Teach Your Children Well: Tackling “Coming of Age”

Published 8/4/13 by:

“Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.” 

-David Bowie

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“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

Stand By Me

There are many times per week, day, hour that I feel inadequate as a teacher. Sometimes it’s my own unpreparedness, often times it’s the limitations of how I can approach a topic. Frequently this inadequacy stems from how much time I can allot to something that requires a lengthier discussion or exploration. Since I began teaching middle school, the unit of study that leads me to this type of frustrating standstill which I encounter in my line of work, is a unit aptly titled “Coming of Age” or, “Growing Up Is Hard To Do”. Prior to teaching sixth grade, when I was previewing the six thematic units of study I would be teaching, this unit was the most appealing to me. What could be more appropriate than to discuss change, time marching on, responsibility, crushes, consequences and anything else that begins when you approach teenage-hood? What I quickly realized was that the coming of age unit I would be instructing would be a lot more “Full House” than “Modern Family”.  Thus my sense of inadequacy began.

 

In order to understand how I want to cultivate this unit, you need to know what I’ve covered, please see below:

WRITING: Narrative writing techniques, autobiographical writing, plot maps & their parts: rising action, falling action, climax, exposition, resolution, how to write an opening, how to use dialogue in writing.

TEXTS: “The Giver”, “Walk Two Moons”, “Al Capone Does My Shirts”, “Maniac Magee”, “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”, “The Wednesday Wars”, “Tangerine”

TOPICS OF DISCUSSION (developed from novels used): Homelessness, learning disabilities (specifically Autism), going against society and/or your family, war, absent parents, segregated communities, abandonment, reluctance, accepting differences – especially your own.

 

Looking at the list of things I teach during this unit makes me feel pretty groovy. We talk about some hard-hitting themes which can be both historic, and modern. The protagonists in all of the novels listed get entangled in a certain struggle, and in the midst of that struggle slowly cease to be children and rapidly become adults. It all fits together in a nice, lovely puzzle, that drives at important big picture issues, but does not address anything that could be deemed controversial. I want the controversy. I yearn for the controversy. The controversy is essentially what makes people define middle school as the most awkward part of their entire lives (that they can remember). The writing and reading techniques that are taught during this unit are completely appropriate, and I’m satisfied with what my students walk away with, however, the themes and discussions that we untangle could be so much more engaging and relevant to where they are in their young adulthoods. Most school districts, including my own, have to protect teachers (like me) from ourselves. This may sound strange, but it can get very dicey when topics are broached in the classroom that families think are inappropriate, or don’t align with their values. While I would argue that school is the type of safe environment for such topics to be introduced, and that as the world evolves, our kids need to know about society, it has become clear to me that a lot of folks aren’t ready to change with the times. This leads school administration to the protective part of their job in which they advise teachers like myself to toe the line very carefully. I’m getting better at toe-ing the line, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

 

In a perfect world, here’s what I would add to this coming of age unit:

Discussion Topics- Heartbreak, first love, homosexuality, dealing with cliques and/or exclusivity, what to do when you outgrow your friends, what to do when your friends outgrow you, how to negotiate trends (specifically expensive ones), how to conduct yourself in public (especially in large groups, and what you’re wearing), helping others that are in tough situations, negotiating (in general), and how to be trustworthy.

 

Would these topics be easy to create unbiased, respectful conversations around? Absolutely not. Would I be able to keep my opinions to myself? Most likely, no. This is why I’m unable to tackle these ideas in my classroom. It’s my hope that maybe some parents in the universe read this and realize that they could take the lead on this and do the latter (and more fascinating) half of this unit. If my students (and I’m sure most middle schoolers would fit the mold as well) are already using Facebook, Instagram, Vine and Twitter, as well as watching shows like “The Kardashians” or “Pretty Little Liars” then they’re already being exposed to the stuff that I’m not allowed to touch. We (teachers) need parents to help us. The learning should extend beyond the walls of my classroom, and the conversations should be flowing in carpool, on the field, at dance rehearsal, at the dinner table etc. Seize the small moments, parental units! Middle school may be an awkward time, but it’s a crucial time. Help me do our work: teaching the children well – teaching them how to be great humans.

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