Sixth grade is a transitional year.
Our students enter in September with fifth-grade enthusiasm and baby fat still rounding their cheeks. At the cafeteria tables talk is subdued, friendships yet to be established. Our classes that first month have a honeymoon quality, as students adjust to new classrooms, new teachers, new expectations, new friends.
By midyear – December leading into January – our students grow comfortable, and then uncomfortable as they start pushing boundaries, talking back. They try on and discard personas – the nerd, the day-dreamer, the punk, the cool girl, the trouble maker, the class clown.
My classroom is on same floor as the seventh and eighth grade. When we walk up to class through the scrum of older students, it is hard to remember that my students are only just a year younger. The older students are tall, sometimes by a foot or more. They are loud: they bang on doors in passing and walk in packs, with arms linked across shoulders. My students watch these giants with keen interest, and slowly they begin to mimic.
By April an epidemic of puberty has broken out. Suddenly the cafeteria is all gossip and sixth-grade flirtation.
May slumps in amidst the shadows of multi-hour MCAS tests, and my students want nothing more to do with classes and work. They talk of summer or boys, and they poke each other or steal one another’s pencils in our muggy top-floor classroom.
By the time we reach June everyone is exhausted.
I had completely lost track of my students’ younger selves until I began selecting pictures for our class yearbook and came across photos taken way back in September.
This Friday, the last Friday of the school year, we took half of our sixth-graders roller-skating: a hundred kids in all.
We unloaded en masse into a dark and less-than-promising skating rink in Mattapan. The air was soggy with mildew and the lights flickered dimly as students rushed to exchange backpacks for fraying leather roller skates.
And then they were on the rink. It was as if time had been rewound.
Our students became kids again. They were no longer proto-teenagers, mini-adults. They were unsteady on their feet, they were falling over, they were hesitant. A few zipped around the rink in grand concentric circles, but most started the afternoon clutching the side rails or scooting tentatively across the wood flooring. School attitudes, social cliques, affected aloofness, all were abandoned with the sneakers and sandals under the sideline benches. When a student fell, which was often, multiple hands reached out to help them back up. Divisions that often crop up between mainstream students, Chinese SEI (Sheltered English Immersion) students, Spanish SEI students and Special Ed students dissipated – everyone was skating, laughing, and, yes, falling down with everyone else.
My sideline observations were interrupted when one of the boys from a Special Ed class asked if I had skated before. “Not for ten years at least,” I admitted. “That’s ok, I’ll help you.” And with that, he took my hand and led me out onto the rink.
It quickly became apparent that he was no more confident than I when it came to roller-skating, and a minute later we ended up on the floor in a heap, whereupon another student, unsure on stopping procedures, bowled into us.
I noticed that, whatever their skill level, skating gave students the confidence to become teachers. One boy, an experienced hockey player, took me under his wing and set me to doing drills. “So are you right handed or left handed? Ok right, that’s what I thought. You should try this. Lean more with your left foot. Cut with the side of the skate. Try it again. Nope, one more time.”
There are few opportunities in the classroom that allow for such an authentic and empowering role reversal.
Skating also allowed students to discard their school personas. While some became confident teachers (and a few, show-offs), many who were less comfortable with the gliding motion eagerly reached out to us for support. They clutched our hands and nervously let go of the rail. We formed wobbly chains of novice skaters.
But, because the learning curve is shallow, I had the pleasure of seeing many of these same students – only ten minutes later – skating confidently past me on their own.