Looking past the Cheetos . . .

An interesting email landed in my inbox last week from one of my all-time favorite students, a boy that we’ll call Jack that I taught a few years back. 

not cheetos by Muffet, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Muffet 

What caught my eye came at the end of Jack’s email, when he wrote:

Oh yeah, and on my last report card I got 5 As, 1 B, and for comments I got

  • classroom conduct average
  • classroom conduct is below average
  • classroom conduct is average
  • classroom conduct is excellent. Jack is a pleasure to teach
  • classroom conduct is above average
  • classroom conduct is average. Good work habits. Creative.

I don't get it, I behave the same in all the classes!?!

Now, I didn’t say it to Jack, but I know EXACTLY why his conduct grades are all over the board:  Because he is the PROTOTYPICAL middle school boy!

What does that mean, exactly?

It means that he’s a constant ball of energy, tapping his pencil, blurting out answers, standing, sitting, squirming, moving, shouting, and running all over the room.  And if you let him stop by during lunch, he’ll burp the entire alphabet, stuff fourteen Cheetos up his nose, and chug milk like a frat boy on a weekend bender. 

It’s certainly a sight to see!

If you patiently sift through the movement, though, it’s hard NOT to fall in love with “Jack the Student.”  He is an inquisitive kid who is ALWAYS focused on what’s going on in class.  Everything that he blurted out in my room was brilliant, directly connected to the broad themes that we were studying in class and challenging the thinking of everyone in the room—including me.

He buries himself in books, writes touching short stories, engages audiences as a budding star in school plays, actively leads as a member of his school’s student council, and turns in amazing work—when it hasn’t been swallowed by his binder!

He likes a good political debate, ready to challenge you on universal health care or on the risks and rewards of standing up to power.  He’s deeply religious and can explain his personal beliefs better than most of the adults that I know.  Give him the chance to compete and you’ll see him work harder than anyone in your class.

The problem is that there are far too many teachers in schools today who are unwilling to look past the Cheetos.  For them, kids like Jack are walking disruptions to be dismissed and disciplined.  What’s worse, schools only get more frustrating for active boys as they get older.

They spend more and more time sitting in one place listening quietly to teachers who are lecturing for hours on end, sending the subtle message that knowledge is held by those who are in charge.  They either conform—pushing their energy and creativity to the side and beginning to believe that there is something ‘wrong’ with them—or they push back and end up labeled as troublemakers.

Is it any surprise, then, that boys make up almost 60% of the high school dropouts in our country, even though they make up only 50% of the student population?  Or that boys are suspended and expelled from school more often than girls?

Or that boys are placed in special education programs more often than girls?  Or that boys are diagnosed with emotional disturbances more often than girls?

In the end, I’m starting to think that schools are rigged against kids like Jack.

And that breaks my heart. 

18 thoughts on “Looking past the Cheetos . . .

  1. Scott Wallace

    I had a middle school teacher say to me once that middle school boys are “tough to love”. He said it in a very straight forward manner that told me all I needed to hear. He, like the author, understood that kids at this age are full of energy, ideas, hormone and the like.
    Teachers who teach these grades tend to be pretty passionate about the kids. Those that are not seemed to get burned out quick. Would better teacher training help? Definitely. Until you fully appreciate and understand what is going on in the head of a middle school boy, how can you hope to make sense of it and deal with it.

  2. J.M. Holland

    I think one of the points that we missed in the comments that Jack makes in his email is the differences in his grades based on his behavior.
    I suspect that many, many, teachers form opinions on academic achievement based on social interactions and behavior.
    It wouldn’t matter if Jack was disruptive if his grade was based on his performance.
    A Constant Getter Upper in Staff Developments and Former Boy

  3. Fran

    I have a Jack, he is my son and school was clearly torture for him. He was and is a good kid, he did not realize how disruptive he was being and often tapped that pencil or fidgeted unconsciously. I tried very hard to work with his counselor in high school to make sure that he had classes that allowed some activity inbetween times he had to listen, be quiet and sit still. With teachers who got it, he was not a bad kid at all, with those who didn’t he was constantly in trouble. Yes, he did and does need to learn how to behave in those situations but we also need to realize that he is not going to learn if we just force him to behave. He will probably be quiet but he will be elsewhere in his mind. I know this because I was an easily distracted kid too!

  4. K. Borden

    Kids are incredible, growing constantly, and I have yet to meet an average one.
    My daughter and I started a book club for reading Newberry and Battle of the Books authors. We didn’t state an age requirement, gender restrictions or for that matter even say the kids actually had to literally read the books. (They could be read to or use audio books). The goal was simple, every two weeks meet and share time about great books.
    We have a motley crew, that makes Tuesday afternoons a great adventure of wonderful moments. I have watched children who previously refused to “read” take the next book and read it to their siblings complete with inflections and dramatic interpretations. I have heard boys talk enthusiastically about how wonderful A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park is while holding and manipulating a Transformer. I have watched a girl who struggles to speak publicly get on a chair and proudly display her wanted poster from The Westing Game. I have watched another girl with Asperberger’s explain how she and the characters felt about loneliness. I have watched the magic.
    These kids listen to one another genuinely. They will disagree agreeably. Sometimes they will get up for snacks and wander back to jump right back in to the activity. They sparkle with enthusiasm and they are so honest in their thoughts. Boys and girls, come back every two weeks to share the experience of books I choose for them. They are also making friends.
    Last week, I asked them with the school year coming and their workloads increasing whether they wanted to go to meeting every three weeks or have to work harder to keep meeting every two weeks. They all chose every two weeks. So every two weeks going forward indefinitely I have a wonderful group of kids sharing great books. They have learned to not judge a book by its cover and are in an environment where two things are cool. One, being who they are. Two, reading great books.
    I don’t know how many other kids this year will experience a Newberry book every two weeks, but these kids will. That could be 20 books or more.
    I am sure there is some pedagogy to say that they are not properly covering the material. I know on Bloom’s we spend most of our time in the upper levels, basic comp questions just aint what we do.
    I also know that each of them will grow to adulthood physically and that this will be one of many experiences they have on the journey of growth otherwise. I always remember the saying “all who wander are not lost” and relish the many moments they so generously give me and each other.
    I am not a “teacher”, just a parent blessed to watch children do what they do best, work on growing older and up. They don’t all do it the same way or on the same schedules. I suppose in classrooms “average” can be found and documented. I can’t find it with these kids, and I am not looking for it. I have seen them do more, be atypical and also manage appropriate manners when needed. I hope teachers see that too because it is inspiring.
    As for Cheetos, I ask them to help me clean them up and they do. A little orange dust and crumbs is a small price to pay for what I see. I hope you all do as well.

  5. Janice Robertson

    The only thing that “breaks my heart” is that Jack “doesn’t get it.” How much more useful his report card would have been if the teacher who gave him the below average comment had a chance to explain the behaviors that were not acceptable for that particular class.
    Do you see any “lack of respect” for kids like Jack in the schools where you’ve worked? Are they at a disadvantage from the moment they walk through the door?
    I don’t see a “lack of respect” for kids who are like Jack unless by “lack of respect” you mean people who are not willing to let him blurt out answers etc. Sometimes, I think we go too far in our attempts to understand individuals. They have to know the boundaries in a classroom, and pure survival skills should help them learn just how far they can push. For example, I will tolerate someone blurting out an answer in my class, but not during a student’s presentation or not an answer that is not on task.
    I think that every teacher has a certain personality that they gravitate towards. I’ve seen shy/quiet students who often get low comments on their participation in class just because they don’t talk much. They’re fully engaged, on task, and getting the job done, they just don’t SAY much, yet they get a below average particpation mark even though they’ve participated. How is that fair?
    I think if we clearly identify – here’s what you have to do to get an above average comment, then kids will meet that goal. I know it sounds formulaic, but it works every time! A couple years ago, I had reading discussion groups, and a few of my boys weren’t saying much. Afterwards, I kept them back, and showed them their participation rubric. They were not very happy with the marks, so I explained very patiently and very clearly what an above level discussion looked like and sounded like – broke it down to very specific actions for them including things like nodding their heads if they agreed with something another participant was saying. Worked like a charm.
    Identify the expected behavior… let the person know well in advance of a report card if they’re not meeting that expectation, make sure they know what the desired behavior does or does not look like, then sit back and be amazed.

  6. Lisa Parisi

    I find, even in elementary school, that there are behaviors that are accepted and behaviors that are not. And when you have a child like Jack who needs to move frequently, or take breaks, or talk out an idea in order to learn, or eat while working, or draw/doodle while working, or or or…then you have two choices. One, force Jack to fit the mold and expect Jack to be unhappy and unproductive (below average conduct) or two, accept Jack as he is while teaching him to be respectful of his classmates needs as he learns to meet his own. Since I prefer the later, I often get all the Jacks. That’s fine with me. I just always worry about them when the year is up and they move on to new teachers and middle school.

  7. R Baer

    “teachin'” has some great points! Too often I see classrooms being run the way they were when I was in middle school over thirty years ago. That isn’t just sad…it’s a tragedy! My barometer is if I am bored then, most likely, so are my students.
    I agree with Bill when he responded to Mr. Dee:
    “Yup. I can, Mr. Dee!
    It happens in every professional development meeting that I’m a part of today: People checking their email, talking excessively with the people next to them, getting up and leaving in the middle of a presentation.
    Only I don’t attach that kind of behavior to a mistake on the part of the individual. I attach it to a mistake on the part of the presenter.
    When your instructional delivery—whether it is aimed at adults or at students—is disconnected from your audience, you’re going to see all kinds of issues, aren’t you?!”
    Absolutely! I am quick to blurt out a response in a meeting and have to remind myself to be patient. But, at least I am engaged and not ignoring the topic. As a teacher, I work to balance those that blurt out with encouraging comments from quieter students, just as any good facilitator will do.
    When told what I do for a living, many people respond to me with a heartfelt, “God bless you!” I teach middle school because I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the “craziness” of it. No two days are alike, no two classes are alike, no two kids are alike…and the same kid is never like he/she was the day before. Teaching middle schoolers is never boring! God has, indeed, blessed me!

  8. Paul Bogush

    Contact Jack and ask him the gender of the person who gave each comment…wonder if there would be a trend.
    I know that many teachers find certain male behavior to be “below average.” I remember a time in which I was walking with a group of male students and gave one a “nougie.” Just a bit of bonding. Later that day a different group of boys walking down the hall one gave the other a “nougie” and a teacher saw it. Wrote him up and disciplinary action followed.
    I think it is even very hard for most male teachers to understand many male students. Most male teachers tend to be, ummm…very cerebral. They can’t talk motorcycles, wheelies, scars, farts, or melting things in a bonfire. It’s hard to understand a lot of the boys if you never get “dirt” under your fingernails in your everyday life.

  9. Charlie A. Roy

    Three books worth a look:
    The Boys and Girls Learn Differently by Michael Gurian
    Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax
    Boys Adrift by Lenoard Sax
    We can talk about brain based learning and differentiated instruction to we are blue in the face. Anyone with a little common sense knows the biggest differences in learning styles are predominately gender based. We can keep ignoring this fact to our own demise.
    Take a survey of elementary school teachers and ask them how many parents of little girls they’ve recommended ADHD meds to in the last five years?

  10. teachin'

    I’m reading The Trouble with Boys right now which is all about these issues. I fully agree with you that “there are far too many teachers in schools today who are unwilling to look past the Cheetos.” I love the crazy, obnoxious boys, but a lot of my colleagues find them incredibly challenging. I understand Mr. Dee’s perspective, but…I don’t know, I’m not sure consequences are the answer, or at least not the only one. I think all that does is make these boys feel bad about themselves and hate school. And that’s not going to help them succeed.
    It happened to my husband and his brother when they were in school; my husband made it through high school but not college, and his brother dropped out of high school. They were normal, active, energetic boys who had a hard time sitting still for long periods and who liked to make smart ass comments periodically. They’d get kicked out of classes, told they’d never amount to anything, be completely ignored when they tried to participate with the rest of the class…it’s a tragedy. And this wasn’t all the time, but it was enough that it really soured them (my brother-in-law especially) on school. Did they need to learn how to play the game and deal? Yeah. But once they knew they could get on a teacher’s nerves so easily, and they already hated that teacher for the consequences they were already experiencing, of course they were going to push as far as they could. If you can’t win one way, you’re going to win another way.
    I know that people hate it when they’re told that classroom management takes care of itself when you build relationships with the kids, and that’s obviously not the only answer to this problem, but a lot of my nut jobs settle down much more quickly in my class than in some others because (a) I gave them opportunities to be themselves and be a little wacky at times, and (b) I knew them and liked them, and they liked and respected me, so they were willing to be redirected by me.
    Kids know when their teachers resent them. No one wants to try their hardest for someone who doesn’t like them. If teachers built a little tolerance for these kids’ antics, they would reap the benefits tenfold, and our society would be the richer for it.

  11. Jill Malpass

    I had the opportunity to teach 7th grade math for four years before transferring to the high school. I got many of my “Jacks” and “Jills” back when they were sophomores and juniors. They had grown up, but they still retained that inner spirit of excitement. It was just more controlled or tempered. They had not gotten more organized even though they had been taught well how to keep a neat notebook in 7th grade. Thus their assignments do continue to get swallowed by their backpacks.
    Some of the students that I thought were intelligent and creative were thought of as behavior problems in other math classrooms. We do a lot of group and partner activities in my classroom, which allows for social interaction and walking around when necessary. It is the lecture format that drives them nuts and causes them to “misbehave.”
    I have also noticed that these same teachers who are intolerant to inattention are the same ones who grade their papers, write thank you notes, etc. during faculty meetings. They also annoyingly ask questions which they would have known the answers if they had been paying attention.
    Great post. I agree that it is not the schools, but the teacher training.

  12. Marsha Ratzel

    Dear Bill,
    Such a middle schooler!!!! I don’t know how many Jacks I have every year. Probably because I like them and they drive many colleagues nuts…so I get more than the normal distribution of Jacks.
    That I said I think they make class interesting. Co-op them into the learning I’m doing, put them on a mission…and they are energizers for everyone.
    My favorite Jack was a boy I had many years ago…couldn’t sit to save his life or edit what he said. I had to put a masking tape box around his desk (strategically place at one of the back corners of the room). He wasn’t allowed out of the box but he could do anything but stand on his desk within the box. We all got used to him circling the desk or sitting under it… All the while most people would swear he wasn’t paying a lick of attention to what we talking about. WRONG. He heard and processed every word. The blurting never really got lots better…but I think he grew out of it as he reached HS.
    Or maybe they just broke part of that spirit????
    I love the Jacks and Jills of the middle school years. They make it interesting, they keep you on your toes, make me laugh and don’t frustrate me too much. I hope we have tons of teachers who see the powerful curiosity in these wonderful children.

  13. Bill Ferriter

    Gail wrote:
    Whereas Jack may find the collaborative and interactive approach more easy to handle, it is hoped as well that he will be respectful of the needs of others in the room.
    I’m with you, Gail. I’m not saying that kids like Jack should be allowed to disrupt the learning environment of the kids around him.
    But I also believe that schools haven’t done a good job being respectful of the needs of kids like Jack!
    We’ve gotten it in our heads somewhere along the line that quiet rooms are well-managed rooms and that learning is done by those who sit still and who act “civilized.”
    That’s just not true—-and whether we work to change instructional delivery in traditional classrooms through professional development for educators or whether we CHANGE classroom configurations (assigning active kids to classrooms with active teachers etc.), something’s got to be done.
    Otherwise, we’re ignoring a group of learners that are as impressive as any quiet little thinker sitting in our first period classes.
    Do you see any “lack of respect” for kids like Jack in the schools where you’ve worked? Are they at a disadvantage from the moment they walk through the door?

  14. Bill Ferriter

    Neat conversation started here, y’all. Thanks for your thoughts.
    Here’s a few replies:
    Mr. Dee wrote:
    Can you picture him as an adult blurting out answers, or constantly getting up and walking around because he is bored?
    Yup. I can, Mr. Dee!
    It happens in every professional development meeting that I’m a part of today: People checking their email, talking excessively with the people next to them, getting up and leaving in the middle of a presentation.
    Only I don’t attach that kind of behavior to a mistake on the part of the individual. I attach it to a mistake on the part of the presenter.
    When your instructional delivery—whether it is aimed at adults or at students—is disconnected from your audience, you’re going to see all kinds of issues, aren’t you?!
    And in today’s day and age, everyone wants to participate. That’s why you left a comment here! You wanted to “jump in” on the conversation in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in more traditional learning environments.
    But how often do our classrooms encourage and allow for active participation? Sadly, it ain’t much—even in my room where I’m aware of how important participation really is!
    And the real kicker is that active kids like Jack suffer more in these kinds of learning environments than anyone else.
    Does this make any sense?

  15. Gail Poulin

    I am hopeful that the turn is coming in the way we teach children. Whereas Jack may find the collaborative and interactive approach more easy to handle, it is hoped as well that he will be respectful of the needs of others in the room. I love the active kids in my kindergarten class. I work with it, get in lots of exercise, include plenty of interaction. I also need to be sure that certain personalities don’t dominate every situation. Jack should be able to be himself in a “civilized” classroom. He also needs to remember to look around from time to time so he isn’t bumping into or stepping on other peoples needs as well.

  16. Bill Fitzgerald

    Hello, Bill,
    This isn’t a gender thing, it’s a teacher training thing.
    And with that said, the entire argument that schools are rigged against boys rings hollow when looked at in a broader social context: when men and women get equal pay for equal work, we can start to go down that road. The system is tilted toward males (and white males at that, but that’s a different conversation).

  17. Mr.Dee

    I disagree with some of what you said in this post. I do agree kids like Jack probably need to be challenged more, maybe even put into a higher class with others of his same ability but how is he going to learn to behave socially? Can you picture him as an adult blurting out answers, or constantly getting up and walking around because he is bored? I agree he shouldn’t be severely punished for his actions but there should be some consequences for his actions. If we don’t teach children how to behave in middle school, do you think it will get any easier in high school. We already have a growing problem with kids not knowing how to behave socially using cell phones during class, reality tv and so on. If we don’t teach them how to act when they are in school many will have a hard time adjusting as adults.

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