Friday, June 13, 2008

Camping with the Sixth Grade

It is a new tradition at our school that every spring the sixth graders go on a camping trip to a nearby island. This year's sixth graders were the very first class I taught, way back when. You might say I learned how to be a teacher from them. And with my interest and experience in outdoor pursuits, it seemed to make sense that I join them for the trip. Three days away from my own kids seemed like too much, so I decided to go for 2 days and 1 night. Leaving my students in the utterly reliable hands of my assistant, I lent out lots of gear (proof that I am, indeed, my father's daughter), and set out for the island to meet a class that has been infamous at our school for years.

I learned a number of things over the past two days. First of all, that sixth grade boys could throw rocks and catch crabs forever and never get bored. My suggestion on our hike yesterday that perhaps a bucket full of six live crabs was sufficient, and that we enjoy the rest of the crabs without trying to catch them, was received with incredulity and then promptly ignored. Promises of rock-skipping contests and crab-catching were enough to get them to complete almost any task, including cleaning trash off the beach, and made me think about what the world would be like if the way to an adult man's heart were as simple. (Having never tried to win over a man with crabs or rocks, I may just have to add this to my rapidly growing repertoire of dating strategies.)

Secondly, I learned that you manage sixth graders in just about the same way that you manage first graders. Having little experience with these preteen beings, I was initially somewhat uncertain about how to get them to comply with directions. I quickly found that my toolbox was quite well-suited to the task. Of course, getting them to do any one thing took much longer than it would take a first grader, because for a sixth grader it is very important to convey the impression that they have no intention of complying with your request, even as they begin to do so. So, for example, when I asked Antonio to join us for a photo (or a walk, or cleaning up, or basically anything), he would retort, "I'm not going. There is NO WAY I'm gonna be in that photo," as he began to very slowly make his way to just the place I had sent him. I soon discovered that the best response to this situation was to ignore the litany of refusals and cheerfully thank him for starting to join us. Other times it was best to ignore him altogether and pretend not to notice that he was, indeed, following directions.

Because it could take anywhere between 2 and 10 minutes for a sixth grader to follow a direction, I remembered something I learned from Techszewski a few years ago. Techszewski has experience teaching at a number of grade levels, and he told me that the single most valuable classroom management strategy he has discovered is counting backwards. It works with little kids, it works with middle schoolers, it works with high school students. So, I started counting backwards for the sixth graders.

There is something magical about counting backwards. It lets them know unequivocally how much time they have to begin to comply. If you count forwards, on the other hand, they don't know if you are giving them until 3 or 5 or 10, whereas counting backwards has a definite ending point. And as soon as I would say "5... 4...," they would start to move -- very, very slowly, as if their legs were buried 16 inches in mud, but moving nonetheless. They seemed to notice that I was counting for them more than the other adults were, and Leroy asked me why I was counting so much. I said, "I'm counting because it works! It worked when you were in first grade and it still works." He tried to tell me he was too "grown" for counting, but since he kept on doing what I asked when I counted, I kept on counting.

In the end, the camping trip did not help me understand very much about why some people want to teach middle school. There were memorable moments on the trip, and it was satisfying to see students who have never experienced anything like camping before thoughtfully engaged in shooting a bearing with a compass, writing intently in their journals at sunset, or exploring barnacles with fascination. They were conscientious about following the Leave No Trace guidelines we had taught them, and a number of students absolutely stepped up as leaders, displaying excellent Expedition Behavior whenever there was work to be done.

But many students were noticeably less pleasant people than they had been in first grade. I decided to be optimistic, and to assume that middle school is the lowest point in the evolution of a person, and therefore they will improve back at least to where they used to be as they get older. But first graders aren't ashamed to be excited about learning, or to openly love their teachers. And if you are going to spend all day around a group of 20 (or, in this case, 40) kids, it sure is nice if they show a little enthusiasm and affection.

Still, there were great moments. It made me remember how much I often wish to teach my students (and by this I mean kids of color from the city) in a place with a farm and the woods and the ocean, where they can be outside all the time and work hard and be healthy and safe and study at the same time. So many of them chafe in the classroom all day, and who would blame them? But outside they can run around and use their energy and come alive, and those who can't concentrate for two minutes inside become focused and intent on everything around them outside. I was thoroughly enchanted by one student, Kareem, who I hadn't known before, but who seemed to approach every moment on the island with quiet, contemplative appreciation. When several boys and I were on a bird walk early this morning, and they were talking about how they couldn't wait to go home, I asked him if he was excited to go home. "No," he answered quietly. "I like it here." I figured, if even 4 of these 40 kids felt that way, the trip was worth the trouble.

1 comment:

  1. I'm certainly no expert on the matter but I can say with the utmost confidence that NO one has ever successfully won a man using crabs. In fact, the sheer mention of crabs should be carefully saved until date #12.