are opening clamoring for them, reading them, and sharing them, I would have said no.

The mid-90s to the mid-00s pulled the cover off a few things for me. Directing the middle school plays, I had young people in the play who were wrestling with their identities in lots of its adolescent forms. One way was sexuality. It wasn't so much that I didn't know that some (many?) adolescents struggle with figuring out who they are, and gasping for the air of actually "being ok who they are," it is that being involved in a meaningful activity together in a small group toppled some of the walls that the traditional school setting helps erect.

No matter the decade, this much is true, young people form bonds with other like-minded and empathetic teens. They need those bonds. Hell, adults need those bonds.

The adolescents I got to know in those middle school plays had fun and acted like kids for a lot of the time, but sometimes conversation went down the paths of their choosing. With and without me, they discussed heavy real-life issues thrust upon them: parents separations or divorces, a parent suicide, a parent's long, slow death from cancer, abusive relationships, the loss of a classmate to a accident, bullying and threats, anorexia and bulimia, substance use, and sexuality.

This was just one lesson for me--adolescents deal with a lot, and will seek their own answers whether they have the support and guidance of a trusted friend or adult. (FYI yes the guidance office was involved every step of the way--often ahead of those conversations surfacing among the group. As a matter of fact, I can recall many of those kids being encouraged to talk about it--that it was healthy to talk.) The point is, young people need support systems...and want support systems.

I don't know that I ever knew an adolescent who wanted to face anything alone.

At the same time, in the same decade, students in my classes were researching poets. To cut to the chase, a male student chose Allen Ginsberg --can you see where this is heading? It only took one weekend of his browsing in a Borders bookstore with his mother and I found myself in the office with the principal and the guidance counselor on a Monday. The parents were irate because Ginsberg was gay and as their son researched him he was exposed to something horrific--and why, why, didn't I stop him? --and how much did I encourage him? --and can't he research someone like a local or historically relevant poet to the Civil War, like Walt Whitman? (I am not making that up.)

Not to belittle their wishes at all--I respect a parent's right to monitor what their son or daughter reads...which is actually the main thrust of my writing today.

Some kids in my study hall recently passed around a copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Sniggering over the mention of masturbation, a few muttered how inappropriate the book was now that they see that passage. This isn't all that far from the similar kinds of tittering and gasps I've heard for years over some of Anne Frank's entries about her own sexual curiosity and budding body.

You know, 13 and 14 is an age where kids are right on that cusp. Some boys are still giving birthday punches and some are reading Douglas Adams, Rudyard Kipling, or Sir Walter Scott on their own. And some kids are reading YA books that contain suicide, cancer, sex, and substance use.

In a painting a portait of what I knew ten and twenty years ago, I wonder how aware are today's parents of the many changes in YA literature? Ya literature is willing to go well beyond the books I read as an adolscent: The Hardy Boys mysteries or any number of sports books. Ten or twenty years ago, the YA books available today were not written--as politics and society go. so goes education...and books?

Last year's most-read self-selected book in my classes was Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why. Hardly Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm.

Just a few months ago I saw my first essays about gay marriage--self-selected as a topic. One student called it her generation's civil rights that she completely supported. "After all, love is love," she wrote.

Well, this climate is all new to me. The climate feels like a mixed bag of humid air and cool purple shadows from fat storm clouds rolling over ahead. Gay marriage is certainly a charged topic in the real world, and I suppose I should expect little else than the topic of LGBT YA literature to be equally as charged in some homes.

In one direction I have the students and what I hear and see from them. In another direction I have the parents and their wishes. In yet another direction I have the world of literature and all of the good it can do for humanity. And in the final direction I have a mirror reflecting everything back at me--what I do, and I how I handle these books, matters.

It matters.

photograph by Camille Seaman
Having just finished Emily M. Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post (brilliant, by the way) I can't help but think of all of the kids I taught over twenty years who would love this book, and some who might have needed this book. Just as small groups of adolescents can support a friend, or a trusted coach or mentor can guide someone, books can often be the safe place for a young person to be allowed to think or feel or debate.

 A few months ago I read YA The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George--that one didn't stick with me so much--it felt really young, really close to middle grade LGBT. On my book list are David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing, Kristin Elizabeth Clark's Freak Boy, and Hannah Moskowitz' Marco Impossible.

I know this much--it is important that I read them in the same way that it was important for me to read Ellen Hopkins' Crank (which appears to be the most self-selected independent book to read among my classes). I still go back to the student who saw me reading it and couldn't contain herself to ask me what I thought..about the drug addiction, the abusive father, the unhealthy relationships...

And then there is the student who saw me reading The Miseducation of Cameron Post. On a day that I was out of the classroom, she picked it up and read the book jacket. And then the first chapter. And then she signed it out through my substitute teacher to read it (she did not know I wasn't finished it yet).  However, I took it back later that day so that I could finish it. It has taken me longer than she would have liked...I just finished it this morning.

Since initially signing it out, she has asked me three times for the book.

How we handle facing our humanity matters.

Monday, May 20, 2013

VoiceThread, Revision, and Conferring

I am growing to like VoiceThread as a way for students to share their work for feedback. Throughout the year, we do a fair share of student sharing and feedback in groups of three. Often, students will express that they hate reading their work. Some ask if another could read it for them. Sometimes, they wriggle out of it altogether.

Posting and narrating one's work on VoiceThread allows students to read and record their work aloud (an important phase of the revision process) and then listen or read the feedback of their peers...sometimes over and over.

It also allows me to hear as much of the feedback as I choose, and certainly allows me the time and flexibility to hear every student read their work. Obviously, when students are reading and sharing their work in class in groups, I cannot possibly hear and comment on every single piece of writing.

Using VoiceThread has, in a sense, created time...or suspended time. Because I can access it from my iPhone, laptop, iPad, or any web browser, I can access student work anywhere, at anytime. 

In my first example of student work, an 8th grade student, Connor, uploaded an original photograph. We participated in the My Hometown project which was run by the New York Times. I asked students to select one from  the dozen or so pictures they took of their hometown. With that picture, I asked them to write an original piece to complement it--it could be an essay, a narrative, a poem...anything.

This second example is a piece of an original story written by Sophie, also in 8th grade. Sophie uploaded her pages and then recorded herself reading it. Over the course of the next several days, I along with several other students will be offering comments on Sophie's work. Interestingly enough, when I had students practice leaving comments on a piece of my writing, they almost all choose to type them rather than record them on either an audio file or video file--even though VoiceThread makes that very easy to execute.

I am finding another level of understanding when I listen to my students read their own writing. Hearing their tone and inflection makes their pieces human in way that I miss as their primary reader...I am not hyper-focused on the flaws and find myself celebrating the positive elements. Also, their voice adds a freshness to working through a stack of papers--after all, I only "hear" my voice when I read student work silently to myself. VoiceThread helps me in this regard.

I know others use VoiceThread as a way to develop online student writing portfolios--something I will explore next year.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Teacher Appreciation Week

Expect for a listless tweet by Arnie Duncan and a couple of stray posts on my Facebook page, the whimper, otherwise known as Teacher Appreciation Week, has almost passed. In an effort to make it more audible, I wanted to write about some teachers...and realized I had forgotten some of their names.
The female teacher who encouraged me to draw pictures with colored chalk--she also hugged me as I wailed real tears as a witch ran through the blankets we were about to nap on (a Halloween surprise gone awry).
And it makes me wonder, after 19 years, how many have forgotten me. And, quite honestly, I don't blame them. Life rolls on. Out of sight, out of mind.
Mrs. Grasso, an elementary/middle grade teacher, drove from Philadelphia to Springfield, Delaware County, to watch me play ice hockey. While I also remember that she was pretty tough on us, her gesture of coming to watch me play still hangs with me.

In the past, when I saw "teacher appreciate week" I didn't really think much of it. Occasionally, a nice luncheon may have been planned. But for the most part, it takes it place on the hooks in the closet of national days of recognition.
In 8th grade, Sister St. Christopher thought of me when a local pharmacy called the school looking for delivery boy. I remember her pulling me into the hallway at Stella Maris--the hallways were always so dim with the evergreen carpet, beige and brown tiled walls, and low wattage bulbs overhead. She offered that I was the first person she thought of when the man asked for someone trustworthy and from a good home.
In reality, what sticks to my bones is the humanity of the people who taught me. Not the books or worksheets.
Mr. Carey was my 9th grade English teacher in all-boys Catholic school. We read The Canterbury Tales. I remember learning the word vermin. Yet, what I took from that class--even though I struggled to earn Cs and Bs--was his sense of humor. He made that slice of school a moment of joy--irrespective of my grades. 
Many years later, I ran into Bill Carey at bookstore in downtown Philadelphia. Introducing myself to him, he stared at me--I was lost among the hundreds, maybe thousands, of other boys who passed through his class. He had forgotten me.
We made small talk--he was very gracious and flashed the smile uncovered the sense of humor I remember--and then parted. 
I realize I have to read and listen to others to continue to grow as a teacher. I realize we have to pay attention to the scores and the outcomes and learn to adjust our curriculum and methods. And I realize, throughout a teaching career, when we count all of our administrators, parents, and students, we are held accountable to an entangled web of standards by thousands of different people. Yet, in the end, what sticks?
Mr. Smith was a well-liked math teacher. He also coached a pretty darn formidable girls basketball team. As a senior, I was failing Mr. Smith's math class.
My father called him on my behalf, and the next day Mr. Smith (his friends called him Smitty) offered me some help with my math--I could be the statistician for the girls basketball team. And so I did. I recorded their statistics, crunched their numbers, and Mr. Smith checked my work...and made corrections. 
I haven't seen Mr. Smith since that year--1986. But I happen to see a retired teacher (Dominic) who worked with "Smitty" and who subs in our building. Dominic shared that "Smitty" is battling Alzheimers Disease.
Our family has seen Alzheimer's at work in close friends and family. So, I am familiar with the courage required.

Privately, I grieve for Mr. Smith's fight with nature and time. In honor of those of who have helped shape me, I want to appreciate my current colleagues in my building and beyond our borders.

Our work wears on us, doesn't it? Even the positives take a piece of us...because they don't just happen. The positives are product of a lot of energy, emotion, and initiative.

And I have to acknowledge the negatives in education. They don't wear us out so much as they incite the bone spurs emerging on us--parts of us thicken. These negatives...they make the next round of positives that much more challenging to happen. Sometimes they rub on our teaching so much it can lead to a lot of discomfort in our positions as teachers and colleagues.

Yet, in my experience, the great ones worked through that discomfort and found a way to be be a force of good. The great teachers in my life were not those who needed to calculate or deconstruct or recite to impress me or move my opinion, the great ones were better than that.

The great ones showed me compassion.

And there is no accounting for that...except in the fact that it is the one thing I will always remember.