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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The 8th Grade(r) Challenge

I spent Tuesday visiting a middle school about an hour from where I live. Three assemblies, lunch with the students — a lively, dynamic, day. I arrived to talk with an auditaurium filled with lively 7th graders, who were soon followed by some 270 or so 6th graders. Both sessions went very well — lots of raised hands, lots of interesting questions and answers — engaged kids being kids but also enjoying talking, thinking, learning about non-fiction. Lunch was similar as smaller groups of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders met me and asked more directed questions. But then in the afternoon I met the 8th grade.

One of the pleasures of this kind of school visit it the lesson in human growth it offers. Tadpoles and frogs could not be more different than those effervescent slight 6th graders and those large, doubting, 8th graders. One group are children, the other are adults — and I don’t just mean physically, though of course that is part of it. The  younger kids were eager to please me, they were these sprites easily lifting off into the air of thoughts and ideas and curiosities. The older kids had a kind of weight, heavy in their chairs, a “prove it to me” skepticism — “show me that you are worth my while, otherwise I have enough here, in myself, with my friends, I know more, I don’t need you.” I craft different programs for each age group, but I left realizing that I have to rethink 8th grade — I have to find the hook that speaks to their world — deeper, more interior, more adult, more defined by their needs — what makes me, my work, my ideas, my research, important to them?

I had planned a talk on “race” that might have stirred them up — it has worked with 9th graders in other schools. But I am not sure. I really need to rethink how to engage a large tired room of 8th graders at the end of the school day — ideas anyone? What has worked for you? Just realized that when I met a small set of 8th graders at lunch they were terrific, but even there they are less eager to please, more thoughtful — have to figure out how to capture that — how to go from mass appeal to reaching in to individual minds. I might try music and youtube, but — well — what do you think?


  1. That’s very insightful coming from someone who doesn’t have kids that age.

  2. I totally agree–the difference between 6th and 8th grade, both physically and emotionally–is staggering. One of the toughest school visits I’ve faced was with an 8th grade class. Could. Not. Get. Them. Engaged. Easily anyway. Having teens myself, I now understand how much of that is posturing, being too afraid to look uncool, to stand out in any way that makes them vulnerable.

    I can’t say that I’ve found a solution but I have discovered that humor–and lots of it–seems to be the key. Also, for me (since I talk about the ancient world), starting a conversation right away about movies (pop culture), such as 300 or The Mummy or even Lord of the Rings, they’ve seen is a great way to start. From there, it’s easy to launch into how Hollywood manipulates history and then go into the real facts. I find the same challenge giving tours at the museum. Watch a docent’s face when they’re told a class of 6th graders are coming in–their eyes light up. If it’s 7th or 8th grade, there is a moment of dread before they hitch up their pants (so to speak) and walk into the fray…

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    thanks — I visit enough schools, meet enough kids, to get some sense of them — and observering kids is no different from reading history books — you have to interpret what you see.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    humor, pop culture, giving the Real Inside Story as against Media Distortion — all good ideas. I think one key issue is that with the younger kids I am performing to the crowd and so long as I do well, they are with me. With teenagers playing for that mass appeal may well be the wrong voice — might strike them as false, trying to hard, aimed at younger kids. Might need to think of things where they speak up from the start, or break up into groups and do something — pulling something from them rather than to them — something like that.

  5. Ruth Molares says:

    Watch Sharon Draper – the best at engaging kids of any age! Humor and stark reality.

  6. Mary Ann Cappiello says:

    My aunt, a third grade teacher for over thirty years, has called 8th graders “the last barbarians on earth.” I’ve spent more of my teaching life working with 8th graders than any other grade, and they my favorite to teach because they are such tough nuts to crack. The hook is important, and it has to be connected to their immediate life — meeting them where they are at. And once you’ve got them hooked, then you need to share the stage. Small group work, paired work, and some elements of choice are key ingredients. And I would venture to say that with 8th graders, you might not want to meet them as a whole group until the very end, when it is very purposeful. Thus, you might do an introductory podcast the day before you come, where they get a chance to meet you and maybe read a short passage in class that they can dissect and debate. Then, when you come in, you can work with classes and have them do some work in small groups, guided by you. And then, perhaps, the culminating piece is coming together for some kind of forum where they feel they have a voice and have already made an invesment in the content. And humor. Always, humor.

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    Mary Ann:

    Makes so much sense, and so helpful. I like the idea of precontact via Skype or such, small groups, they debate, then come together — not me lecture or rallying them, but them coming to meet me armed with their own ideas and thoughts.

  8. Shirley Budhos says:

    Neither fish nor fowl, 8th graders are not the taller hero worshiping kids adults assume they are and they are also not standing firm in the adolescent world. There’s no comparison with 6th or 7th graders, for 8th graders are lurching forward to become those ferocious, self-absorbed teenagers who won’t listen attentively to adults. Somehow parents, teachers, and visitors like you, Marc, mistake them as slightly larger versions of the younger ones; — “and observing kids is no different from reading history books — you have to interpret what you see.” I don’t agree, for these guys and gals are changing so rapidly in size, attitude, understanding while their intense emotions seem to control them so that they don’t need a “program,” just an open, witty speaker-communicator who begins by putting the audience “in charge” by asking questions, posing problems, things to work out individually, and also in pairs and groups. They no longer need a personal guide who knows it all.

    Though adults see 8th graders as children, they are emerging skeptics who are moving from believing everything an adult says to questioning it all. Though, of course, they are not adults, do treat them as though they were, only less experienced. Invite them to where you are sitting or standing, and actually, sitting near them instead of “above” or at a great distance helps minimize your “power and importance.”

    The suggestions from your readers are excellent, and they al point to reducing the appearance of your control. And, humor is the best recommendation, especially if you’re open to laugh at yourself or reveal something about you which they will recognize.

    And, then get ready for 9th graders!