It's been ten days since I wrote here on the blog. Ten days, and I come back with the same issue: seventh grade fiction.
The final drafts of their short fiction stories were due on Friday, and I powered my way through all of them yesterday and today so that they could get them back first thing tomorrow. Reading these stories confirmed what I've known for a while: this group is definitely not one of the stronger groups of writers I've had in recent years. But they are not hopeless. They made progress. They will make more; it'll just take time and patience.
When I started this short fiction unit back in mid-November, I didn't plan for it to take so long. I started with a few basic thoughts:
1. Seventh graders always want to write fiction.
2. I always steer them away from fiction because 7th graders are notoriously poor fiction writers.
3. I give my students freedom of choice with their Trimester Finals.
4. Seventh graders who try to write fiction for Tri Finals are generally unsuccessful.
5. I am a writing teacher. Instead of avoiding a genre they're bad at, or allowing them to be unsuccessful, shouldn't I do something about this problem?
So I thought we'd spend a couple weeks on fiction. Do some stations for skill building. Write some rough drafts. Do some peer response. Revise. Edit. Keep making progress.
Sometimes progress moves so slow it's impossible to notice that you're moving forward.
I commented on rough drafts. I sorted into reteaching groups based on areas of need. We spent a week on building and refining dialogue writing skills. I retaught in large groups and small groups. I held 63 individual writing classes in three days.
We made progress. Slowly, painfully, surely, we made progress.
This last group still bothers me. Ideally, I would never want to attach the mark of failure to any piece of writing created by a student. But I give my students ample opportunities for rewrites, revision, feedback, and help along the way, long before the assignment is ever due. I support my students in every way possible, but I also have to allow them to fail if they make that choice. Maybe that's what keeps me coming back to this group of seventh graders. There are more in this group that seem to accept failure instead of putting in the effort to grow.
I refuse to label this as a permanent condition of this group, or of this generation in general, as so many adults seem quick to do. They are still young. They still have plenty of time. I didn't give a damn about school when I was in the hormonal throes of middle school, either.
We'll make progress together. It just might take longer than usual.
I know that I am repeating the same cycle of frustration with my seventh graders year in and year out. In fact, I can guarantee that I've made some of the same hyperbolic statements every single year about first and second trimester seventh graders, among them such overly dramatic gems as This is the most irresponsible group I've ever seen! These seventh graders are more immature than any group we've ever had before. They don't even know how to _______ (insert some writing skill deficit that I find obnoxious here).
I do this every year. I know I do this every year. I hate myself for doing this every year. And I've spent the past week doing this at least nine times per day. I am actively being the worst version of my teacher self, and I am fully aware that I am doing it.
My problem is that my seventh graders aren't where I want them to be. There are many factors leading to this: I have high expectations, I have a low tolerance for lack of effort, and I really don't know much about developmental ages younger than seventh grade. But maybe the biggest issue is this: I teach eighth graders, too.
And I love eighth grade.
My schedule alternates between 7th and 8th all day long, and it's seventh grade that gets the shaft. Because for every frustration they give me, every ledge they push me toward, I have an 8th grade class coming in the next period to rescue me.
The jump in development (physical, emotional, and cognitive) between seventh and eighth grade is staggering. During my teaching day, it's difficult to steer myself away from the annoyance at the difference in maturity and remember that their brains are developing at an alarming rate, too. But as I watched my students at their Christmas Concert on Tuesday night, it was impossible to ignore.
I love seeing my students dressed up for their concerts. The simple delight of seeing them scrubbed up and in their best (instead of the sweatpants and sports t-shirts most of them wear to school) always fills me with some strange sense of pride in the young adults I have the privilege of helping to shape.
Something was glaringly obvious at the concert as I watched them file onto the risers for the chorus portion: my seventh graders were cute in their finery. My eighth graders were beautiful and handsome. The difference in the adjectives was the startling difference in their development. And if they look that different on the outside, I can't ignore how different they are on the inside.
This comparing has to end. My seventh graders are seventh graders; my eighth graders are eighth graders. The only reason they are put up for direct comparison is because they have me as a teacher for two years. There is no reason I should be comparing these two entirely different stages of development. There is no excuse for allowing my love of teaching eighth grade to poison the fact that I am a seventh grade teacher, too.
Maybe I'm not well-suited to teaching 7th grade. Maybe I never will be. But as I watched my seventh graders at the concert, as their faces lit up and they waved to see me there, I deserved the shame that burned inside my heart.
I have been unfair to them.
I have been impatient and overly harsh.
I have ignored their age and stage because they aren't what I want them to be, instead of taking responsibility for the work required to guide them where I want to go.
My seventh graders deserve better from me. I'm going to try to add this statement to the repeating narrative of my frustration with seventh grade. They won't grow into the eighth graders I love if I don't remember to show them they grace they need now.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.