I rarely talk about religion on this blog, and talk even less about politics. I also tend to shy away from writing about my deepest feelings. But today I've had a rather profound moment and I want to reflect on it.
Four years ago, my family went bowling and I saw very sweet, little African American boy. He wore a Barack Obama t-shirt and for some reason, it really touched my heart. I loved it that this little boy had someone on that t-shirt he could identify with. It made me happy, quite frankly, that he could grow up in an America where the president looked like him. On the morning after the election, some dear friends told me about how happy their children were the morning after the election, how validating it was for them to see that the president shared their heritage.
I thought about that today. Long-time readers of my blog know that I'm a Mormon--a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm older and certainly much larger than that little boy. But this Mormon boy has been surprisingly choked up today when I consider that a Mormon will accept the nomination tonight of a major political party. In fact, as I sat at my desk today, it sort of hit me, and I started crying. I am surprised by how validating this feels, and how much it means to me.
I'm not talking about political preferences or ideology here. I'm talking about humanity. About the fact that a Mormon and African-American are running for President of the United States! For that matter, two Catholics are running for Vice President.
I love it that we live in a place where the highest office in the land is open to groups who were at one time excluded. I know one could plausibly argue that it's taken too long. We can have that discussion. Later. Today I feel really happy and I think we can all be proud of where we are, and where we are headed as a people, regardless of our partisan preferences.
I spent most of last week with new 8th graders. I was with them at meals, chaperoned a cabin at night, and supervised them at work and play. Why yes, I am a saint. Ha! Just kidding. I enjoyed most of it. They are fascinating little creatures, these adolescents and the opportunity for extended fieldwork was valuable. Yes, dear reader, those are the kinds of sacrifices I am willing to make to bring you my weekly commentary on the feeding and care of middle school kids.
I have a few thoughts in random order. I'll probably expand on most of these in future posts.
Also, these apply specifically to 8th graders, but I think they are generally applicable to most adolescents.
1. You have to be specific with adolescents. Adults talk about concepts like "kindness" and "leadership" and "responsibility" and kids nod and we think we've connected. A very few kids will hear that and translate those concepts into specifics. Most, however, won't. I've learned, and am re-learning, how important it is to give concrete details and examples. "Kindness means more than just not being actively unkind. It means when you see someone sitting alone, you invite them to join you. It means that when you see someone who needs help you help them. If someone is sad, you ask them what's wrong and offer to help." Etc. Generalities that make sense to adults often don't really translate well to kids. I am convinced that this is a huge source of adult/adolescent misunderstanding.
2. When properly taught and motivated, adolescents are capable of great kindness, empathy, and leadership. However, these traits are not natural to them. They have to be taught, modelled, explained, and reinforced. They can follow your lead beautifully, but will not do this on their own. It is not the natural order of things, the default setting. It takes time and effort to bring about this kind of behavior. Like any other kind of intertia, unkindness can only be overcome through sustained energy. But if you are willing to make the investment, you can see some lovely results.
3. No matter what their attitude conveys, I think most kids crave adult approval. Being an adult whom they respect enough to value the approval is the work of a lifetime, and a task in which we should all be engaged.
4. Many, if not most, social problems are self-inflicted, or at least self-complicated and enhanced. This is hard to admit sometimes, but it's good news because it means there is a fix!
5. Most adolescents really want to do the right thing but find it incredibly hard given the hormonal changes, social pressures, and other crazy things going on in their lives.
6. Most parents, even very involved ones, have very little idea about what happens at school, which is the majority or at least plurality of their children's lives. I don't mean grades, I mean about the lived experience of their child. It's not their fault--adolescents don't talk much. But there is a side of these kids that really emerges when they are with others in their pack. This is not good or bad--just something I've observed, but it has implications.
7. I am convinced that even very involved parents do not fully appreciate the things that their children know about, hear about, think about, and even do because of the culture to which they are exposed. Good kids from good families routinely hear music and see movies/TV shows that mention and advocate actions and values that the families would reject forcefully if the same actions or values were proposed to them without the context provided by popular culture.
Have a good week! Oh--by the way, I got word that the publisher is running a special promotion for my book, The Kindling. Next week, it will be available to download for the Kindle for the astonishingly low price of .99 cents!
I am going to be absolutely buried for the next few days at work, so I won't be online much. But I wanted to remind everyone one last time about the blog hop and giveaway I'm participating in. I'm giving away a copy of The Kindling, but there are 143 other blogs also giving away book related stuff. Go check it out--it's very easy to join. It all ends tonight at midnight, by the way. I'll announce my winner when I am able to dig out from work, but it might be Thursday or Friday. See you soon!
First of all, remember the big blog hop/giveaway I'm participating in (see here). It ends tomorrow! As I've written before, I really believe that the thing that occupies the most worry and thought of most middle school students (obviously, there are some outliers here) is social status. In the 25 years I've been working with them, I have very rarely heard anyone say "Yeah, I'm pretty happy with my social situation." I don't generally hear that from either students or parents. Again, there have been a few exceptions, but not too many, in my experience.
I've thought before of starting a business where people pay me to walk behind their kid all day long and watch them, giving them coaching on social quagmires via a mouthpiece and headset like those security guys wear. I could watch them and say, "No, stop! Don't talk about how you still like to watch Dora the Explorer." Or I could say, "That was a friendly overture--they don't really want to hear how you are. Say 'fine' and then ask how they are!" Or "No! Too much information! Stop! Stop! Retreat!"
Over the years I've come to believe that there are a few kids who are true bullies. I've come to believe there are a few hapless souls who are the true victims of those bullies. I've also come to believe that the vast majority of kids are in the middle between those two poles--part of a vast herd of awkward, insecure adolescents who are trying to find their way in a group of equally insecure, awkward people who are also trying to find their way. Kids who everyone thinks of as "popular" rarely feel that way. They often feel just as left out, just as awkward. They do things that are inconsiderate, unkind, and even mean, but, I believe that's more because they are trying to find their way.
Hormones, lack of experience, uncertainty, and a great deal of social experimentation make these difficult years for just about everyone. And, it's extraordinarily difficult to watch your child struggle.
The good news is that a lot of this stuff just ends up righting itself with time, maturity and experience. The bad news is that until then, it's rough and just has to be endured.
There are, however, a few suggestions I have that might help a bit. I can't promise silver bullets, but I have seen kids make some common mistakes that enhance, rather than minimizing, social problems. Here, in no particular order are some thoughts about ways to help address these problems.
1) Resist the temptation to see your child as a victim. If he or she really is being bullied, you need to deal with that. But I think there is a greater likelihood that your child will encounter average garden-variety cluelessness and adolescent meanness. This doesn't make it easy, but your response ought to be different. A lot of parents see their child as a sweet, innocent victim and the other children as conniving, malicious, intentionally vicious villains. All we need is white and black hats here. My experience is that this rarely the case. Think of all the thoughtless, insensitive, and even stupid things your child does. Now realize that his or her peers will be the same. Grade inflation is bad. So is bullying inflation because it makes it much more difficult to deal with real episodes and it serves kids badly in terms of their future development and problem-solving ability.
2) Don't view this through the lens of your own insecurities. Many parents still carry some pretty big scars from their own adolescence. You'd be surprised. And often, when their child comes home sad or hurt or crying, they react as a parent, but also as a child and allow themselves to be drawn in. Resist that. Your child needs someone to guide them and coach them through--not someone to plot and scheme with them. They definitely need someone to help them put in perspective, not to stir the pot more and plot retribution.
3) Help your child honestly assess the extent to which he or she may be causing or contributing to this. The old cliche about taking two to tango is amazingly true. One thing that annoys me a bit is when parents proudly proclaim that their child is an individual--free from the silliness and trivial interests of the herd. That's fine. Noble, even. But you can't loudly insist on individuality and then be upset that the herd doesn't include you. You can't have it both ways and it's important to realize that.
4) Help them develop some cultural capital. You wouldn't send them to a movie with no money, right? Well, if they want to participate in the social exchanges then they have to have some currency. They have to be able to talk about a current singer or sports figure or movie or something. I think a lot of our culture is toxic. A lot of the stuff kids consume is harmful, in my opinion, so this is hard. But the fact remains--kids are going to talk about the things they find interesting. If your child has a hobby or interest off the beaten path, that's wonderful! But 7th graders aren't going to celebrate that on their own. Your child needs to meet the peers where they are. If you choose not to do this, that's fine--but if you can't then be upset that your child doesn't have anyone to talk to. I know some very wise parents who forced their bookish sons to play a year of football or baseball or soccer so they would have something in common with their peers. I personally find sports incredibly boring. But I've learned to be conversant with a few players and teams so I can talk for a few minute with other men and my students. (Pretty disappointed, incidentally in the Honey Badger's behavior. He was one of my few safe sports figures I knew about and could talk about. Now he messed that up and I have to learn someone else).
5) Reach out--don't wait to be reached out too. Because the temptation is there to see your child as the victim and the other kids as cool and secure and together, it follows that you then wait for the cool kids to extend invitations to your child. When that doesn't happen, you feel excluded. Well, remember that the cool kids may not feel cool. They are probably not sitting around basking in their coolness, thinking of how to exclude your child. Most likely, they're sitting around wondering what everyone else is doing. Have your child invite someone they like to a movie, the mall, a party--whatever. Help them be active and not passive. Don't wait for invitations--make them. This is a huge mistake I see frequently. Refer to #4 and plan activities carefully. If your child has an unusual hobby, maybe that's not the best thing to invite a potential friend over for on the first visit.
6) Help your child look beyond superficial things. You'd be amazed at how often people talk about being excluded but what they mean is "My child is not part of the crowd I want them to be part of." Helping your child find a friend instead of the "right" (aka cool) group can be a game-changer.
7) Help your child learn to be friendly. They don't have to be friends with everyone, but they can be friendly.
8) Get involved in school activities--whatever is available, get them involved and busy. This makes an enormous difference.
9) Use these years to build up family relationships. It's a great time to teach your kids that regardless of the way the world treats them, they always have their family.
I hope everyone has a great year! I'd be interested to hear your thoughts--what's worked for you and your children? What mistakes have you made?
Last night we had the launch party for The Kindling. I have to say that I was terrified. For various reasons, I didn't have a launch party for my first book, so this was my first rodeo, you might say. I didn't know what to expect. My early fear was: what if no one came? Then my next fear was: what if lots of people come and we run out of food? Or, what if it's really lame?
But having a launch party is what one does, and I wanted to do the right thing--observe the right forms and so on. My boss very kindly let me use our school library, which was fun to me since it is a place rife with warm and happy memories. We sent out the evites (incidentally, I found Evite to be more efficient than Facebook, in case anyone wants to know such things) ordered the cake and moved forward.
As we were getting set up, just a few minutes before showtime, it occurred to me that if people did come, I would need to talk. I'm a deeply introverted person, although I've learned to hide that, it remains my nature. And that thought terrified me! Literally, sent hot chills through me. For a moment, I considered hiding. I know some really good hiding places in the school and knew I could hide where no one would find me. But I decided to be brave :)
I needn't have worried. I was so thrilled with the turn-out of people who came--colleagues and students and their parents and friends from church and on and on. I was really touched by the number of kind people who were willing to come stand in line to get a book signed. (you know someone is a true friend when they're willing to buy a book, then stand in line patiently and ask you to sign it). And, since it was just chatting with a few people at a time, it was actually really fun! Even for an introvert.
I was in the signing line most of the night so I didn't have a lot of chances to mingle, but it looked to me like people had a nice time chatting with each other as well.
My sweet wife and her sister (and said sisters's friend), were incredibly helpful in getting everything going and keeping it all running. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law were there manning a coloring station to keep small children occupied, which was a huge help. I'm not sure how many people came--I think we had around 100 or so. It seemed like a perfect number--the library seemed full but not crowded, and we had enough food. I wish I had thought to take pictures. Happily, someone with a phone much smarter than mine took a picture of the cake.
The only thing that didn't work out was one tiny thing. I had planned to take a few minutes to publicly thank my wife for her support--not only for the party, but her patience and encouragement with the whole writing journey--the ups and downs and hours and hours and hours. She has been my partner and support in everything, and even though my name is on the cover, she is the expeditor--the one who allowed it to happen, who made some sacrifices along the way and made it possible. I love her deeply and I'm very grateful to her. I had wanted to say that last night, but the traffic was so steady that it didn't work out. I still gave her the flowers I bought, at least.
At any rate, it was a fun evening for me. As with so much else in life--my fears were unfounded and all of that anxiety didn't end up being warranted.
Thank you to everyone who came to celebrate with me! I went home feeling a little like George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life.
Oh--don't forget the huge blog hop I'm participating in--see the post below!
I am joining the Last Days of Freedom Blog Hop Giveaway. My contribution is a copy of--wait for it--The Kindling! There are lots of other blogs also giving away book related prizes. You can hop from blog to blog and register for the chance to win. Enter for my giveaway below. Please note: this is only valid for people in the U.S. Note: this technically starts Thursday the 16 at midnight. But with school starting this week, I'm too tired to stay up that late to post.
Just a discreet plug here--my special, pre-order, 30% off deal on The Kindling ends on Friday! So, if you want to read the book that everyone (okay, nearly everyone) is talking about--now is your chance! You can order here.
There are very few times quite as meaningful and even sacred to me as the beginning of a new school year. Something about the possibility of new starts, potential achievement, and the chance for a human soul to learn and grow is incredibly profound to me.
I'm going to be an advisor this year to a small group of about 10 kids (last year I didn't have this assignment) and I'm tasked with being the school's point man for the well-being of these kids. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do to facilitate a good year for them, what I can do to help them reach their fullest potential. As I've thought about this, I realized that there are things I want for them to experience this year--and these are the same things I want for all my students, as well as my children, to experience.
So, for what it's worth, here's what I hope every middle school student experiences this year.
1. I hope you struggle at something this year. I hope something is hard for you. In fact, I hope you fail at something! Not permanently, and not at everything--just at one thing. I hope there's a test you bomb, a part in the play you don't get, a spot on the team you don't make. I hope a project doesn't come together. I hope you have to get down and wrestle with struggle and failure--because I know it will make you stronger. I know it will turn you into a better, deeper person. It will prepare you well for life to struggle, and even fail--and then fight past it. I'm not going to manufacture failure, not going to set you up, but I really hope you have to face it.
2. I hope your parents and teachers will let you fail. In my mind, one of the greatest flaws of our current modes of parenting and educating is that we bend over backwards to protect kids from the consequences of their decisions and actions. We have shielded and padded them to such an extent that many of them don't experience real struggle until they are in college--or even beyond. I don't think that is healthy for them. Life is hard. Life is full of failures and disappointments. Success comes from overcoming, not avoiding them. Students who learn that now will be poised to be much stronger later on.
3. I hope someone holds you accountable. I hope that you are called to account for something you say and do. I hope you have parents and teachers who love you enough to not accept excuses. I hope you have parents and teachers who love you enough to insist that you are honest with not only others, but with yourself. Learning to be responsible and to live your life as an actor and not a reactor is one of this life's great joys.
4. I hope you have fun. I hope you do fun things with your friends and family. I hope you make some new friends and deepen your bonds with old friends.
5. I hope you learn to do good work. So much of life is work. If you can learn to do work well, to take pride in it, regardless of whether you like it, your life will be richer and more rewarding. Even things that seem like drudgery can be rewarding when approached with the right attitude.
6. I hope you laugh a lot.
7. I hope you cry. I hope you have moments where your heart feels like it's being torn into pieces. I hope this teaches you empathy and compassion for other people. I hope it helps you be careful about things you say and do to others.
8. I hope you have something really wonderful happen to you. A dream that is fulfilled this year. Better if this is something you make, or at least help, happen by virtue of effort and work.
9. I hope you live up to your potential--and then push beyond it just a little bit. Whatever your gifts are--athletic, academic, artistic--I hope you develop them. I hope your coach/teacher/director pushes you a bit in your gifts.
10. I hope you make someone happy. I hope you learn to be consistently kind--even to those you may not like or be friends with.
11. I hope you stand up for someone who's being bullied or who is on the margins of your social group.
12. I hope you can realize that everyone around you is at least as insecure as you. Possibly more so. I hope you don't do anything to make these insecurities worse. That kind of thing can haunt you for a lifetime.
13. I hope you realize that when everything else is gone, your family will still be there. They are your closest allies, your greatest friends, and your most constant source of support.
14. I hope you realize most teachers became teachers because they want to help kids learn and grow. I hope you realize that, while they are human and fallible, there are probably reasons for the way they run their classes and programs.
15. I hope your teachers can be as influential in positive ways as mine were.
16. I hope your parents tell you "No." Often.
17. I hope you can have a fun interaction with a boy or girl you really like--an exciting moment at a school dance. Something age-appropriate that makes your heart flutter. Not a texting session--an honest to goodness interaction. I also hope you don't rush into anything. I hope you realize that relationships in middle school are fundamentally unstable. Have fun, get to know people. Don't rush to pair off and "date."
18. I hope you do something real, something that is not virtual this year.
19. I hope you do something athletic, something artistic, and something academic. If you can accomplish something in each of these areas (whether or not you are the best is irrelevant), you will give yourself a great gift.
20. I hope you learn to like, or at least appreciate, a new subject this year.
21. I hope you read at least one really amazing book that you never forget (hopefully, many. But at least one.
22. I hope you end this year more confident, more knowledgeable, more compassionate, more self-controlled, more self-aware, and more poised to live a happy, productive, life.
I know how busy authors are, so I am always grateful when other authors are kind enough to review my book. It also makes me a bit nervous because authors are tuned in and aware of details and technique that those who read for fun might not notice. So, I'm always extra-grateful when authors give positive reviews!
Here's middle-grade author and teacher Shannon O'Donnell: "I l-o-v-e-d this book, folks. It's fast-paced, brilliantly original in its take on magic, loaded with awesome MG humor and voice, and full of fantastic characters. It was a tough one to put down. For me, this was an easy 5 STAR rating. Two of my three kids (ages 15 and 10) also read it and loved it. It's a sure-fire hit, so don't miss it. I plan to order copies for my classroom and school library." (Read more here).
YA author Jolene Perry very kindly posted a review in the throes of her recovery from the SCWBI convention. "It's completely obvious that Bell spends time around middle-school aged kids because he has that voice down PERFECT. My husband laughed, my daughter laughed, and my son laughed when he paid attention (he's five). It's a great mix of fun and mystery, and I flew through it in a night." (Read more here)
Thanks Shannon and Jolene!
I've blogged before about how my years at NYU while I worked on a doctorate were very difficult ones. For a variety of reasons, this was one of the most difficult periods in my life.
Every day I woke up early and rode the bus to Queens, where I taught drama. Then I rode the train to Manhattan where I went to classes at NYU (the education classes were held mostly in the evenings since many who took them were teachers). I think I usually got out around 9 or 10. Then I had to take the train and a bus to get home.
I was always hungry at this time, especially after classes were done. Any food I took with me had been consumed long before during the day. We were very poor, so I couldn't afford to stop very often at restaurants. And during the winters, it could be bitterly cold. I was tired all the time and stressed out of my mind.
There was a Barnes and Noble nearby and I'd go in there sometimes to warm up or browse the books and forget for a few minutes about stressful things. I'd browse through books and think of how wonderful it would be to be an author some day. That was a dream that seemed impossibly far away given the amount of academic writing and work I had ahead of me for the foreseeable future.
Life went on, of course, and things changed. They got better, as they often seem to.
Because of my time there I was able to get a job that provided better for my family and has allowed us to have a more comfortable, less stressful life. A job in a small private school that gave me some ideas that eventually led to the publication to my book.
So, you have two symbols of two different times in my life: Barnes and Noble as the symbol of those rough years in NYC and then my book, which represents the more comfortable years that followed.
Today, a friend from those NYC days posted a picture in FB. A picture she'd taken in one of those Barnes and Nobles I used to frequent to warm myself and day dream a bit.
Perhaps you can understand why this picture made my eyes a bit misty and gave me chills. (Hint: top shelf, second from the left).
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