Friday, January 9, 2015

Dear Abby

Back when I started teaching, I ambitiously founded a student newspaper for my 6th grade team. Published 4-5 times per year, it was a product of the hard work of about a dozen kids and me. At our first editorial staff meeting I asked what sort of features they might like to include, and by far and away the top of their list was an advice column. They decided to call it "Dear Kitty" partially because "Abby" was already taken, and partially because that's what Anne Frank called her diary.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and with a unit whose guiding question is How can we use writing to solve problems? an advice letter activity seemed like a natural. "Can anyone tell me who Dear Abby is?" I started the lesson, but there were blank looks all around. Surprised, I took a step back and explained the concept of writing anonymously to a newspaper for advice.

At a meeting yesterday, someone asked me if the students had been thrown off by our crazy weather-related schedule this week. "Not really," I replied. "When you're in sixth grade? Nothing is a surprise, basically because everything is new." They laughed because they knew it was true, especially for middle school kids.

It took me a while to realize it, but I'm pretty sure eleven and twelve are the most resilient ages of humans-- you're young enough to have very fluid expectations, but old enough to appreciate novelty. At that age, the phrase roll with it was invented for you.

And as a long time sixth grade teacher, it was invented for me, too, because adjusting and improvising are often what I have to do to reach my students, despite the amount of data I may have on them. And so today I found myself describing a cultural pillar of 20th century America to a class full of kids with iPads in their hands.

"Is it kind of like" one wanted to know.

"Not really," I said.

"That century was, like, 20 years ago!" added another.

"Fifteen," I corrected her.

"Whatever!" she replied. "We weren't even born, yet."

However... Once they saw an example and were asked to write, on paper, with a silly pseudonym, for some free advice, you would be amazed at what a cool idea it was, and they totally rolled with it.

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