Monday, March 20, 2017

FOR MIDDLE GRADE WRITERS: 5 GEMS FROM A SCHOOL COUNSELOR by Mary E. Cronin



If you write middle grade fiction, it can be difficult to keep track of the ebbs and flows of a middle schooler’s daily life if you are not the parent or teacher of kids this age. I interviewed a middle school guidance counselor (I’ll call her Ms. Counselor) for insights—some granular details ranging from school day schedules to substance use to gender, sexual orientation, and the beginnings of romance. These insights are specific to a community on Cape Cod: a community with a seasonal economy and a wide range of socio-economic status that is majority-white and in a semi-rural setting that requires that kids take buses or get rides from parents to school and activities. These details (some can be generalized while others are specific to our location) may be useful as you craft your middle grade story.


1) Scheduling
Middle schoolers (grades 6-8) don’t sit in the same classroom all day. They change classes for subjects such as English, Math, Social Studies, and Science, and they have different teachers for these subjects. Kids are generally on teams, which enables their teachers to get to know them better. Schools use different methods to coordinate schedules; for instance, one school may use an A day-B day pattern, or a ‘rotating block” system. It can be confusing, especially for sixth graders, but they tend to learn it fast. (The adults may have a harder time catching on than the kids!) Also, they cannot go to their lockers whenever they want: there are prescribed times of day for going to lockers.



2) Substance Use
Sixth graders tend to be rule followers. Most of them will think that substance use is “icky and wrong,” but there are always outliers who will start experimenting on the early side. Ms. Counselor says that seventh graders start experimenting more, trying alcohol or cigarettes over the summer between sixth and seventh. In seventh grade, there are relatively few kids using substances, but they loom large in the consciousness of the peer group, leading to an “everyone is doing it” narrative and a skewed sense of proportion for kids. Finally, substance use increases in eighth grade (dabbling in alcohol, cigarettes, or pot).  Ms. Counselor points out that extra-curricular activities serve as an interesting “zone” in which there might be some of this experimentation going on. It’s a time when parents think kids are being supervised (ie team sports, dance, theater), but these activities are not as rigid and scripted as the school day. This is especially important for writers to consider; these activities can serve as a “gateway,” where a kid might be faced with substance experimentation and accept/reject that option. At the same time, these activities form a social support network of both peers and adults that Ms. Counselor sees as an important ingredient for well-functioning middle-schoolers. As you craft your story, it's important to figure out how your middle graders are getting from place to place, and what activities they might be participating in. This can have a big impact.



3) Cross-gender friendships
In sixth grade, boys and girls generally separate by gender in places like the cafeteria, especially in the fall.  By spring, there is more mixing—there are still all-boy tables and all-girl tables, but lots more mixed tables; this keeps increasing in seventh and eighth grades. (One interesting note from Ms. Counselor: this year, a sixth grade transgender student started a trend of bringing a book to lunch and reading. He was quickly joined by two other boys, and now there is an informal “reading table” in the caf where kids congregate to eat and read quietly.) There are boy/girl friendships that survive the social pressures of middle school. These friendships seem to ebb and flow over the school year in all three grades, indicating cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium in gender-friendship dynamics.

4) Middle school romance
Some use the term “going out” or “with”—“are you still with Laura?” This starts in sixth grade slowly, increasing each year. Ms. Counselor notices that all the social groupings and boundaries seem to blur and morph in the outside-of-school social context of texting and group chats. Kids who don’t seem to associate in school are part of the same group chats/texts outside of school. (Group texts and chats are BIG! A lot happens and there can be lots of drama.) One thing that has not changed is the tension around revealing a crush—that is a very big deal. Disclosing a crush is still huge, and having knowledge of who likes who gives a kid a lot of power and sometimes leads to betrayal and teasing. There is not much PDA (public displays of affection) in middle school. It happens the most in eighth grade, and kids in same-gender relationships seem to be able to get away with it the most.



5) Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity
There is so much more awareness on the part of kids, and more parental awareness and acceptance, when it comes to kids and their sexual orientation and gender identity now. Ms. Counselor runs a gay-straight alliance and it is very active at her middle school. The older generation’s binary thinking about “in the closet/out of the closet” is dated and obsolete. Ms. Counselor says that framework does not apply anymore, “not even close.” Kids talk about their preferred pronouns, and these pronouns may shift week to week. Kids in the GSA consider their identities to be fluid; they identify as bi (bisexual), pan (pansexual), “a” ( asexual), trans (transgender), and gay. This can also shift week to week or month to month. Girls don’t tend to use the word lesbian but will declare that “I like girls.” Ms. Counselor says the kids don’t attach permanence to their labels, saying things like, “I’m calling myself pan right now,” or “I like ‘a’ because I don’t see myself with any specific gender” or “I’m attracted to the person so I’ll go with pan or bi.” There are trans kids in middle school, as young as sixth graders, who are actively working out how they want to present themselves to the world. It can vary day by day, or week by week,  in terms of wearing male- or female-signifying clothing and accessories. All of the trans students who Ms. Counselor has worked with in the past few years have been female to male. There is no “old-fashioned clarity” (as Ms. Counselor calls it) about these labels and identities, and she says that kids are perfectly fine with this fluidity, able to talk and ask about it, while adults are sometimes confused and unsure, trying to understand and do/say the right things.

Finally, Ms. Counselor stuck up for middle schoolers: “People think middle school is horrible, full of drama and hormonal changes.” She says kids at this age turn themselves into “porcupines,” using distancing behaviors like eye rolling and sarcasm to hold adults at bay. They need this distance developmentally in order to individuate and develop. At the same time, “as soon as you step around their defenses, you realize that every kid needs connection. Those defenses are empty. In reality, they need adults.” This is pure gold for writers to consider: how does my character both crave connection and create distance from sources of support as they navigate the bumpy ground of early adolescence? They are dealing with a lot, presented with lots of choices, conflicts, and closeness.  These pushes and pulls, ebbs and flows present endless possibility for the writer creating middle grade fiction.




9 comments:

  1. Great article, thanks so much!

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    1. Thank you! Glad you liked it, Kimmy.

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  2. This breakdown is chock full of gold nuggets for middle-grade writers (and parents!) . Great job to you an Ms. Counselor.

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  3. Wow, Mary! This is gold! I have 2 middle schoolers right now (it's 7-9th grades here in Utah), but this is a great peek into how their lives are away from home. Thank you!

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  4. I'm living with an 8th-grader and Ms. Counselor has it dead right. Where was she when I went through middle school the first time with my now college student?! ;)(Those group texts weren't such a thing back then--but we sure got to know about them in those high school years!)

    Also, the fluidity about labels and identities. The kids ARE definitely way ahead of this than their parents. In fact, last month at our progressive church, a high school junior led a forum on gender identity and sexuality. She was amazing! Most of us adults were still in binary thinking. (P.S. Time Magazine this week has a cover story on gender identity. It's amazing how fast all this is changing! Loving it.)

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  5. This is a wealth of information! Thanks for taking on the interview.

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  6. This is great, Mary. It all rings so true. My 7th grader is group chatting and schedule-rotating. I'm going to share this with my writing class (they are working on MG chapters) since it can help them check back in with themselves at that age. As graduating seniors at uni, they will benefit from a trip back in time.

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  7. This is vital, since I've been out of middle school for so long.

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  8. A great post chock full of info for MG writers especially since my MG years are long past. I believe though that MS is not this horrible place for all as sometimes depicted in movies and books. My son has blossomed in MS and now in 8th grade has really come into his own. He has never been happier. With more independence and choices in MS, he has been able to explore who he is. There is definitely drama thought in MS with group texts (that was a shocker to learn about) and I am just so thankful he wants nothing to do with drama (for now!). I love the MS years!

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!