I thought it might be fun to make several short little mini-trailers focusing on various characters, and then make a larger one. I'm still sort of tweaking this, but it is finished enough I thought I might put it up. What do you think? Would it pique your curiousity? Incidentally, if you want, you can read the first chapter here.
Q: Guess what the best thing about 7th graders is?
A: They turn into 8th graders.
Hah! It's a joke to lighten things up. And chances are, if you have a 7th grader, you will need some lightening up. Remember, this will pass and things will be normal and happy again.
7th grade is a rough time. In my opinion, it is the most difficult age to live through on your own, and also as a parent. Yes, there are exceptions, but in my experience, the vast majority of kids really struggle with this year. Let me offer some generalizations, based on my observations, about the problems and then some possible strategies.
The reason it's so difficult, I think, comes down to one word: change.
First of all, their bodies are changing in ways that may be frightening, confusing, and exciting--all at the same time.
Consider the cliche, "I know something/someone like the back of my hand." We say that to make the point that we know something or someone deeply, thoroughly, completely. The saying draws it's power from the commonly accepted idea that our bodies are fixed points of reference, things we know perfectly and understand.
So, imagine how you feel when that point of reference is changing. The way you look, the way you sound. One day your voice squeaks or you trip over feet that are larger than they were. Your face begins to break out. You are taller than everyone else. Or shorter than everyone else. You have hair on your legs and don't want it. Or, you have don't have hair on your legs and do want it. You start to smell funny and feel different. Changes come in areas and systems that have traditionally been incredibly personal as well.
Not only is your body changing, but worse, everyone can tell it is! So you go through these uncomfortable changes in full view of your parents, teachers, and worst of all, your peers. It is a humiliating thing. And, not having the confidence or balanced view that comes with a few more years of experience, you assume that everyone notices far, far more than they actually do.
Being a 7th grader is, I think, to feel always on the outside looking in. It is to live each day with self-doubt and a feeling of awkwardness and discomfort. This feeling keeps you always feeling like you are the outlier, the strange one, and so on. You feel insecure and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you see two friends talking, you assume they are excluding you. And, without maturity and lived experience, you probably act accordingly--snubbing them in return, or at least being deeply hurt.
And this leads to a second major change. Not only is the body changing, but social groups are, too. 7th grade is a social Rubix Cube that is suddenly twisted and turned all over. Friendships that existed since Kindergarten are suddenly over. Your best friend now wants to hang out with a different group. You have different interests. If you mature more quickly, you find the former activities lame and childish. If you mature a little less quickly, you're not sure why your friend suddenly cares about teenage things like boys/girls, etc. You still want to play with Barbies (secretly) or legos--and your friend suddenly has a Facebook account and is "going out" with or "dating" someone you both thought was gross a few months earlier.
And that leads to the third change. Many, not all, and maybe not even most, but many, adolescents will start having romantic interests at this point in life. They aren't totally sure what it's all about but they may become infatuated with a boy or girl. Their friendships with members of the opposite sex may change completely and become more flirtatious, or more awkward. Most of them experience romantic relationships in extremes--the very awkward and the very obsessed. There tends not to be a great deal of middle ground, although sometimes they are savvy enough to pretend that their is and they put on a show. Inside, their emotions are not very stable.
All of this is going on because of the hormones that are flooding through them. These hormones make them unusually emotional. They might be weepy, depressed, angry, and ecstatic within short periods of time. Their behavior will change, often, based on where they are and who they are with. For peers, they will put on a happy face in spite of nearly anything. For parents, it can be the opposite.
On that note, the influence of their peers and a desire for peer approval can become a paramount consideration at this time. You may see your own relationship change as they pull away and assert some independence.
They see things in heightened emotional terms and there may be a lot of drama. If it's not outward, then it's probably still there, roiling below the surface and you wonder what's going on.
Their judgment is impaired and they will make bad decisions. Repeatedly. Simple things you took for granted, like doing their homework or cleaning their room, may become epic battles now.
We had a speaker at school a few years ago who told us something I have found invaluable. He was neuroscientist, and said that with the onset of puberty, the brain ceases the production of serotonin, which mediates decision-making. It just stops. Completely. This, he said, leaves a teen with the functional decision-making skills of an adult drunk driver.
So, a 7th grader might be forgiven for having a rough year. In fairness, there is a whole lot going on that they have to deal with.
So, what do you do?
To be honest, it's not easy. Every year I probably am frustrated more by my 7th grade students than any other group. At the same time, I get a lot of genuine satisfaction and happy surprises from them as well. They can be surprisingly sweet still, and they can do very good work when properly motivated and structured. While not adults yet, they will have glimmers of moments when they can show a lot of maturity.
The biggest thing that helps me is to manage expectations, to remember who I am dealing with. I have to constantly remind myself that they look like adults--but they are far, far from it. I need to manage my expectations accordingly. I have to remember how much they are dealing with. To them, most of their daily energy is consumed on surviving and not becoming a social outcast. They spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about this.
I've found it helpful to think of them in these terms. I'm simplifying, this is not supposed to be medically valid. They basically have the bodies and hormones now of adults, with none of the life experience, practice, or self-discipline that adults have developed.
Their job now is to learn how to be an adult, just as a toddler's job is to learn to walk. And the only way a toddler can do that is by trying and falling. Many, many times.
Your 7th grader is going to try to be an adult and they will be about as good as it as a toddler is at running marathons. It will take practice and time and patience.
You can help them, I think, by doing a few things.
1. Consistent limits. As the world goes crazy, they will value (although they won't tell you until years later) a firm, consistent grown-up in their life. They need stability, structure, consistency, and order more than ever before. Set limits, say "NO." They will rage and fume, but will appreciate it deep down. They are like engines with no brakes and no steering. Your job is to be the steering wheel and brakes. You might also think of them as little saplings. The winds are fierce and you don't want them bent. So, you get some rope and a peg and provide stability to keep the tree straight. Once it's a little stronger, it can stand on it's own.
2. Pick your battles. Within the limits you set, preserve the relationship. The ups and downs will end, the tempest will cease eventually. But your relationship, and the quality thereof will still be there. Sometimes you have to beat a strategic retreat in order to save the relationship rather than winning a battle and losing the war. This might come with expectations about homework, about cleaning a room, whatever. Save your ammo for the things that are really important. Let the rest go. Pick a few priorities, hold to them with adamantine firmness, and then let the rest go.
3. Allow them to experience the consequences of their actions. Babies don't learn to walk without falling. You wouldn't catch your toddler every time they fall. Let your teen fail. Let them flounder. This is how they learn to be an adult. If you intercede for them, you rob them of growth and you weaken them later in life.
4. Don't let them waste their childhood by growing up too fast. They are not adults yet. They don't have maturity or judgment. They have very little perspective or emotional resilience. Our culture is pushing kids to do things that used to be adult behaviors earlier and earlier. At a minimum, this spoils the fun later. I think it also damages kids, robbing them of critical time to grow and learn about themselves, and bringing them into situations they are not yet prepared to deal with in healthy ways. Protect your child's childhood. I know of no adults who wish they would have grown up sooner. I know quite a few who wish they could go back to those innocent, carefree years. They will have plenty of time to act, dress, talk, dance, and have relationships like an adult. Their days of being able to do those things as a child are fast leaving.
5. Be the adult. Know where they go and who they go with. Tell them when they will be back. Don't descend to their level. Don't try to be cool. Cool parents are fun for a little while, but at some point, your child will need an adult to guide, comfort, or help. Insist that they treat you with respect, not matter how upset. Their professors, coaches, and bosses will not be tolerant with rudeness and they need to learn that now. Or they will later.
6. Don't be bullied. They will try to coerce you into letting them do what they want. They will say, "Everyone else's parents let them..." or "I'm the only one who doesn't get to...." Ignore it. There are an astonishing number of bad parenting choices in our world today. It is almost breathtaking how misguided some people are. The fact that they have made bad choices is no reason for you to do the same. It's easier to give in. Don't. Your kids will thank you for it later. If you want them to resist peer pressure (and you do) then you have to model it.
7. Laugh and have fun. Laugh with them when they do laugh, and when you are frustrated, laugh at them behind closed doors. Gallows humor can go a long way for your sanity during this time. Try to have fun with them. This might be hard because they might not want much to do with you. Or, their idea of fun might not be yours. Pizza and snacks will go a very long way, especially late at night.
8. Reward them when they do something good. If your'e a good parent, you will have to be on their case a lot during this time (unless you have a perfect child). So, reward them with as much gusto as you discipline and correct them.
9. Love them. Look for those glimmers of maturity. Hold on. Don't confuse their behavior for who they are. They need to know you are on their team. Don't allow yourself to say things like, "Don't be a brat" or "Stop acting like a baby." You will be amazed at how deeply those things can cut, even when they don't admit or show it.
And, above all, remember: it will end and they will become 8th graders. More on that next week.
Feeling sort of proud of my not-very-handy-self for doing a very minor home repair job:
Before (five second encounter with a teenaged fist)
After (hours and hours and hours and hours of spackling, sanding, sanding, sanding, and painting)
One of the biggest challenges in terms of parenting an adolescent is sometimes understanding what is going on with them. I have found that in my own experience that it's helpful to understand roughly what the parameters are. Knowing that your kids are not anomalies, even if they are frustrating, is a comfort. I've spoken with many parents over the years in my capactiy as a teacher who were suprrised and relieved to find out that their child's behaviors (or misbeahviors) atually conform to some pretty well established patterns of adolesence. Knowing doesnt' fix it, but it can help you adapt better and address things. It also give you a sense of what battles are important and winnable and what you should let slide.
So, in that spirit, let me offer some large generalizations about the different ages I teach--
6th, 7th, and 8th graders.
Obviously, this is based on my experience. I don't purport that these are universal. They're just my observations. Also, remember that every group has outliers, and so even if an observation is true for most 7th graders, it will generally be not be true for every single person in that group.
One other thing to add: some changes are developmental, based on biology--most 13 year olds will act certain ways, for example, but some of it is alos based on envirnoment and culture. I teach in a K-8 school, and that has impact. An 8th grader in my school, fo exampe, is treated like a senior, and so will probably demonstrate more respnsibility and confidence than some 8th graders who who go to 7-9 or 5-12 schools.
If, after all those disclaimers, you are still reading, I'll start with 6th graders.
6th graders are really quite fun. You might start seeing some puberty-driven tempestuousness or cluelessness, especially towards the end of the school year. But, on the whole, 6th graders are actually quite sweet. They are young enough and sweet enough to generally want to please adults--not yet too cynical or sarcastic. They are old enough to actually be able to do good work and perform at a reasonably high level and show some independence.
If your child hits puberty on the early side, you might not see this. They might be disorganized, truculent, and overly-emotional. Do not fear! That just means they are on the early side of things. It will even out. And, next year, while all their peers's parents are tearing their hair out, you will hit some stability.
They are generally not truly involved romantically. Some of the more socially precocious may imitate older peers or siblings by having a boyfriend or girlfriend, but this is generally simply a social convention and doesn't have a deep-seated emotional or physical attachment. Most of what I observe them doing in boy and girl relationships is simply mimicry, based on what they've seen.
Depending on whether they are the oldest in a K-6 school or the youngest in a different model, you will see some variation in this. In a K-6 school, the fact that they are the kings of the place might lead to some more confidence or brashness.
6th grade is usually the transition year to adolescence--you will start to see them assert more autonomy. They might begin to dress or style their differently--less like a child and more like a young adult. They may show (or feign) an interest in music or movies that everyone else is seeing.
The influence of the peers will be significant and you will probably see your own influence rapidly decline while that of their peers increases. In almost every class or grade, there will be a few kids who have older siblings and are therefore initiated into the coolest clothes, music, and so forth. Everyone else will start following their example to various degrees.
I see most 6th graders as somewhat analogous to small children who dress up in their parent's clothes. The clothes don't fit and it's obvious there's a mismatch. 6th graders start trying to look and act like teenagers. It doesn't fit them, and it's obvious. Most likely they will have some fashion or cosmetic misfires, the memory of which will haunt them forever. They are, for the most part, teenage impersonators--going through the motions without totally understanding what they are doing.
They will still show genuine emotion and are generally not too guarded about that. They haven't quite internalized the rule that cool means being casual and calm and never getting excited about anything.
For that reason, they are fun to teach and you don't have to work so hard to coax them in to trying new things or getting them excited about a concept or book or piece of music.
Socially, the girls start buzzing around a Queen Bee or two and the girls tend to start to be very socially hierarchical. I'm convinced that they don't mean to be unkind--they are just very, very thoughtless, for the most part, and don't think about who their actions might effect others. They generally aren't actively mean, but will neglect and ignore people. Part of this is driven by an increasing sense of insecurity--they often don't feel strong enough to reach out to others.
Boys tend not to be quite so stratified yet. Boys group themselves, usually, by whatever team or activity they do, and are fairly open. They tend to be a little less exclusive on those terms. They also tend to be a lot more energetic. A. LOT.
Every spring, I see an interesting phenomenon. Spring, of course, is the time when schools have auditions for show choirs and ensembles and fall musicals.
At this time, I almost always get a few requests to work with a student to help them prepare for their auditions. Some of these are students with whom I've worked for years, or who have taken lessons with someone else. In this case, it's a matter of helping them refine the technique they've developed for the purposes of a specific song, or helping them choose material that showcases their strengths. This is relatively simple.
However, usually, these are people who've never had a voice lesson, or who have gone years without one. They are often people with some talent, but very little training. They, or their parents, hope that within 3 or 4 lessons, I can help them become amazing.
In the past, I've taken all comes and done my best to help them because I genuinely want them to succeed, and frankly, I'm not in a financial position to turn away most work. I think I will not be doing this anymore, though, because something interesting happens.
These students generally don't do all that well. In three or four times, of course, it is very difficult to help someone advance to the point when they can compete with someone who has been studying and practicing for years.
No one thinks they can overeat for years and then spend a few days not eating and get to the same weight as someone who's been cautious for years. No one thinks they can take four or five dance lessons and then compete with prima ballerinas, or work out four times and run a marathon.
And yet, many people really believe that a few lessons will make a difference for an audition. Again--they can be useful for tweaking what's there, but they can't build a solid foundation and a beautiful castle on that foundation in a short time.
And when that happens, guess who's fault it is? Instead of them saying, "Hey, thanks for your time. The audition probably was better than it would have been otherwise, and I appreciate doing all you could for me," I usually get anything from icy silence to passive agressive smack-downs. Yeah. That's right. Your kid had three sessions with me and it's my fault you didn't get into show choir/the musical? I don't think so. One of the most dissatisfied former clients was someone who had spent literally ten years or more pursuing a particular athletic activity for about 40 hours a week outside of school. I almost laughed when they were surprised that 5 lessons didn't make them as good a singer as they were at this other activity. I wanted to ask if they could give me 5 lessons and turn me into a champion in this activity. But I didn't.
I think that our society does a lot of things wrong, and one of those things is that we require kids to start activities earlier and earlier. If you want to play basketball in high school, you better start when you are three. I don't like that, and I try to push back against it. I don't think young children should generally take voice lessons. I don't expect an 8th grader to sing like a pro. It's not natural or healthy, in my opinion.
But, at the same time, on the other end of the spectrum, some people think there is a quick fix--that time and effort, preparation and habits aren't important, that everything can be instant in this world. And that's a real problem, too. If something is important, you have to prepare. That doesn't mean going crazy and losing balance. It doesn't mean neglecting other things in your life. And I think it's totally fine to discover a new hobby in middle or high school. That's great! But you can't expect to compete at the same level as those who have been seriously pursuing it for years. A degree of common sense and good judgement is called for here.
The lesson I think we are forgetting--quickly--across our entire society is that choices have consequences. Some are good, some are bad, some (most) are mixed. There is no perfect path. There are, instead, a series of trade-offs and pay-offs. You reap what you sow. You simply can't have it all, and especially not on your own terms, whenever you want it, just because you want it!
So, if your child wants to participate seriously in the performing arts (or other activities), you need to think about this. How much time and money do you want to spend on training and practice? How big a priority do you want to make it? What are the objectives in mind? You can choose. But realize that your choice is going to have some natural consequences with it. My wife and I don't want our kids to do travel sports because it would take up our lives and cut in to precious family time. That's fine. It's our choice. What's not our choice, though, is then to expect that our kids will be able to compete at the same level as those who have done travel sports since they were in Kindergarten. And if I expect to hire a coach to give my kid private lessons over a three week period to help him suddenly get to that level, then I am not thinking through things very clearly. Singing, acting, dancing--these things are all the same.
I wrote last week about the value of humor and today I was going to write specifically about sarcasm. But as I wrote, I had lots of thoughts I wanted to unpack with more thoroughness, so I'm going to wait for a week or two and talk about something else that's been on my mind lately.
The other day I was in the kitchen and heard a horrendous shriek. My 5 year old came running in screaming at the top of his lungs. When he was able to calm down long enough to be verbal again, he showed me a very minor abrasion on his knee. It was not a big deal, although I knew it stung badly.
So, I freaked out, too. I screamed and cried and assured him that he was right--it was a terrible wound and he was in imminent danger. So, we screamed and cried and freaked out together, each pushing the other to a more fevered, frenzied state.
Of course I'm joking.
I calmly told him it was okay, that he'd be fine and that it would stop hurting soon. I told him it wasn't serious. I put some antibiotic ointment on it, slapped a band-aid over the scrape and sent him back out to play.
I wrote a few weeks ago about being the shelter in emotional storms of adolescence. You can read that here, if you like.
Those suggestions were applicable to all kinds of emotional dramas, but I want to deal with one aspect of that a little more specifically.
Adolescence is a time of heightened emotion. Adolescents tend to experience the world via very strong feelings. They aren't just tired, they are exhausted. They aren't just mad, they are furious. They aren't just hurt, they are devastated. Emotionally, they are very much like my 5 year old in the anecdote above--the reaction is usually disproportionate to the severity of the situation. These situations might include problems with peers, grades, disappointments or setbacks in the things they like to do (eg dance, sports, theatre, whatever) and so on. They are the emotional analogues of a scraped knee in that they sting but won't have long-term effects.
Over my teaching career, I've found that there are many different kinds of parents and styles, as varied and unique as the personalities of the parents themselves. All of us--parents, teachers and students alike--are imperfect and flawed. We all make mistakes and have imperfect approaches and styles.
That being said, I've concluded that all mistakes are not equal. I have found, in my own classroom, that I can err on the side of harshness or mercy. I nearly always regret when I err on the side of harshness and very rarely regret erring on the side of mercy because the consequences of making a mistake are far less serious and damaging.
On that idea, then--that you should choose carefully which mistakes you are going to make--let me talk about one three parenting styles I have observed.
Parents in the first group are what I call emotional arsonists. They start drama like an arsonist starts fires. Other parents, teachers, their child's classmates--everyone and every situation is potential kindling just waiting for gasoline and a match. They pick fights, cause controversy and escalate natural, minor disagreements or conflicts into bonfires. Happily, they are fairly rare and they are so obvious that most people tend to avoid them.
If every teacher is out to get your child, if no coach ever gives them their due, if all the other kids are mean, then you might want to consider carefully if you are an emotional arsonist. I'm not saying that some kids aren't picked on unfairly, or that every teacher is just and virtuous, and kind. But I am saying that if it's always you and/or your child against the world, you may want to give some deep thought to how you are engaging the world. The odds that everyone you or your child meets is a mean and a bully are not impossible, but they are small.
But there's another approach which I think is perhaps more pernicious because it's more subtle. This group doesn't start the fires, but they are right there when it happens shining a spotlight on it. They get involved and drawn into the drama, living it along with their children in heightened terms. This could involve social problems, conflicts with a teacher or coach, general disappointment in life--whatever it is. They are like those morbid reporters who, when a disaster strikes, are there 24/7, priding themselves on never leaving the scene. They lack objectivity and detachment, though, and end up getting so drawn in that they make some kind of faux pas as a result--at the very least being insensitive or far too close to the situation. I call these spotlight parents. They may not start the fires, but they shine the light on them for all to see.
I think most of us have this tendency in us and I think most parents fall somewhere in a continuum inside this group. I know I do. It's natural, when you love your child to want to run to them when they are hurt, to suffer along with them and so on. And, the reality is that you do suffer. When your child is hurting, most parents feel that same hurt plus more. So it's easy to be drawn into this.
These parents do with drama what I did not really do with my son's scraped knee--they overreact and freak out, stir things up and make things worse instead of projecting calm and sending the message that this really is not a big deal.
Here's a warning sign, and it's one I will admit to experiencing. If you react emotionally to your child's peers or teachers, if you end up reacting on a vsiceral, as opposed to a rational, basis, you might be a spotlight parent. If you talk, weeks later, about drama that happened some time ago, you might be a spotlight parent. Notice I say "might." There's a fine line between loving and protecting your child, and going too far. But it is a very fine line.
I have known other parents who are exactly the opposite. This is a fairly small group, unfortunately. They are like shock absorbers for drama. They don't seek it out and don't stir it up. They don't talk about it if they are involved. It goes no further than them. They see their children not as heroes in a melodrama, but as imperfect actors in an ensemble of equally imperfect actors. They see two sides of adolescent conflicts. They don't hold grudges (or at least don't act on them). They talk to the teacher before getting mad. They can grant good intentions and good faith even when disagreeing. They don't really worry if their kid doesn't get the game ball or the leading role (although they enjoy it when they do). It just doesn't upset their equilibrium or rock their boat.
Essentially, they do with emotional situations what I did with my 5 year old's scraped knee. They use their life experience and more developed rational capacity to say, "It's going to be okay. Calm down. I know it hurts, but it will be fine very soon."
It can be very difficult to do this when you are the parent because it requires a level of detached rationality that many of us do not naturally possess. It's easier to be calm with my 5 year old because I'm not hurting, too. But when someone hurts my adolescent's feelings--I am hurting too.
And so we get to the idea of habits and self-discipline. Of learning to act a certain way in specific situations, of not getting drawn in. Of being a bit detached and thinking before we act. This is, I'm convinced, a skill that can be learned.
Is there a risk with this? Yes, I think there is. It's possible that the shock absorber parents may not always be empathetic enough, I suppose. As a parent I worry that I might not be loving or nurturing enough.
As a teacher, though, I think I have a different perspective and I really believe that, if you have to err, this is the side on which you want that error to occur.
In my experience, the children of the shock absorber parents are much better adjusted, more confident, more resilient, confident, and have more friends. They seem much happier to me. As an aside, the shock absorber parents tend to be happier and are more well-liked than the spotlight parents.
The children of the spotlight parents tend to be much less secure, more dependent, and usually struggle quite a bit and are less happy. This varies quite a bit depending on the intensity of the spotlight behaviors. But the more engaged on an emotional level the parent is, the less happy the child usually is.
The fire starter's children are usually totally messed up. Friendless, very dependent, and quite unhappy.
When I first started teaching middle school, I had a difficult time. I had been used to teaching in an elementary school setting where the students were very different. Very, very different. Middle school seemed like an entirely new planet--a strange and hostile one at that.
I spent a lot of time those first few months talking to the middle school director who had years of experience in this strange world and an amazing rapport with the students. He taught me great deal in those chats and I'll be forever grateful.
One of the most important things he taught me is the serious value of humor. He told me about a study that had asked students about the qualities they appreciated most in their teachers. I forget the numbers, but an extremely high number--I believe it was somewhere between 70%-90%--identified humor.
I had been so busy trying to keep order and ensure learning that I had not ever taken the time to try to develop or demonstrate a sense of humor with them. I started to work on that and found that he was right. When working with adolescents a sense of humor is critical! Not only in terms of connecting with the kids, but because there are many times that you will be frustrated and discouraged and a sense of humor is all that will keep you going. Humor can also help defuse tense moments for the kids. I've found that if they make a high stakes mistake, or something goes wrong during an important rehearsal, my laughter and a quick joke will generally soothe and relax them far more than all the talks or reassurances in the world.
Over the years, I've found that not all humor is equal with most adolescents. Of course there are exceptions and I'm speaking in generalities here, but my experience is that three kinds of humor work particularly well with them: 1) Dry, deadpan humor 2) Sarcasm 3) Self-deprecating humor.
Let me quickly add that sarcasm doesn't mean rudeness, and I'm not talking about sarcasm being used in a way to belittle, demean, or mock a child. That is unconscionable and I want to make that clear at the outset.
You have to remember that one of the highest priorities for adolescents is not to look lame. This is a compelling, driving force. It's why they always try so hard to look cool, to not show overt, outward emotion. To do so makes you vulnerable to being thought lame.
So, if you go in and tell a joke you think is hilarious and you are belly-laughing, they will mostly look at you like you are incredibly lame. They just don't respond well to this sort of overt manifestation of feelings. It makes them feel vulnerable for you and it makes them worry that if they laugh, they will look as lame as you. So they roll their eyes and pretend to think it's lame--even if they think it's funny.
You have to be subtle. If you laugh too hard, or think you are funny, they will not. The trick to humor with this age is to make it subtle enough that they have to think about it, and wonder if you meant to be funny or not. That's why dry humor works so well with them. It's subtle and makes them think. It also provides protection for them because they don't feel forced to respond--and therefore be vulnerable to being thought lame. They can respond at their own level.
I think I'll do a whole different post on sarcasm because there are a lot of cautions and provisos I think are important to remember.
But the other other form of humor that works very well is self-deprecation. Remember that these kids live in a world where they are basically controlled in every way by adults. They have very little autonomy. Frankly, that's as it should be in many ways, but it's still frustrating.
Think how much you enjoy hearing someone with a lot of power over you show some self-deprecation. I remember that the first President Bush had a quick and self-deprecating sense of humor that endeared him to many, even his political opponents.
If I poke gentle fun at my weight or the length of my nose or my sweater vests, my students generally love it. If I reference my amazing athletic skills or talk about being a battle rapper they eat it up. Especially if it's done in a very deadpan way.
I think it makes me seem more approachable and a bit more human, less like a distant, powerful being who can give them demerits or a bad grade if they step out of line. The truth is, parents and teachers have enormous power to make adolescents happy or miserable. Self-deprecation is a bit of sugar that helps that medicine go down.
Every year in February, the bleakest month of teaching, I let my students do a parody of a teacher. They take a Broadway showtune and then change the lyrics to make a sort of Saturday Night Live-style spoof of a teacher. I preview the content and there are rules to help them not be too mean or personal. This is easily their favorite thing we do all year. I'm convinced that part of that is because it's fun and they get to be creative and think out of the box--but more than that, I think there is a sort of transgressive thrill they feel about being able to make fun of an omnipotent teacher.
There's another advantage as well, with self-deprecating humor, and it can work well with more hostile crowds of students: when you make fun of something, you effectively neutralize any criticism of that thing.
I had a professor who taught theatre education classes. He had a strategy he used when he had to do an activity he felt was important, but that the kids would think was stupid. He'd say, "Now we're going to play the stupid name game." Immediately he had removed their ability to not participate. They couldn't say, 'This is stupid," because he had pre-empted them. This works like a charm.
One caveat: in being self-deprecating, it's important not to go too far and be self-critical or demonstrate a low self-concept. We don't want students to get down on themselves, or model for them being obsessed with one's flaws. Generally, I've found it best not to joke about anything that really bothers me about myself. It can upset the more sensitive students and almost hurt their feelings in your behalf. It's important to keep things light, and also, to use any kind of humor with care and moderation.
One final thought about humor: I've learned that if I have any doubt at all about whether a particular joke or line is a good idea, it's generally not. So I filter pretty carefully what I say and do. Humor has a lot of power, so in some cases, it's best to not go for the joke rather than risk hurting someone's feelings at a vulnerable time.
This is my favorite time of year outside! The yard looks so beautiful and even weeding is still fun and novel at this point in the year. It's also not so hot that you baste in your own perspiration quite yet.
I spent all day working in the yard yesterday and really enjoyed it. Today, is a beautiful, beautiful day--perfect for Easter.
After church today, I walked around and just enjoyed the beauty of nature. One of the things I love about our yard is all the birds--so you have to look at these pictures while imagining the birds in the background.
Mockingbird Cottage from the front. I love the wisteria foliage that grows up those pillars. But for some reason, I just can't get it to blossom, which is disappointing.
Last year a friend gave us a rose tree and I'm so excited to see it grow this year. It's already lovely.
The irises by the driveway. I love big, crowded, lush stands of irises.
Freshly mulched front beds.
The everbearing rose bush by the side of the house. It blocks our air conditioner, and is much prettier to look at. Some friends gave us this bush years ago and it has thrived to the point of taking over the place.
Just put the rock border in yesterday. I quite like it. I need to get more rocks.
The clematis on the back deck.
The clematis on the side of the house.
The back yard rolling down to the woods.
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I don't have anything profound or original to say, but I didn't want to let the day pass without saying Happy Easter!!!
When I was a child, I much preferred Christmas, with all the fun and excitment. As I've lived a little longer and learned a little about the ups and downs of life--experienced illness and pain, lived through the consequences of my own sins and those of others, grappled with my weaknesses and frailties, and lost loved ones, I have come to appreciate Easter and all it means.
I still love Christmas, but the promises inherent in Easter mean a great deal to me, and mean more with each passing year. The hope of internal peace in this turbulent world and, especially, the promise of being with my loved ones forever are more precious than I can say.
Both the great holidays that people celebrate this time of year, Easter and Passover, have to do with deliverance from bondage, with freedom, and hope. In Christ, I have found those things, for which I am eternally grateful.
Wherever you are, and however you celebrate the holiday, whichever holiday you celebrate, I wish you peace, joy, and love!
I thought I'd include some of my favorite Easter songs.
Note: I want to change the subject briefly, from books and middle school and plays to sometin
The post below is from two years ago. I have posted it each year since. The first year, I posted it in a flurry of excitement and happiness. The second year, things were a bit more difficult in my life in some personal areas. This year, as I post it, things are good. But last year was a difficult time. And, for all I know, next year—or even tomorrow may be as well. Life has ups and downs for all of us.
But that is the miracle of Easter, the miracle of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. His Atonement gives hope in the darker times, while grounding and magnify our joy in the good times. Life changes, and fortunes ebb and flow but Christ and His promises to give us beauty out of ashes remain constant And that is worth celebrating.
Happy Good Friday! I’ve always loved Good Friday, especially in Tennessee. It’s a peaceful, gentle sort of day. Flowers are blooming, the trees are flowering, birds are singing, and the weather is mild and comfortable. It’s really quite a good holiday.
The great irony, and I am supremely unoriginal in passing this along, is that Good Friday is only good for us because it was so very, very bad for the Savior. His suffering the night before in the Garden of Gethsemane when he confronted every evil, ugly, and troubling aspect of mortality left him physically and spiritually weakened. I can’t comprehend the pain that would have killed any of us. Eventually it left, but it would have also left Him terribly, horribly, painfully exhausted. I think of busy days when I am tired, how hard it is to get through them, and then I think of him. Facing his greatest suffering at the time of his weakest physical and spiritual state. Fatigue makes everything seem so much worse.
And then, to be mocked and beaten and scorned by the very people you were trying to save….
I have a small tradition I do on Good Friday. I note the time at nine-o-clock and then think of Him being nailed to the cross. I try to watch the clock and notice just how long six hours is and I try to understand the love that drove Him to allow Himself to suffer like this—and the love that drove his Father to allow it as well.
The first Good Friday must have seemed like a living, never-ending hell.
Had it ended there, it would have been tragic and awful. But Good Friday was merely the prologue. It set the stage for the astounding miracle of the Resurrection.
The immense suffering and pain were necessary to generate the power behind the tremendous miracle.
But here’s what I’ve been thinking about. To me, Easter Sunday is the promise of healing and life. Easter Sunday was the culmination—the Resurrection broke the hold of death and pain and sealed Jesus’s ability to heal us, now and forever. But, I have to wonder if perhaps His profound suffering on Good Friday produced the empathy and the compassion that motivate Him to heal us. His triumph on Easter gave Him power, but perhaps His suffering on Good Friday gave Him the motivation to do all He does—and taught him how to nurture and nourish us in our own suffering.
I believe in the miracle of Easter. It’s not just a myth or a fable. It is a living reality, a true story—and so is the hero of the story. My hero. Jesus Christ. I know He’s real. And I know that because in so many ways, inside and out, physically and spiritually, He has healed me.
I wrote the lyrics to a song in my first book. I don’t post them thinking I am a great lyricist. These are simply my personal expression of faith and gratitude—my witness of the reality of Jesus’ love and healing power—even today. It’s my personal celebration of the miracle of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
“He Healeth Me”
In life He healed the blind man,
His mercy touched the lame.
The leprous and the halt,
The deaf man and the dumb,
He healed all who came.
In pages of the scriptures,
Their stories testify
Of the Master’s love and power,
And sound this joyful cry
He healeth me.
“He healed and blessed so many,
But that was long ago,
Today, I too have sorrow, sicknesses, and sin,
And wonder where to go.
Why doesn’t He still heal?
Why can I not be whole?
Will he not calm the tempest
That rages in my soul?
In my despair I waver,
My faith begins to shrink
Until from living water,
I humbly start to drink,
And then I see
He healeth me.
Across the years and miles,
I’ll find Him if I seek,
He’ll take away my burdens,
Give strength where I am weak.
He’ll comfort me in sorrow,
Heal sickness, cleanse my sin.
Now I can testify,
With all my grateful heart,
He healed me.
He truly healed me.
(copyright, Braden Bell 2010)