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April 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 7

Stories from Tween Classrooms

Two teachers describe the joys and perils of engaging 4th grade and 6th grade students in writing.

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Tweens are unpredictable. They go from being young adults to babbling infants in a second. One moment they are introspective and thoughtful; the next, they howl with laughter at an inappropriate remark. They look deeply into the meaning of text, and then grab their Pokémon cards and head to recess. They roll their eyes at you in disgust, then sit with you and cry at the ending to Where the Red Fern Grows. Academically, they swing from swagger and bravado to insecure blobs of protoplasm.
Teaching in a tween classroom is a daunting experience. And yet, we have both chosen to spend our teaching careers working with kids in this age group. Some call us crazy; we call ourselves courageous. The following stories from our two classes suggest the challenges and rewards of teaching tweens—specifically, of helping these students hone their writing skills.

Bruce Morgan's 4th Grade Classroom

For several years, I have taught students to use living books, or journals, to document their observations and thinking. But until recently, I had never asked them to record their thinking in the content areas. This year, I've been encouraging students to write more during math, science, and social studies. I have been intrigued by how deeply 4th graders think, but sometimes horrified by what actually gets onto the paper.
Last week, a group of students clustered around me for a math activity. I told them that one envelope contained 15 blue counters and 5 white counters; another envelope held 10 blues and 5 whites. Without telling the students which combination was in which envelope, I randomly pulled a counter from the first envelope and then returned it, shook the envelope, and pulled again. I wondered aloud how many times I would have to repeat this operation before it became safe to predict which envelope contained the most blue counters.
Aimee immediately announced, “It's envelope one.”
Austin shot her a look and countered, “I say we pull a whole lot because we'll get closer. Since there are 15 blues in one of them, why not pull at least 20 different times just to see?”
Nathan added, “We have more chances to get a blue in the envelope that has 15 blues.”
“It's envelope one,” Aimee insisted again.
“It's too early, Aimee; hold on. You're rushing for nothing,” Codi admonished.
“Aimee, we haven't even pulled from the second envelope yet—how could you know?” Collin asked.
Austin suddenly had an insight: “Hey, look at the numbers. It's a pattern—10 blues and 5 whites and 15 blues and 5 whites. Get it?”
“Ohhh, Austin. Give me the manipulatives!” Miranda demanded. She began to arrange piles of blue and white counters on the table. The kids watched as she matched blue and white counters together. “See, it is a pattern.”
“There are 2 to 1 in one envelope and 3 to 1 in the other one. I'm sticking to pulling 20 times. Then we should know for sure,” Nathan announced.
“Yeah, but think about what probability means,” Carson added. “We won't ever know for sure. Even if we pull a million times, we'll get closer to being sure, but it might really suck and be wrong.”
I summarized, “So it's a guideline, not a rule. We can use what we see to inform our decision, but we can't know for sure.” Together we decided to pull 20 counters from each envelope and then predict which envelope contained 15 blue counters and which contained 10. After we pulled 20 from each envelope, most of the students predicted that envelope one had only 10 blue counters because we had pulled far fewer blues from that envelope. Their thinking was clear and made sense, but when we opened the envelopes and counted, the prediction was incorrect. As Carson had pointed out, with probability you can't ever be sure.
The kids were shocked, then excited. For the first time, they understood what probable meant.
I saw my chance to have the students document their thinking: You know, I want you to get your thinking into your living books. You don't realize how smart you are, and I really want you to have a record so you can look back on your thinking when you're really old and marvel at how deeply you thought back in 4th grade.
They grumbled as they sat down to write. These brilliant, animated, reflective thinkers turned into zombies when they actually had to write about their ideas. They stumbled and faltered and produced works of staggering mediocrity.
Collin drew pictures of both envelopes and wrote, “Envelope 1, 15 w 5 B.” That was it? No explanation, no thinking...nothing?
Christoph scrawled, “The first envelope is the fist chose. The senont chose is the sencont envalope more were pulled out of the seonct envope.”
Aimee wrote, “I can't really explane I got confused if envelop one was envelop 2. So I just prodiked.”
Nathan sat there and sat there...and played with his pencil.
Their intelligence had blinded me to the fact that they were 9 years old and there was often a discrepancy between what they could think and what they could do. They needed guidance, structure, modeling, and a sense of security before taking an intellectual risk. I gathered them at the front of the room and apologized, and then busted them: I blew it; I'm sorry. I set you up. And—your writing was pathetic. What is up with all these incomplete sentences? What about punctuation marks? Man, you sure used great spelling approximations, didn't you? Wrong! Look, let me do a quick demonstration of what I meant. Here's what I was thinking: When I began this experiment, I thought it would be obvious which envelope had the 15 blues because I was sure blue would be pulled more. . . .
I wrote as I talked, jotting down notes about what I was thinking before the experiment started, while we were conducting the experiment, and after we finished. Then I had several students synthesize their thinking out loud. I explicitly told them that the words they had just used should be in their written papers. I sent them back to their seats to give it another go.
This time, they were more confident and took more time. Christoph wrote, There are two envalopes with a different numbers of chips in each one. One envalope has 10 blue chips and 5 white chips. The other one has 15 blues and 5 whites. I predicted that the first envalope has less bule than the second because more white chips were pulled out of first than the second envalope. I was wrong, but I should have been right.
Collin wrote, I suspended belief until I had enogh information. It was very hard because the envlope that had the 10 blues and 5 whites really looked like it had the 15 blues. I waited, but not long enough. It's like the Broncos game we went to one time. We left early because they were so far ahead but then we found out they got beat. I never leave now until it's over. In my whole life I have learned from that, never leave early. It gets you every time.
And, true to the end, Aimee was confused. She steadfastly refused to believe that it made any difference: She still would make a prediction before pulling any of the counters at all. The range of thinking in a tween classroom is astronomical.
This lesson reinforced my beliefs about the necessity of discussing before writing, the role of demonstration lessons, and the importance of having high expectations for standard conventions of print. In addition, my reflections on the lesson gave me several other insights.
The boys talked more, and I allowed it. The girls had equally important observations to make, but were mowed down in the process. This can easily happen in intermediate classrooms. I forgot to pull the girls' thinking out and make it visible.

Stories from Tween Classrooms

Only 5 percent of tweens surveyed said they did not have spending money. On average, tweens receive $12.06 for their weekly allowance.

—Shopping in America Survey, April 2005

I was struck by the improvement in Christoph's writing. Not only did his thinking go deeper on paper, but his conventions of print also improved. The confidence he gained from the demonstration influenced his thinking and the quality of his writing because he had control and a sense of competence before he started.
I didn't give up on Aimee. I would continue to work with her to think more deeply and to communicate her thinking. I would help her jot down her ideas and make the thinking more explicit. This wasn't a one-shot deal. I had an entire year to continue working with all the students.
I was reminded that kids are kids. Smart, thoughtful Nathan had to stay in for three recesses to finish his writing. “I don't really want to do this,” he told me honestly. Just as honestly, I responded in a voice filled with 26 years of empathy and compassion, “Too bad, Nathan—you're in until you finish.” Ahh, this job!

Deb Odom's 6th Grade Classroom

Bruce's classroom and mine have many common threads. In tween classrooms, getting polished, finished written pieces can be torture. There are differences between 4th and 6th grade, though. Sixth graders are usually sick of personal narratives and the expectation that they will have a never-ending supply of fresh ideas flowing from draft books to publication. Engaging them in writing requires new, sometimes unconventional approaches.
One great way to get tweens' attention is to tap into their burgeoning—and usually quirky—sense of humor. Eleven- and 12-year-olds are just beginning to develop a sense of themselves as entities separate from their parents, and they often use humor to explore that independence.
I maintain a file of cartoons and comic strips that I use in various ways in my classroom. Sharing comics with kids is a quick, fun way to assess their ability to read between the lines and activate background knowledge. When I put a cartoon on the overhead projector, a quick glance around the room tells me who gets it and who is clueless. Talking about a visual joke, a play on words, or an implied outcome and then writing about what makes a particular comic strip funny—or not—provides an enjoyable alternative to prompt writing.
This year, I found a way to make comics and cartoons an integral part of vocabulary study. The book Vocabulary Cartoons, published by New Monic Books, presents words in an entertaining format. Each entry includes a soundalike word or phrase and a silly cartoon. For example, the word vulture sounds like culture. The cartoon shows two vultures in a tree, one painting at an easel while the other reads a stack of books. The caption below reads “VULTURES with CULTURE.”
For the first quarter, I presented one new word a day. My students groaned at the silly cartoons, but they wrote great sentences with each new word. They also looked for the vocabulary words in their reading. Anyone who found a vocabulary word in context was allowed to write the sentence on chart paper with markers. As our bank of words grew, our walls got covered with rich examples of written language.
The maturity level in 6th grade classrooms varies greatly. I paired kids who understood the humor with kids who took a little longer to get it. Having a second voice explaining what we were doing provided enough support to enable all students to catch on.
When I started a mythology unit in the second quarter, I had one of those middle-of-the-night “Aha!” moments that soon become “Duhhhh...why didn't I think of this before?” Rather than give the class a list of 20 words with instructions to find the definitions and mythological origins—an exercise that had always seemed important but...well, deadly boring—I saw a way to make the words come alive.
I introduced my brainstorm with the tween attention grabber aphrodisiac. I wrote the word on chart paper and explained that we would be studying words that had their origins in the myths we were reading. I gave them the origin (from Aphrodite, goddess of love) and the definition (a love potion). I had their undivided attention.
“What is a love potion?” I asked. Hands flew up, but before I could call on anyone, Isaiah, my blurter, yelled, “Wine!”
Once I recovered, I continued with the instructions. Each day over the next few weeks, I would give them two new words and the origins of the words. Their assignment would be to find the current definitions and draw a cartoon for each.
Every morning for the next three weeks, I heard, “Are we doing vocab today?”, “What are our words today?”, and “Can we get more words?” We did vocabulary study right after specials, and by the time everyone was back in class, half of the students were already settled on the floor in front of the chart stand, vocab notebooks open, pencils poised, eagerly awaiting the day's additions. I was astounded. The students' enthusiasm and motivation kept them engaged enough to allow me to work more with the kids who didn't understand the concept as easily.
As students worked on their cartoons each day, the room hummed with excited, insightful, and often hilarious conversation as they tried to tie the mythological origins to current usage.
To illustrate fortune, Alison drew a Magic 8 Ball showing the words “Better not tell you now.”
Jack drew an echo powerful enough to knock a man off the rim of the Grand Canyon. As the man fell—portrayed by a series of tumbling stick figures—he repeatedly bounced off ledges and rocks, shouting “Ouch!” each time.
Meg's idea of a labyrinth was a hungry girl wandering through an endless maze, trying to reach the Pizza Palace.
In Alexa's cartoon, hypnosis was the only way a frustrated mom could get her daughter to clean her room.
As adults, most of these 6th graders will probably forget many of the mathematical formulas they learned, and none of them will ever write to a prompt. But I'd wager that most of them will never forget that wine is an aphrodisiac.

Helping Tweens Soar

In many ways, 4th graders and 6th graders operate on different levels. But all our students are capable of more than we sometimes believe. And all of them have the same basic needs: to be appreciated and accepted, to feel safe, to have fun, to feel that they're in control, and to feel competent enough to take risks and learn.
Like almost-grown eagles, what tweens need most is a safe place to fledge. They want to spread their wings and soar. Some days they are quite sure that they can. Then suddenly it looks like a really long way down to the rocky ground below, and all they want is a safe nest with a place to hide. Our job is to provide the high ledge, a gentle push, and the assurance that the nest is waiting for their return.

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