Hello again! The final trimester of the school year began last week, so the end seems near. Three months from today, your children will be free from Bigelow ... but let's remember that three months past was the beginning of December Vacation. Doesn't that seem like a long time ago?! We even had a different president back then. My point is that we still have several teaching weeks left, and we are not done.
The past few weeks were focused on civics and government, taking a break from historical people and narratives. Students learned about key constitutional elements like 'separation of powers' and federalism, and how they are designed to prevent tyranny by individuals and by groups. More recently, we explored several important Supreme Court decisions to understand the limits of individuals' rights to free speech, private property, and due process. There were two embedded skills in this unit: 1) proper usage and citation of quotations in a written piece, and 2) constructive participation in a free-form classroom discussion. Some of those conversations were amazingly insightful, specific, and collaborative -- better than you hear from many groups of adults!
Starting this week, we will shift back from current politics to history: the story of American growth from 1800 to 1860. That growth takes many different forms and has varied results for specific groups of people. We study one topic at a time: how the U.S. gained territory in those decades; how the population expanded and migrated across the continent; technological changes like steam power, the cotton gin, etc.; new social ideas and movements like abolitionism and transcendentalism; the expansion of American slavery. These simultaneous developments all led to the Civil War in obvious and unexpected ways. I have made a set of scaled timelines on brightly-colored paper, one for each topic, to illustrate parallel events and connections.
Before I tell more about what's coming next, let's shift the topic to students' attitudes. Perhaps your children have acted differently in recent weeks: more sullen or defiant than usual? generally cranky? bigger reactions to small problems? I see this happen at school every March, and I expect many of you experience it at home. (I have an 8th grader at home too!) The high-school transition process always triggers disruption and anxiety for 8th graders, and those feelings manifest in various ways. Some decide "I got my teachers' course recommendations, so I'm done with middle school! I can quit doing school for now, because 9th grade matters more for college." Others get distracted by the course selection process, trying to plan a school and career path for the next 10 years and feeling stressed by all the decisions and uncertainty. Many students figure out that friendship groups may get re-shuffled next year (especially friends going to a different high school), and socializing becomes an even higher priority in the spring. Basically, the adults in their lives (and everything we request and expect) gets bumped way down the list. These 8th-graders get stuck in their own heads, even more than usual! Sorry if that sounds depressing, but I think you should know your struggles are not unique and they are not permanent. This is truly a rite of passage, and at least it's less intense than the Lakota Sun Dance Ritual (look it up!).
So what to do with these anxious, distracted, minimally-motivated teenagers? Well you can let them storm upstairs to their bedrooms, but I have to work with them 45-50 minutes a day and try to teach something! Oh and by the way, teaching get even tougher when warm weather arrives and spring sport teams begin. Here is my basic plan for survival:
• Give students as much independence as possible. That means rebooting the open-ended Extension Projects that have been shelved since January, so I could devote more class time to discussion practice. When teenagers feel freedom of choice (even from a narrow list of options) they are more likely to cooperate and engage.
• No new skills. We will continue using previously-addressed skills like learning from a video and understanding cause-effect. However, it feels rather late to start building brand-new skills. Instead, I will help students apply those skills to new topics and situations, to reinforce their comfort and confidence.
• Increasing the "fun factor". Grades are less motivating in the spring of 8th grade. The attitude I mentioned above that "middle school grades don't matter anymore" is prevalent, and frankly it's not completely wrong! In April, we will learn about the westward migration of white settlers by playing a live-action version of the Oregon Trail computer game for several school days. That is usually a popular Highlight of the Year for the 8th grade. During the Civil War unit in June, students work to earn officer rank promotions in "General Swan's Army" as they finish various learning tasks.
• Maintain the basic routines. I worked hard to establish habits for the start of class, using binders, taking quizzes, submitting items online, etc. There will still be 1 or 2 video assignments almost every week into June, and I will continue to check for understanding. We're not going to have a class party every day until graduation!
One routine has been writing these monthly messages, which are usually about as long as this installment. Seems like a good point to sign off. I will update you again after the Oregon Trail simulation at the end of April. Many thanks for all your continued support and patience!