Friday, November 30, 2012

6th Grade Tales – Stories for the nonhuman

Sixth grade is a funky year for most kids.  It is a transitional year from childhood into the first blush of the teenage years. 

Sixth graders are going through a hormonal obstacle course on the inside.  Some are changing drastically on the outside, others aren’t changing at all and everyone is noticing.  All sorts of things that never bothered them before become of paramount importance.

For some, their arms and legs outgrow the rest of their bodies, leaving them awkward and clumsy.  Girls tend to sprout up, often leaving many of the boys behind for a couple of years.  Everybody starts developing towards full maturity and the blessings and curses of that tend to make pretty much everyone wish they were in someone else’s body.

This is the year some parents notice that their child is getting a bit more ‘sassy’.  These tweens need more space and less space and they vacillate between young people and children. 

Their friends change as well.  Many become concerned about being ‘cool’, not fitting in properly and what their peers think about everything.  Their friendships often change and they start finding a niche where they can fit.  Some kids don’t go through any of this at all and remain untouched by such concerns until they are older.  All and all, it can be a maddening year.

I’ve often said that sixth graders do not belong with elementary kids and they have no place as of yet with the seventh and eighth graders.  In fact, most of them should be buried beneath the school.  The good news is they only stay sixth graders for one year.

What on earth do you tell this transitional, morphing group of people?  Most think they are too old for stories and the stuff they think they want to hear is way too old for them.

The answer, for me, is push the boundaries just a bit. 

The set I offer for sixth grade is called ‘Hormonal Boys and Hyena Girls’.  It goes into the crazy stuff that happens behind the scenes in sixth grade, from the boys who think it is funny to hurt each other and don’t seem to understand how their rough play turns into an actual fight, to the girls who end up crying in the bathroom because somebody didn’t like their haircut.  The kids are always amazed I know what they are dealing with.  It never occurs to any of them that we old folks really were in sixth grade once upon a time.

This is the first group I tell really scary ghost stories.  The caveat being that I gauge the students who seem to be the most freaked out and I ease back a bit so that things don’t get too scary.  Why do I tell these kids really scary stories?  This is the first age where none of them will be willing to admit to their parents they are scared.  This means no aggrieved parents are going to call the school and complain.  Besides, they like these stories.

The second category of stories I tell to this group falls under the heading of gory and cerebral.

Morgan and the Pot of Brains is a good example of this.  A kid who is picked on until he shuts down completely goes on a lifelong quest to achieve his brains by cutting out the hearts of the things he loves best in the world.  It turns out all right, but the very graphic, funny, sad and interesting twist to the ending is right up the alley for these emerging people.

The Debate in Sign Language is also a favorite of this group.

Once I lead them through a really dark story, I can tell them fun folktales and they love it.  They don’t even remember they are too old for stories.  The truth is this group will love anything as long as you package it right, but going at them through the truths of who they are is also a good way to get them to reflect, even if only cursorily, on their own situation.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hubris and Vanity and Mythology, Oh My!

I spent a week in rural North Carolina teaching sixth graders about how to present themselves and speak clearly using Greek mythology as a medium.  It was interesting.  For starters, Greek mythology is usually an in with this age group.  Many kids find the stories interesting and with the popularity of Percy Jackson, kids are reading Rick Riordan's books with relish.  When I have to work with sixth graders, if I can use Greek myths, my battle is usually half way won.

That was not so in the community in which I found myself.  The first day I told my standard Gaia and the sky/Cronos eats his children/Zeus slays Cronos and releases his brothers and sisters/Prometheus brings fire to man/Pandora's Box/ and Argus of the hundred eyes story.  It runs through everything from Hubris to the way the world was supposed to have been created to who are the major Greek gods to what those gods did and it takes about fifteen minutes in a classroom.  Most of the kids have heard some parts of the story and they think it is pretty cool the way all of them run together.  Not so in this little rural town.

I should have realized I was in trouble when I asked them if they knew the name of the first woman Zeus made and they all responded, 'Eve'.

This was a population of children who had never heard of the Greek myths.  Some of them thought I was trying to convert them.  One child announced that he thought the Greeks were stupid to believe in such a ridiculous thing.  One child said that he hoped he didn't offend anyone, (I think he was trying to be polite to me), but he didn't believe in Greek mythology.    I didn't see that coming.  I really thought they would understand what mythology was and that these stories had been relegated to our history.  

That's when I worried I'd run into a buzz saw.  How could I do a quick and dirty explanation of what mythology is without some of them drawing parallels to Christianity?  Well, I gave it my best shot.  Then, I thought, what if I've just made things worse?  What if these precious children went home and told their parents I was trying to convert them?  I realized I'd started with too many assumptions about what they knew and didn't know about the world outside their small little patch of North Carolina.  I tried to clear up the confusion during class time, but was uncertain whether or not I'd succeeded.  I stopped by the office to warn the vice principal that she might get phone calls and the nature of said calls.

Luckily their parents did not come to school and beat me senseless for preaching against good, clean Christian values and such.  The week continued with them learning more about the Greeks as well as doing some writing and working on presentation skills.  We had a great time and they really enjoyed the myths.  Still, I must say that I have no idea how much they absorbed about Ancient Greece in terms of culture.

The second day of my visit I introduced the concept of hubris.  We spoke about it in great length and I contrasted that with the Greek's view of moderation, which is very different from our modern definition.  Here's the thing.  They remembered the word moderation, but with few exceptions, they could neither remember the word hubris nor could they recall what it was.

The third day, I put hubris up on the board once more.  Again, most of them could not remember what it was, nor could they remember how to say it.  The same thing happened the fourth day and the fifth.  On the fifth day they could remember how to say it in most classes, but they still had no idea what it was.  The same child who remembered the definition the third day was the only one who could remember it on subsequent days.  I tried different ways to explain it each day, but with no success.  We did entire activities around the concept with no success.

Most of them could remember that it had something to do with personality, but they could never get past that one word.  They would offer it up with a question mark:  Personality?

I understood from my own research that part of the problem is that many of these students were not often encouraged to offer complex answers to questions.  I understood that most of them had trouble with concepts that were visual in nature or not directly related to their own surroundings.  I understood all of that and despite my best efforts and the activities we used, I could only get one kid out of ninety to remember the word and what it meant.  The classroom teacher was a wonderful woman.  She grinned at me and said, "Welcome to my world."

The second word I introduced that they found difficult was the word vain.  One kid was very confused when I wrote the word on the board.  He thought it meant to cuss.  Obviously his grandmother and my grandmother must have known each other because she was a great one for saying, "Don't take the Lord's name in vain!"    In this instance, I was working with a word that most of them had heard, but not in the context of behavior.  I wrote the word on the board with its three different spellings and had the kids guess/talk about at least six different meanings.  They got a kick out of that and because they'd encountered the word as blood vessels and futility, (though they never called it that and when I used that word they were stunned to hear it so of course I kept at it until I heard of few of them hazard it in conversation) they were able to understand that being vain could also mean being over proud of something about yourself.  It also helps that they knew the story of Snow White.  Light bulbs went on when I talked about the queen being vain.

it is funny how you can intellectually understand what it means to encounter children with a lack of aural language and difficulty employing experiential language, but when you see it in action it can be frustrating.  Finding ways to reconnect the word vain back into their vocabulary was easy.  It was a concept they'd encountered and unbeknownst to them, they'd heard it used in the same context I was using more than once, they just hadn't realized it.  When all the pieces were laid out in front of them, they made the connection.  I never had so much luck with hubris.

As for me, I had a great time.   I was tempted to write my favorite Joseph Campbell quote on the board, "Mythology is what we call other people's sacred stories." but I was pretty sure that would really get me into trouble.

Vanity made a lasting impression.  Hubris...well, they'll hear that word again and at least it is in there and maybe it will connect at some late date.  As for what they got out of the mythology and the writing exercises, all of that is, as always, a work in progress.