18 October 2008

Are You Smarter than a Sixth Grader?

Several years ago, when I was getting back into teaching from my embarrassing foray into grant administration, my first job was teaching five Language Arts classes to sixth graders at Shafer Middle School in Gallatin.

The regular teacher had gone on maternity leave, and I began the job eager to get back into teaching and show what I could do. Sure, they were 6th-graders and I had only taught high school before, but I wasn't awed. "Bring 'em on!" I thought, in a misguided-ignorant-George-W-Bush sort of way.

I was several weeks into teaching there before I got a solid understanding of what had hit me. The creatures in my classes--were they children? teens? tweenies? how do you categorize 12-year-olds (you don't)--did bizarre and inexplicable things.

There were the two boys who took turns making animal sounds whenever I turned to write on the board. There was the girl who alternated between helplessness and contempt in her interactions with me and other students. There was the boy who couldn't stop moving, either in the room or in the hall, until he ended up in ISS for the final two weeks of school and made up all his work. And then there was the day all the staff spent in the cafeteria, ready to prevent a food fight that we successfully headed off.

I learned something about 6th-graders that year--and a lot more about myself. I gained a new respect for that age level--and the teachers, pastors and parents who are needed to guide them through this important time.

But what I learned the most was about the intelligence of 6th-graders, something I had underestimated, or at least misunderstood. They are a wickedly crafty species of homo sapien, and one not to be taken lightly. Now that Ellie has moved into 6th grade, I am revisiting many of those lessons learned long ago. Am I smarter than a 6th-grader? I certainly hope so. Otherwise my life is about to be a lot worse.

Here are a few observations about 6th-graders. I'm composing them now, so that I can revisit them over the course of this year. Perhaps you will appreciate them, too, if you have parented one of these creatures, or you can file this away from when your time comes.

6th-graders divide and conquer. I used to think that the quest for independence begins in 9th grade, when kids are fully fledged teenagers. I was wrong. The battle for command begins in 6th grade. It's a bizarre kind of warfare, based on animal instinct and exploding hormones. I couldn't even call it generalship--because that would take planning and an overall goal.

No, 6th-graders are more Pancho Villa than Patton in their approach to warfare. Their goals are immature--give me what I want, don't hold me responsible--but their tactics are often brilliant. I watched my own parents grow divided and angry in response to attacks from a 6th-grader when I was growing up. The combination of teddy-bear looks and devious tactics can run roughshod over the institutions that are meant to direct them: schools and marriages are the first line of assault.

I remember how completely the administration of my middle school were divided from the teachers as a result of these tactics. I would write a kid up, only to hear later from the incompetent vice principal that I was the one who had been in the wrong. I had two girls complain that I had kept them from going to the restroom during their menstrual periods in the six weeks I taught there--double the number of high school girls who had pulled this trick in six years of teaching high school. The kids ran the school, and within a year both the vice principal and principal had been replaced (the new principal is awesome, by the way, and my mother-in-law teaches there now, which is cool).

6th-graders are not responsible. There are many frustrating tasks that I have had to complete in my lifetime, none more frustrating than having to argue with a 6th-grader about something they blatantly did. A preferred tactic of the 6th-graders I taught was to deny (this continues through the first two years of high school, I might add). I was always so shocked to hear this, that sometimes it worked. I backed down due to temporary brain lock!

A more common trick was to talk back through blame. "You didn't say anything when X did it!" This is a terribly effective strike because it's even more confusing than the first one. But the argument at it's base, "I don't have to be good until everyone is good," is devastating. If 6th-graders can win this argument, then no rules can be effectively enforced. It's amazing how 6th-graders study everything in their environment--stuff I wouldn't normally pick up on--just to get out of responsibility.

Of course there are magical, wonderful moments when 6th-graders become aware of their responsibility and accept it. These usually coincide with unity--the school and parents being on the same page, or both parents being together rather than divided. The kids' faces light up. They actually grin (because they know in there primitive animal minds that they need an Alpha figure) and move on to plan the next ambush.

6th-graders are victims of runaway hormones. Again, I had thought before that 9th grade was when the hormone thing started. Was I ever wrong. Sixth grade is the point where boys stop talking to girls and get embarrassed by them. It's the point at which girls divide up the boys and "go out" with them--yet at the same time seldom talk to or associate with the boys who are their "boyfriend."

When I was twelve, my friends in Ohio started "dating." They were girl-crazy. My friend, Eric, had a girlfriend, so did Kevin. I helped Kevin get his girlfriend. He told me to go and tell her she was a "fox." Apparently this was all it took.

I found this really confusing. My idea of a girlfriend, at the time, was someone you spent a lot of time with and held hands with (kissing was out of the question, of course). They tried to set me up with a girlfriend of my own--an unknowing, innocent girl named Tabitha. I was too scared. I didn't have a "real" girlfriend until I was 15 or 16.

It is only now that I look back on those "relationships" and understand them a little better. Kevin and Eric and I ended up spending most of our time together, not with girls. We played more than our share of softball and football. We had a great time together. But for a few moments each week, Kevin and Eric were boyfriends, and I was merely confused.

Ellie had a similar romance a few weeks ago. Her friend, Tristin, lured her to a car, where a 6th-grade boy was sitting in the back seat.

"You like her, don't you?" Tristin asked her cousin, the object of Ellie's affections.


"You like him, don't you?" Tristin asked Ellie.


Thirty seconds later, Ellie was giggling with her girlfriends, and the boy was hanging out with his buddies again.

No harm done.

Am I smarter than a 6th-grader? It's a question that I cannot answer. It's a challenge that I face every day, and will continue to do until my 6th-grader(s) until they are mature young adults.

(An aside: does anyone recognize how the traits of 6th-graders (more Pancho Villa than Patton, never responsible for their actions, head-hunting tactics meant to divide opponents) also apply to the Bush Administration? Were these folks smarter than 6th-graders, or were they 6th-graders?)

I do think that it's a question that helps me to anticipate the next ambush, appreciate all the changes that are going in my favorite 6th-grader's life, and prepare to parent even the most difficult of stages of development.