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Zoe’s English teacher announced this week the prospect of a new challenge–write at least 100 words each day for 100 days, beginning today, March 1. Apparently if you write every day for 100 days you become a Writing Centurion and you get to choose a t-shirt from Woot! Shirt. I can safely say this is the first time this school year that I have wished I were in sixth grade. Writing and t-shirts–two of my favorite things! So when Zoe said she was accepting her teacher’s invitation, I immediately said I would join her. This means you will be seeing a lot more words from me over the next 100 days. Maybe if you like what I write, you’ll buy me a punny t-shirt too!

March also happens to be National Reading Month, and reading is one of my other favorite things, up there with writing and t-shirts, so I am lined up to volunteer at both of my kids’ schools doing book-related activities. At Zeke’s school on Monday I am going to be a guest reader in his kindergarten class. I think I will read Mo Willems’ Nanette’s Baguette, which may not have the name recognition that Elephant and Piggie or the Pigeon do, but it is hilarious and reading it makes me so happy. I hope Zeke’s classmates share my feelings about Nanette and her baguette. (As an aside, I am ecstatic that Mo Willems was recently named the Kennedy Center’s first Education Artist in Residence, meaning we will have the opportunity to see some of his characters come to life at the Kennedy Center and perhaps meet him sometime over the next two years. He is, in my humble opinion, a creative genius.)

After I read to Zeke’s class, I will skip down the hall to the library to volunteer at the book fair. It should be obvious that book fairs are another thing that I love. I volunteered at the book fair at Zoe’s elementary school for all six of her years there and enjoyed every minute of it. Zoe’s librarian was marvelous and she and I exchanged book recommendations every time we saw each other. At the book fair I would often help kids look for good books and write down their wish lists, or help teachers or parents who were browsing. And between classes I would read books myself, and buy a few. And come back the next day. And buy a few. And then the kids would come in with me and they would choose books and we would buy a few. Book fairs are dangerous for me. But so satisfying. So I have high hopes for Zeke’s school book fair. Since this is his first year at the school I don’t know many teachers or kids besides the ones in his class, but hopefully I will get to know some in the library. For a few weeks I have been reading for an hour a week with some first graders at his school, so I’ll know them too. In any case, I will have the opportunity to walk around and look at and touch all those beautiful books.

On Tuesday I will be at Zoe’s school bright and early to help set up Booktopia, a day-long book giveaway where we will lay out 1,500 books on tables all over the gym (which we sorted by genre and boxed last week) and invite every reading and English class in the school to come in browse. Each student can choose a book and take it home for free. The PTA started this event when they discovered that many students at the school couldn’t afford to buy full-price books at the book fair, and that the book fair didn’t always have books that reflected the diversity of the student body. So the books we will give away at Booktopia will include a wide variety of new and used books selected to appeal to a wide variety of kids of all reading abilities and backgrounds. In middle school, parents definitely don’t have as much opportunity to hang out at school as in elementary school, so I’m looking forward to this chance to observe all the teachers and all the classes and hopefully connect some kids with some books they will love.

When Zoe’s school year started, I was surprised to learn that she had a reading class as well as an English class. Reading is mandatory for sixth graders, and I was skeptical because Zoe was already a great reader. But I soon realized that the class was not offering remedial help (although it does for those who need it) but pushing her and her classmates to read compelling and intriguing texts by amazing authors, and read critically and think about what she’s reading at a higher level. I have been incredibly impressed with the books she’s read in reading class, including Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, The 57 Bus, Amal Unbound, and Child Soldier. Pretty much every time Zoe finishes a book, she brings it to me and says, “You’ve GOT to read this.” And I do the same with her, at least with young adult novels I read.

So when Zoe’s school announced a read-a-thon that kicked off today, I was all over it. I am so excited to support her in her reading and help her raise money for literacy programs at her school. If I had not become a writer, I definitely could have been a children’s librarian. I did spend several glorious months right out of college working at Barnes & Noble, which was unbelievably fun. I got to be around books all day! I got to tell people what books I thought they should read! (also we had to clean the toilets at closing time, but the books!).

Right now I’m reading a YA book called Saints and Misfits, about a Muslim girl who feels pulled between her secular friends and her Muslim community. She wears a hijab like her Mom, but her Dad (divorced from her mom and remarried) disapproves. It’s fascinating and beautifully written.

Zoe is eager to read my Day 1/100 sample, and I am pretty sure I’ve exceeded my 100 word requirement. I better save some of my words for the next 99 days.

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 11.10.16 PM.pngFor dinner, I ordered fried catfish with potato salad and mac and cheese from Margaret’s Soul Food Truck. The food truck was parked outside my daughter’s middle school, along with several others, for the gustatory enjoyment of parents who were attending back to school night tonight. Before back to school night, there was a PTA meeting scheduled in the library. With my styrofoam container of deliciousness and my cold can of Coke in hand, I asked someone wearing a school polo shirt whether I could take the food into the library. “Of course!” they said, as if nothing would delight the librarian more than the aroma of fried fish. My desire to participate in the meeting overcame my concern about bringing food into the library so I went in.

At the PTA meeting I learned about the prodigious school garden, where students can volunteer for community service hours and whose produce helps feed our community. The school also operates a food bus program where food that students buy but don’t eat is delivered weekly to our local food bank. I learned about the used book far and the Booktopia new book giveaway, where every student goes into the gym and chooses one free book from among boxes and boxes of new books.

The school principal told us that this year’s sixth grade class (of which my daughter is a member) is the largest in the school’s history, with 426 students, bringing the school population up to 1,140. No wonder every classroom was crowded with parents as we followed her schedule in 10-minute class increments. Fortunately most of her core classes are clustered together in her team area so she doesn’t have far to travel. I have to give the principal credit too for remembering Zoe’s name after the first time we met her. How does she learn the names of 1,140 students?

I still remember my teachers from my first year of junior high school–Ms. Hamilton (English), Mr. Rycroft (Algebra), Ms. Duncan (social studies), Ms. Mills (science), Ms. Kramer (home ec.), Ms. Beck (art), Mr. Andrukonis (speech and drama). I do not remember, however, having such a clear understanding of what was expected of my classmates and me. Tonight every teacher shared their syllabus, gave a PowerPoint presentation (which is also available online), and gave us their email address (I realize there was no such thing as email addresses in 1987). We know exactly how our children’s grades will be determined and where and how to view their assignments and up-to-the-minute grades on homework, tests, and other projects. All of this is accessible to our kids as well, and they are expected to stay on top of it. They have school-issued iPads on which they can log in to see their homework assignments, study guides, academic calendars, and more. They use their iPads every day in class and can access any texts or primary sources or any resources they need for any class. NONE of Zoe’s teachers have issued textbooks. Her science teacher said she received five copies of the textbook and that she may refer to it occasionally but it doesn’t include all the material she wants to cover. If you do want to read it, however, you can read it all on your iPad and you can even press a button and it will be read aloud to you. Other teachers said they have textbooks if a student desperately wants to read one, but they by no means rely on them, if they use them at all. For English class, students are expected to bring their own book that they’re reading to class every day, and read every day for 30 minutes for homework. They can basically read whatever they want. If the teacher feels like the student needs to expand her literary horizons or challenge herself more, she may recommend other books. All the teachers said they would accept late assignments through the end of the quarter, and that the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, which is the foundational curriculum of this school, requires that students be graded on the content of their work (according to prescribed rubrics) and not on the timeliness of it. Most teachers said students could retake tests on which they performed poorly, and the teachers wanted to ensure the students had mastered the material. Best of all, the science  fair projects are completed ENTIRELY IN CLASS by the students, with the help of their teacher and their peers, with zero parental involvement. Hallelujah.

My point here is these teachers all seemed eminently reasonable and fair and sensible and smart. I’m sure the teachers have their quirks and the program has its flaws, but it seemed like this system and these classes are designed to give students the benefit of the doubt, to trust that if they’re doing the best they can that they will be able to succeed. There’s tutoring available four days a week after school. Any student or parent can contact any teacher about any concern. There is a counselor for each grade and a vice principal for each grade and so many staff people who seem designed to help.

Obviously when I was in junior high school I had the perspective of a kid and not a parent, and I know that when you’re that age you’re often more concerned with navigating social situations than knowing what your GPA is at any given time. And obviously the technology we enjoy today was not available then. It’s a different world. But I like this world. It makes so much sense. You know what you have to do and you can do it. I know this is all theory and we’ve only had three weeks so far to put it into practice, but I am hopeful.

And that catfish was so tasty.

bodydiagram

This is where my organs would ordinarily be, if they weren’t displaced by my all-consuming anxiety. 

I am so filled with anxiety that I am certain there is no room left inside me for my internal organs. They have been squeezed together in some tiny crevice so my anxiety has ample room to luxuriously expand. The knots in my stomach have all but filled my stomach so there is little space left for such old-fashioned things as digestion to occur.

I have spent a lot of this summer reminding myself to breathe. Taking deep breaths that require much more effort than seems normal, but then again when was the last time I was normal? I suppose the breathing has helped, as the threatening panic attack remains hovering at the edge of my consciousness, ready to jump in at any time an opening presents itself. The panic attack is like a first responder, but not the helpful kind.

Chief among the myriad reasons for this anxiety (although really, who needs reasons?) are two new schools. Tomorrow my kids will get on their respective school buses–they have never ridden buses to school before–and be delivered to elementary school and middle school for the first time. They will have new buildings to navigate, new teachers to get to know, new classmates who speak different languages, new assignments to remember, new school cultures to learn.

Of course I realize that kids start new schools all the time. This is the way of the world. But all those other kids aren’t mine. And my kids, unfortunately or inevitably or just because of good old genetics, share with me just a bit of that predisposition toward anxiety. We are a sensitive people. I remember years ago hearing the adage that having kids is like letting your heart walk around outside your body, and so it is. Starting new schools is like your heart has developed some confidence, a sense of style, a few signature jokes, and then suddenly it’s stripped bare all over again, completely vulnerable in a new environment. And now my heart is split into two, wandering through two new schools, looking around desperately for other hearts that will be kind.

This year for the first time I have a number of friends who are sending kids to college. Zeke’s previous preschool teacher and preschool director, friends from church, friends from high school and elementary school, and my yoga teacher all delivered offspring to college for the first time in August. (All to excellent Virginia schools, as it happens). When I think of them, even when I see the pictures on Facebook of their smiling kids in freshly decorated dorm rooms, I feel like my heart is not simply walking around outside my chest, but has been forcibly ripped from my body and flung hundreds of miles away, where it may be lying in a ditch, attempting to struggle to its feet. College! Thinking about this literally makes my chest hurt. My daughter is only seven years away from this prospect. When I ran into our wise preschool director the other day and mentioned this, she said not to think about it yet, just to concentrate on kindergarten and sixth grade right now. Which is good, because that is all I am capable of at the moment.

I try hard not to be a helicopter parent. My philosophy is much more free range, although it’s challenging in a culture of helicopters. I do believe in giving my children the opportunity to be independent, and learn things, and grow on their own. But what if kids are mean to them? What happens when kids are mean to them? Because it’s bound to happen and it’s already happened and it’s so hard. Did I mention we are sensitive people? This summer at a couple of camps some little boys said mean things to Zeke. I don’t know what all of the words were. Some of them, as I recall, were, “I don’t like you.” No one wants to hear that, but when you’re 44 it’s easier to give someone the side eye and walk away. Of course, when “I don’t like you” is accompanied by being punched in the back while you’re trying to make art, it’s harder to let it slide. Especially when you’re five. The day after this happened, Zeke was desperately and theatrically upset when I tried to drop him off at camp. It took 30 minutes for me to get to the bottom of the problem, but I did. I talked with the teacher and reassured Zeke that she would keep an eye on things and make sure the boys didn’t bother him. She moved him to a different team, and he was calm and everything was fine. By the end of the week he was playing with the same boys. Sometimes I don’t understand how life works at all.

With girls it’s different, of course. I’ve been hearing a lot from fellow parents of tweens that we should brace ourselves for the mean girls of middle school years. Optimistically I feel like we can bypass this particular trauma because we’ve been dealing with mean girls since Zoe was in kindergarten. While she had an overall excellent experience in elementary school and has always had lots of friends, there was rarely a time in which she didn’t have at least one “friend” who was trying to manipulate and control her. There was the girl who, in kindergarten, insisted that Zoe play Justin Bieber (Zoe didn’t even know who he was, but cried about it nonetheless), and later threw rocks at Zoe because she was trying to meditate when the girl wanted to play. And there were other girls for the following five years who tried to take advantage of Zoe, who threatened to abandon her if she played with other friends, who attempted to enlist her as a personal assistant. There was so much drama. And it wasn’t even middle school yet. So the good thing, I keep reminding myself, is that Zoe has so much experience dealing with this behavior and has learned how to stand up for herself and take care of herself in ways that it took me many more decades to learn myself, that maybe she’ll be ok in middle school. I hope.

At her school open house, she was not the only kid to be walking around in a daze, clinging to a parent’s arm, wondering how she would figure all this out on her own. I know she won’t really be on her own. There will be 899 other kids there! I know she’ll be ok. But I also know it’s a little terrifying, and no amount of reassurance from her parents will take that away until she does figure it out for herself.

Less than 24 hours from now, my kids will be at school. I’ll be on my way to a new yoga class I signed up for, which will be an excellent way for me to not sit home and cry or give in to that panic attack. Then after yoga I’ll come home and attack the million work assignments I’ve been neglecting during the last week of summer when I’ve been trying to squeeze in the maximum amount of fun experiences with my family so they can have happy memories to hang onto during their own moments of encroaching anxiety. And I’ll try my best to focus on getting my work done while I count the minutes until those school buses pull up to our bus stop and I not very casually envelop my children in gigantic hugs and try not to pepper them with all my questions about how the first day of school went. I will exhale. And the next day at least it won’t be quite so new.

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