Middle School Blues

how I like my classroom” by william a kay is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

[See Original Post here]

For the last several years, I’ve volunteered with a financial literacy organization in a variety of capacities, including as a fifth-grade teacher. This month, I reentered the classroom for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic to teach sixth grade. All the volunteer teachers for that day met in the morning for coffee and pastries. We were then escorted to our respective classrooms by a lucky student from each class.

The representative summoned me to the front of the room, where I met my student.

“Hi, I’m Sarah. What’s your name?”

The tall, thin student glared at me.

“Amara,” she spat, then turned and sped off down the hallway.

I jogged after her, and into the classroom, where I was greeted by a harassed looking teacher.

I shook her hand, and –

“So, this is a rowdy bunch,” she babbled. “So, like, don’t take it personally.”

The staff had already prepped us for possible behavior issues post-pandemic. We were cleared to pause, or even stop, lessons anytime we wanted. The teachers also could choose to wrap the day early if they wished.

“Oh, that’s okay, we will see how it goes, and whether we need to take a break,” I answered brightly, and sashayed importantly to the front of the room.

“Good morning, everyone,” I called. “My name is Sarah.”

The kids at the front two tables greeted me warmly. Everyone else continued coloring or playing cards.

The first lesson was about identifying the students’ skill sets and seeing what type of jobs they could do with those talents. I passed around the worksheet, hung up a poster of jobs, and asked the students to brainstorm a list of things they were good at.

The front two tables all agreed they were good at drawing and hairstyling and were not good at math.

I walked beyond the first two tables and approached a boy in the back who was still coloring.

“Hey, do you want to fill out your worksheet?”

His head gave a tremendous shake.

Recognizing a lost cause, I approached another boy who was playing cards.

“Hey, so what are you good at?”

I pointed to his entirely blank worksheet.

“Oh, I know what I’m going to be,” he announced confidently, as he mashed his cards together in a pile. “I’m going to join the Air Force and be a pilot.”

“Nice. What skills will you need to be a pilot?” I gestured again at the paper.

“Listening, communication, probably a degree.” He finished mashing his face down cards. “Point to one.”

I pointed.

“What kind of card is it? Like what number?”

“Ace?” I guessed.

He picked it up and flipped it over.

It was the Ace of Hearts.

I was completely enthralled.

“Wait, how did you do that?”

He smiled slyly and shrugged.

I went back to my teaching guide and surveyed the instructions. I was supposed to pass out Post-it notes to the students, who were to initial them, and place the notes on the poster next to their desired career.

I began passing out the Post-it notes.

“Okay class,” I raised my voice to be heard over the low-level rumble. “Now it’s time to initial these Post-it notes and place them on the job you’re interested in pursuing.”

The five students who were interested in what I had to say all asked for two or three post-it notes. The fifteen who were not interested all asked individually what they were supposed to do with the Post-it notes.

When all the Post-its had finally been initialed and placed on the poster (roughly 87% of students wanted to be graphic designers), I turned to the next activity. Students had to write down the job they wanted, the skills they needed to obtain that job, how they would get those skills, and where they could go for more information.

I passed out the materials and instructions to create the flyers.

Five students began reviewing the materials, and the rest chattered happily.

“Hey, how do we do this?”

One of the five handed me his flyer.

I looked at the instructions.

There was a complex mix of dotted lines, straight black lines, and scissors cutting along bold black lines.

“You cut along the dotted lines,” one girl announced, and began cutting.


I squinted at the drawing.

“I think you’re supposed to cut along the line in the middle here.”

“Oh yeah,” the original boy agreed.

“Here, let me get you a new paper,” I offered to the girl who was now holding a cut up unusable mess.

It soon transpired that the flyers were significantly less absorbing than the Post-it notes. The noise volume in the classroom grew steadily louder, and Cheerios and fruit cups began to fly across the room. One girl took a banana to the eye, and a boy was pulled under a table by two other students in retaliation. I watched, fascinated as the two students began to try to pull him apart under the table.

I walked over to the teacher.

“So, do they, like, get recess or anything?”

“No, we usually work right through to 11:45.”

I looked at the clock.


“Let’s have recess today. Like, right now. Run them around the building or something.”

“Okay,” she nodded vigorously, and shouted for a few moments to make herself heard over the din.

“Class, we are going outside. Please line up.”

“So, how long have you been their teacher?” I asked, watching the students slowly line up, pushing each other out of the way.

“Oh, since Monday. Their original teacher broke his neck in January. They’ve had rotating subs ever since.”

“Oh.” I was quiet at this grim news. It explained a lot.

After 20 minutes outside, the class came back.

“Now, remember what we talked about,” the teacher called from the back of the room. “You are supposed to be polite and listen to Miss Sarah.”

The class listened respectfully to the assignment for about seven minutes, then the hubbub began to rise again.

“Do we have to?” one student whined and put his head in his arms as I passed out the new worksheet. “This is so much paper!”

“You’re not dying, you’ll be fine.”

It’s never too early to try to instill a sense of perspective.

We were guessing the differences between credit cards and debit cards. The team who guessed right most often won the game, but I neglected to bring prizes. What an oversight.

With no stakes, the class devolved, feeling like they’d been had.

I looked at the clock. It was 11:20. I pulled out the materials for the final game (insurance bingo) and examined them. If we could just get through this last lesson, we could call it a successful day (provided no more food products were suddenly turned into weapons of mass destruction).

Insurance bingo required many pieces of paper. There were the bingo boards, cards with different types of insurance, and pop out dollar bills.

I frowned at all the pieces.

We weren’t finishing before lunch.

“Okay class, we are going to take a break. After lunch, we are going to play a game.”

“Ooh, what kind of game,” a back table student raised his head for the first time. “Monopoly?”

“Well, sort of like Monopoly. Except less good,” I answered honestly.

I met with the other volunteers for lunch. Cries of delight were exchanged, as they all talked about how sweet their kids were, and how attentive, and how the younger students just wanted to give them hugs.

I sank into my elementary student sized chair, and ate my sandwich with my knees in my chin.

“How is your class going?” the banker teaching fourth grade turned to me.

“Pandemonium. Pandemonium,” I muttered, shaking my head.

After lunch, I resolved to finish the game as soon as possible.

“What do we win?” one student called as I passed out the bingo boards and sundry materials.

“Bragging rights!” I shouted back.

Apparently I underestimated the power of bragging rights for sixth graders. The whole class was instantly motivated to participate. Elbows flying, and brows furrowed, the students studied their bingo boards, and prevented their fellow students from crossing off squares unfairly.

“Bingo!” grinned one girl wickedly, and I went over to check her board.

Her whole table instantly turned on her.

“She’s cheating, she swapped squares!”

“Honesty in Insurance Bingo is paramount,” I lectured, and continued.

When Bingo was finally declared after a few more false starts, I helped the teacher clean up all the worksheets that had been summarily dumped on the floor.

“You did such a good job holding their attention,” she grinned. “I’m impressed!”

I bowed my head humbly and scuttled from the classroom.

Sarah Brown is a real charmer. Be dazzled by her on Twitter @BrownsClose1, or by emailing her at sarah@browns-close.com. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac. All names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Teaching, and the Darndest Things

“National Engineering Teach Ins” by Savannah River Site is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

[See Original Post here]

I began volunteering with an organization that teaches financial concepts to children. Recruited by a friend I’ve known for twenty years, I trusted her judgement.

“Hey! Want to help out?” she plied me over wine at Kincaid Grill. “We go into classrooms and teach kids about economics and financial literacy!”

It’s hard to argue with that cause.

I agreed to spend one morning teaching fifth grade. The lesson plan introduced the concepts of globalization and business entrepreneurship, and not in a scary way I might add. There were no discussions of the collapse of American manufacturing, or how robots were taking our jobs. Instead, the course encouraged students to pursue careers in science, technology, and math so as to maximize relevancy in the 21st century.

Heck yes, I’ll teach kids why capitalism is awesome.

Once at the designated school, it only took a minute to remember how small objects in elementary schools are, and why there are separate adult bathrooms; one does not wish to squat with one’s knees in one’s ears.

I greeted the fifth grade with enthusiasm. Children are the future.

“How many of you like money?”

Twenty-three hands went up. One girl’s hand faltered as she studied me, trying to figure out if this was a trick question.

“Yeah, me too!” I plunged my hand into the air. “I love money. Money is the best!”

“Yeah!” a chorus of voices rang out.

“I’ve always wanted a never-ending allowance!” a kid to my right shouted.

“Me too,” I agreed, “but in absence of that, we need to start businesses.”

A student in the front row raised his hand.

“What do you do?”

That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

“I bundle and pay for surgeries.”

I received a roomful of predictably quizzical looks.

“But I get to work from home! That’s pretty cool!”

The fifth grade agreed. That was pretty cool.

A probing young man in the second row raised his hand.

“So, you operate on people out of your house? Like, you do surgery on them? That sounds bloody.”

I paused.

“Well, no, I just schedule the surgeries out of my house.”

He frowned at me.

“So, you’re like a middleman?”

Sensing I was losing my audience’s trust–

“What does your dad do?” I countered.

“My dad cuts hair,” he answered promptly.

Darn that was straightforward.

“Well, doesn’t that dovetail nicely into what we are going to discuss today?”

I held up my teacher’s manual.

“We have some vocabulary for you to learn. Who would like to read the definition of ‘competition?’”

Several hands shot into the air.

I called on a girl in the second row.

“I’ve done this program before,” she promptly informed us.

“Oh? Well that’s good!” I encouraged.

She nodded in agreement and read the definition. Competition is a rivalry between businesses that make a similar product or provide a similar service.

“So, if I open a hair salon, I’m in competition with your father for customers,” I directed my comments to my previous challenger.

He stared back, unimpressed.

 “Have any of you considered inventing a product?” I tried to bring the lesson plan back on track. “What product would you invent?”

Program Veteran raised her hand

“I want to invent a saliva bank.”

“A what?”

“A saliva bank. That way, you can know what dog saliva tastes like if you are curious.”

“Huh. Who would be your customers?”

She looked at me pityingly; she thought I was surprisingly obtuse for a guest lecturer.

“People who want to know what other animal or people saliva tastes like.”

There are of course other, sometimes even free, ways to taste the saliva of others. But I neither wanted to broach that subject, nor stifle her creative energy.

“You… sure could do that. Anyone else? Any other products?”

A small boy in the back row raised his hand.

I pointed at him.

“What’s your name?”

“Alex,” he stammered, quickly setting his hand down and launching into his product. “I want to have a hover bar, where I can put my hands on it, and it will lift me up. Then I can hover.”

That seemed more appropriate to discuss with the fifth grade than a volunteer saliva bank.

“Perfect! What resources would you need to make that product?”

We all consulted the worksheet defining natural and capital resources.

“Well, I’d need some metal. And probably electricity.”

“Those sound like terrific resources. Now, everyone break into groups, and discuss products amongst yourselves. Specifically, come up with the resources you would need to build these products.”

The class gamely divided into groups.

“Can I be in Alex’s group?”

A little girl with blonde curly hair came up and peered into my eyes.

“Uh, sure. You can be in Alex’s group.”

She launched into a lengthy explanation.

“I have ideas for more resources for his hover bar. He needs carbon and graphite, and –”

“Yep, yep, sounds good!” I waved her over to Alex’s group, and consulted the next item in the lesson plan.

I had allotted fifteen minutes for the activity, when –

“Can we have snack?”

A tall kid in the back row named Peter pulled on my sleeve.

“Um, sure, we can have snack. Just give me a mome—”

I cast my eyes around for the teacher. She was a substitute, and was currently staring dreamily at her computer, happily indifferent to everything around her. Periodically she would pop her head up to tell one of the back rowers to pipe down.

 I walked over to her.

“What time is snack?”

“Now,” she said vacantly, and a tad unhelpfully.

“Can we have snack?”

Another boy ambled over, looking anxious.

Succumbing to the inevitable, I called the class back to order to finish the lesson. The last thing I needed was for the children to unionize and protest the shocking delay of snack in their working conditions.

“We have time for one group to present their product and resources.”

Saliva Bank’s hand shot in the air. She had drawn a diagram of her processing plant.

I ignored her, and instead invited up a group of first row boys.

“We have invented the Find Me Phone,” the leader informed us, with all the enthusiasm of a small business owner pitching to a venture capital fund.

“Never lose your phone again!” he boomed. “We will insert a chip into your leg, which will be connected to the phone. Then, the phone will levitate and find you wherever you are!”

I paused, considering all of the privacy concerns these youngsters were raising. Everyone universally, however, appeared comfortable handing over their moment-by-moment location data to third party organizations.

Not wishing to crush their dreams of a future police state utopia–

“Terrific. What resources do you think you will need?”

“Metal and electricity,” they answered definitively.

That seemed correct to me. I thanked them for their participation and sent them back to their seats.

 “Can I answer any other questions before we break for snack?”

Peter raised his hand.

“What started the Vietnam War? Was it over oil?”

I took a beat to answer this unanticipated question –

“No. It was the Nazis. They invaded,” the boy next to him answered matter-of-factly on my behalf.

“Well, the Vietnam War was actually started over … politics,” I corrected vaguely.

“So, not Nazis?”

The boy looked astonished.

“No, in this case it was the communists,” I finished abruptly.

It was a new feeling to be treated as an expert on foreign affairs and matters of state. Over a juice box and goldfish crackers, I pulled out my own phone to get up-to-speed on the signature global events of the last seventy-five years. I mustn’t look like an idiot in front of my constituents.

Sarah Brown is a childless professor of economics. She can be reached at sarah@browns-close.com, and on Twitter @BrownsClose1. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac. All names have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

%d bloggers like this: