A Letter to Middle School Lauren

Inspired by my eighth grade students and Cheryl Strayed’s letter to her twenty-something self.
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A Page From My Reader’s Notebook

Author’s Note: Identity is a central tenant in my classroom teaching.  This year, after introducing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s  identity intersectionality framework to my students, I could tell the class was intellectually interested, but the heart of the lesson seemed to be missing. In this piece, I reconnect with the topics and struggles that mattered most to me as a middle schooler. In doing so, I aim to bring a little bit of softness back into our identity analysis.  

P.S.  You can read more about how we approach identity here.


Dear Lauren,

Middle school is hard.  It will be one of the hardest, goofiest, and most interesting times of your life.  You will struggle with almost everything—friends, “dating,” school, figuring out the hobbies you like to do—figuring out who you are.

Know it gets better.  Being popular doesn’t matter; it isn’t what makes you happy.  Having good friends is. You have good friends. Treasure them.

At ski club, when your super-smart-friend-who-has-been-acting-kind-of-weird-lately asks you to ride the ski lift with her, say yes.  When your other friends ignore her and exclude her, ride with her again, and again, and again. You don’t know it yet, but her parents are going through a divorce, and next year, she will move to a different school. You won’t learn this until it’s too late, but you don’t need to know this in order to be a good friend.

Start a book club.  The school librarian will love you for this.  You’ll get the school to buy new books, and you’ll get to hang out with your friends in the library during lunch.

Play the flute, and enjoy every moment of it, especially when you play duets with your best friend and your mom.  There is a special type of bonding that happens with music, and when you quit playing later because you start doing other things, you will miss this.

Go to summer camp.  It’s worth going away for two-weeks or four-weeks at a time. Weeks hiking and canoeing in nature will mean more to you than soccer camp or band camp ever can.

When you make eye contact with that girl in your seventh grade math class and get butterflies in your stomach, honor the fact that those were real butterflies.  When you ask your mom later if you could be a lesbian and she says no, you can believe her—you have always liked boys—but also know she can’t determine your sexual orientation, only you can.  Know you can have crushes on boys and girls. There’s a name for that: you can call yourself “bi” if gender is important to you, or “pan” if it’s not.

That one time you try to sneak out of the lunchroom early, don’t look furtively around you like you’re guilty.  Walk upright with confidence and purpose, and I bet no one will even notice you are breaking the rules.

Know your true friends are the ones you don’t have try around.  When you are attempting to figure out which lunch table to sit at, sit at the lunch table where you feel like people see you.  Sit at the lunch table where you find the conversation interesting, and you laugh a lot at things that are genuinely funny and not mean.  Pay attention to this laughter. This, more than most things, is a sign of real friendship.

When you think you’re middle class, know, you’re not.  You may be in the middle of what people have at your school, but realize, what people have at your school is more than most.  Be thankful for what you have and question why life is unfair. Grow up, and work to change this.

Read. Read as many books as possible.  And when you finish the reading the last Harry Potter book, don’t spend years griping about how you can’t find anything else as good—pick up something different. Discover nonfiction.  Read the news. You’ve learned all about a magical world. Now, learn about the real one.

One afternoon, in the parking lot, there will be a time when your guy-friend from elementary school asks you out, in sign language, through a bus window.  You will think this is romantic, but, say no. Tell him you like him as a friend, and that’s all you want. It takes more courage to say this, than it does to say yes, avoid him at the school dance later that night, and then break up with him one week later.

Run for student council president.  However, come up with your own speech topic—don’t use the same topic as the girl who won student council last year.  Everyone will know you copied her, including her. When you lose the election (probably because you plagiarized your speech), and when your friend wins (because he is capable and confident and probably wrote his own speech), be happy for him.  Also, recognize that it is super awesome your class voted for a president who is in a wheelchair. How many presidents in wheelchairs do you know? When you are offered the consolation position of class secretary, take it, and work with him. You will learn a lot.

Finally, recognize the difference between good grades and true learning.  You can get good grades and learn almost nothing, and you can get bad grades, and learn more than you ever thought possible.  Focus on the learning—it is this, not the grade—that will stay with you far-past middle school.

Be kind, make mistakes, and pick yourself up when you fall.  Middle school is hard, but as you grow up, you’ll realize the rest of life is too.  For whatever difficult, challenging, dysfunctional thing you are going through, know there are people around you who are going through, or have gone through, the same or similar thing.  Lean on them. Trust them. Be there for them.

The reason things get better even though life stays hard is because middle school is a place where you will start building resiliency that will help you bounce back from challenges and difficulties for the rest of your life.  Take advantage of this time. As your mom says, learn to bounce.

Believe in yourself.  Listen to yourself. Trust yourself.  Stand up straight; open your heart, and know, you’ve got this.

You cannot fail at being yourself.

Yours,

Lauren


 

Follow-Up:  My passion project this year is having students create well-developed, intellectual, and reflective Reader’s and Writer’s Notebooks.  Today, I shared my letter as a sample a notebook entry with students, in a lesson on what it means to take risks as a writer and how to design your own journal prompts. 

Before I introduced the piece, we talked about what taking risks means—what it feels like in our bodies and our minds. Then, I set a purpose for reading by challenging students to look for the risks I took as a writer.  I read the piece aloud, and afterwards, we had a conversation.  Students first discussed their thoughts with a partner, and then we came together as a large group in which students shared their noticings, asked questions, and began a dialogue with each other. 

At the very end of the conversation, one student asked me if I had come out to my parents and if they were supportive. 

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s a journey, and we are in a good place.  I told them, because I think they deserve the opportunity to know me.  And I think you do too.”

The year is just beginning, but I can’t wait to see where our Notebook projects lead.  In our class, it’s through reading, writing, and reflection, that we aim to open our hearts and our minds.

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On the Power of Diverse Texts

In the last month, I’ve felt like everyday I’ve left my classroom inspired by my students thoughts, background knowledge, and critical thinking.  I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

What has helped us grow to this point?

The materials we’ve chosen to surround ourselves with.  These were some of my strategies:

  1. I made a commitment to only purchasing books from diverse authors.  In our well-resourced school district, books featuring white, straight folk are easy to come by.  My classroom is full of them! I made a personal commitment to only spend district dollars, donors choose fundraising dollars, and personal dollars on books written by and about people with diverse experiences.  My focus has been on people of color, people who are LGBTQ+, people of multiple religions, and people with disabilities.
  2. I used picture books and graphic novels as an entry point into reading about diverse literature.  I wrote a Donor’s Choose Fundraising grant for 50 picture books and graphic novels that featured people of color, people who are LGBTQ+, people of multiple religions, and people with disabilities.  Then, I worked with the school librarian to pull together a text set of about 250 graphic novels featuring diverse characters.  Using these materials, we did a graphic novel mini-unit.  During the unit, students learned a reading skill, applied it to a picture book, then applied it to a graphic novel they were reading.  Students were required to read at least two graphic novels from the text set.
  3. I was honest with the students.  Before beginning our graphic novel picture book unit, I had an honest discussion about diversity in children’s literature.  We looked at this graphic.  We discussed the concept of books as windows and mirrors (Thank you Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop).  We set an intention together of challenging to read books and perspectives we might not otherwise read.
  4. I paid attention.  After seeing students read graphic novels and picture books, I was able to better understand the topics and social issues they paid attention to.  This continually helps me make recommendations for individual readers, assemble book group text sets, and offer choices for read aloud.
  5. I made a commitment to only offering books from diverse authors.  Choice is a fundamental tenant of my teaching philosophy.  Students have choice of their independent reading novel, their book group novels, the novels they read for class, and even our class read aloud.  However, this year, I made a commitment to assembly text sets solely with books that feature diverse characters.  Students have ownership over their learning, and access to windows and mirrors they may not have otherwise found.
  6. I dedicated aloud time to narrative nonfiction.  After our picture books, graphic novels, and realistic fiction novels, students were ready to read more about real life stories.  I pulled together a text set of books for students to choose from for read aloud, and every book we’ve read has captivated the students.  Title include: Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bombs Survivor’s Story (Caren Stelson), Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March (Lynda Blackmon Lowrey) Loving v. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case (Patricia Hruby Powell), In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives (Kenneth C. Davis), Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Phillip Hoose)
  7. I wrote a year-long essential question and focused guiding questions. Our year long essential question is, “How does society impact an individual’s happiness and well-being?”  We study this question in every unit, and then create guiding questions for each individual unit, including our dystopian novel unit, family unit, and justice unit.
  8. I chose 5-8 vocabulary words per unit.  These words help us focus our text analysis. Vocabulary words this year have included: conformity, social norms, identity intersectionality, society, justice, internalized oppression and resiliency.
  9. I utilized Newsela.com to study current events.  The amazing folks at Newsela make social justice teaching easy.  By covering current events, resistance movements, and pro/con articles, all at grade-appropriate reading levels, the authors make complex situations and difficult conversations accessible to my middle schoolers.  When reading narrative nonfiction, we often visit Newsela to read more about our topic.

My students’ critical thinking, analysis of text and topics, and reflection has impressed me more than I can possibly express.  I feel they’ve tried on and developed new lenses with which to view the world, and been exposed to new ideas, perspectives, and experiences.

My students have been genuinely into their reading and thinking. As they move forward in their learning, I wonder, will they continue to seek out and hold diverse perspectives?  If it is not the priority, have we explored enough to give them the lense to keep asking tough questions, to keep analyzing the materials they are using to learn?

Time will tell.

Reflections on the National Day of Silence

 

The Breaking the Silence party was over.  Art supplies, half-finished drawings, and dirty paper plates littered the tables.  It was Friday evening, and the students were gone.

In the quiet of classroom, I reflected on the day.  By all measures, The National Day of Silence at our middle school was a success.  Students who took the Vow of Silence wore a black ribbon and remained silent the entire day.  Students, staff, and the administration wore rainbow ribbons in abundance, showing their support.

In my English Language Arts class, students read about the Day of Silence, explored statistics for LGBTQ+ youth in Wisconsin, and connected the day to the essential and guiding questions of our current reading unit, the Justice Unit.

Leaving this day, one student’s thoughts have stayed with me.  This student did not wear a rainbow ribbon.  He did not take the vow of silence.  He sat in the back of the room and chose not to participate in our class discussion. But he was deeply engaged.

Reflecting on the Day of Silence, he writes, “The way society…looks down and belittles LGBT people affects their mental state, brining them into depression or trying to conform to society’s expectations.  This is bad because they lose creativity and self interest.  This means that we lose potential scientists, engineers, and political activists.”

In the muted tones of the day today, that loss of potential was felt and mourned.  My student’s acknowledgment of this moved me and gives me hope.

To read more about the National Day of Silence, check out the GLSEN “Day of Silence” page.