Friday, November 8, 2013

The Seven Greatest Truths about 8th Grade Students

Author's note: the following is a mentor text of informative writing that I developed while writing alongside of my 8th grade students. As my topic is about 8th grade students, I used several of my kids as primary sources and quoted them throughout the essay. I only included first names for the sake of honoring their privacy.

Once upon a time, a teacher stood, firm with confidence, and proclaimed to the sea of students before him, “we are preparing you for the high school.”

And the wind went out of the childrens’ sails.

For ages, adults have reminded adolescents that something greater looms on the horizon...and the time to prepare is now. While there is nothing wrong with teaching kids that the work will be harder in the near future, we can not forget about their unique needs in the present moment.

It seems like a reasonable statement, doesn’t it?

We are preparing you for the high school.

However well-intentioned, that sentiment can row the ship in the wrong direction. Quite frankly, an eighth-grade student is not in the high school and, as we’ll see through their words, being prepared for something in the future is the furthest thing from their minds.

So, I wonder, what happened to teachers focusing on 8th graders having a rich experience this year? Perhaps, taking a step back and reading what 8th graders say about themselves will help us remember the role we should be playing in their lives:

1. “Emotions are temporary, but they feel like forever.” --Amit
Perhaps no psychologist could articulate the emotions of a middle school student any better than 8th grader Mark when he writes, “Emotions lead our mind and tell us what to do, think, and feel." As a teacher, I have to take this into account every day, because, at any moment, one student may be counting on my empathy and not my desire to train them for ninth grade. They depend on us to help them in the moment by being with them in this moment. Suchi reminds me, “Though we are constantly attempting to mask our emotions, we never truly will be able to. Our emotions shine through, no matter what.”

2. “Every second counts.” --Jane
When polling my second period class, Alex notes, “How do we enjoy the year with all of this homework?”Older middle school students begin to realize the value of habits because so many opportunities arise in their lives--they want to do everything, but often can’t. Even at the age of thirteen, Melissa knows, “Procrastination comes back to bite you.”

3. “We can make decisions by ourselves which can propel our little sailboats forward or backward.”
In the subtitle, Amber paints a metaphor of adolescents as boats in the enormous sea of life. And eighth grade students love the openness of that metaphorical sea. They seek control over their lives for the first time in their lives. “We are more mature now,” writes thirteen year-old Elaine, “and we can handle some things by ourselves. But we actually think we can handle anything the world throws at us, which isn’t true.”

4. “My friends are my second family. They are the world.” --Rebecca
According to student, Caroline, “Losing a friend is worse than getting your heart cut out.” Classmate Anna agrees when she writes, “Friendship is more joy than anything else, but losing it hurts more than anything else.”In this stage of life, adolescents exhibit an awareness of the value of a good friend, and often recognize the special qualities of friendships from their younger years, even if that friendship no longer exists.

5.”No one is exactly the same as you, and perfection is nothing but a thing of our imagination."
Ashely's inspiration for the subtitle of this section, reminds me that when we take the time to listen to our students, we raise our awareness as to just how in-tune they are to the world around them. In this case, Cierra offers a perspective all of can appreciate, “We are all different. Different grades, hobbies, friends, lives. But we shouldn’t judge each other by our differences but connect with our similarities." Similarly, Farris notes, “Difference mean so many things, where we come from, what is our religion, and how we are. But that shouldn’t change other people’s perspectives of us. We are ‘US’--don’t try to change us, because you can’t do it.”

6. “Going against society’s perspective...we’re all beautiful, not in how we look of what we say, but in what we are.”
An 8th grader begins to learn to accept themselves and find the goodness inside, as Laura, student, suggests in the subtitle. Other students follow that encouraging perspective. Ellie writes, “A self-image isn’t a mirror image of yourself. It’s ideas and beliefs that make you you.”

“Everyone has different standards; stick to yours." --Jonathan
Bombarded with the lessons and demands of parents and teachers, 8th graders begin to define, for themselves, a sense of what is right and what is wrong. “Fairness is something to learn, but everyone has a different idea of what it is,” writes Shuhan. Eighth grade students need to exercise the “fairness muscle” in their brains today as their sense of justice transitions from an egocentric or childish perspective to one that allows them to live in, and handle, the moment.

After twenty years in the classroom, I have learned that “preparing 8th graders for the high school” is neither a thirteen year-old’s most pressing need nor my priority. Thirteen year-olds come to us with a specific set of skills, needs, and desires. Each year they come into our lives open and optimistic that this is the year that they can depend on a teacher to take care of them, not just be another adult who tells them what to do because we know better.

Working with what makes this year unique, teachers should build every day around what is needed today. Take care of them.

In the end, few will ever remember what we taught, but many will remember how we made them feel.

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