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Two weeks ago, I wrote some very quick lessons I'd learned from being on a school retreat with our 8th graders. As I wrote them, I felt that each of those points had the potential to make a significant impact on my teaching and parenting. Blogging about these principles is a way to help my own work, a way to be reflective and take notes, so I wanted to spend time unpacking these principles.
The first one was this: 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.
I have been thinking about this and am more convinced than ever that there is some major truth here. I've been noticing my interactions with my students since writing this. Without fail, the more specific I am, the more success I have with them.
For example, I used to tell my cast that they had to memorize their lines. That didn't work so well. Some did. Many didn't. Then I imposed a deadline. That helped a little more. Now, I tell them that there will be a test on a specific day and that if they are not memorized, there will be consequences that range from a glare to demerits to being asked to leave the cast.
Another example: I always tell them at the end of rehearsal, "Pick up your stuff!" And they often don't. Now I say, "Get your binders, athletic bags, water bottles and laptops." It's amazing to me what a difference this makes.
I'm not a neuroscientist or a psychologist, so I don't know what the brain-based explanation for this phenomenon is. I suspect it has something to do with the adolescent brain's immaturity and that they don't generally have a lot of ability to break down generalities into specifics. To be fair, I know a lot of adults who don't do that very well.
But regardless the reason, I'm finding increased success by giving detailed, specific, directions to them and trying not to speak in generalities. Some of this may simply be due to the fact that when I use a term like "kindness" it means something to me and may mean something different to them.
At our retreat, we talked a lot about lofty, somewhat abstract concepts like leadership, kindness, friendship and so on. Students were asked to give talks on these subjects and then all the students broke out in small groups and discussed this. In the past, this was a bit tedious and I never felt like the students really engaged. This year, I tried asking ,"Tell me what this concept means and give me examples of how you would do this on a day-to-day basis." Our discussions were much more productive and, I think, transformative.
At any rate, I'm seeing the power of specificity and highly recommend it!
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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