February is always an exhausting month for me. My running joke is that even people who didn’t know they needed a performer of any kind suddenly need a black one in February!
I work with all kinds of audiences. Sixth grade is one of my favorites.
Sixth grade is a funky year for most kids. It is a transitional year from childhood into the first blush of the teenage years.
They are going through a hormonal obstacle course on the inside. Some are changing drastically on the outside, others aren’t changing at all and everyone is noticing.
All sorts of things that never bothered them before become of paramount importance.
For some, their arms and legs outgrow the rest of their bodies, leaving them awkward and clumsy. Girls tend to sprout up, often leaving many of the boys behind. Everybody starts developing towards full maturity and the blessings and curses of that tend to make pretty much everyone wish they were in someone else’s body.
This is the year some parents notice that their child is getting a bit more ‘sassy’. These tweens need more space and less space and they vacillate between young people and children.
Their friends change as well. Many become concerned about being ‘cool’, not fitting in properly and what their peers think about everything. Their friendships often change and they start finding a niche where they can fit. Some kids don’t go through any of this at all and remain untouched by such concerns until they are older. All and all, it can be a maddening year.
I’ve often said that sixth graders do not belong with elementary kids and they have no place as of yet with the seventh and eighth graders. In fact, most of them should be buried beneath the school.
What on earth do you tell this transitional, morphing group of people? Most think they are too old for stories and the stuff they think they want to hear is way too old for them.
The answer, for me, is pushing the boundaries just a bit.
This is the first group where I tell really scary ghost stories. The caveat being that I gauge the students who seem to be the most freaked out and I ease back a bit so that things don’t get too scary. Why do I tell these kids really scary stories? This is the first age where none of them will be willing to admit to their parents they are scared.
This means no aggrieved parents are going to call the school and complain. Besides, they like these stories.
The second category of stories I tell to this group falls under the heading of gory and cerebral.
Morgan and the Pot of Brains is a good example of this. A kid who is picked on until he shuts down completely goes on a lifelong quest to achieve his brains by cutting out the hearts of the things he loves best in the world. It turns out all right in the end, but the very graphic, funny, sad and interesting twist to the ending is right up the alley for these emerging people.
The Debate in Sign Language is also a favorite of this group.
Here is a version of it that Mark Goldman shared in a classroom.
Once I lead them through a really dark story, I can tell them fun folktales and they love it. They don’t even remember they are too old for stories. The truth is this group will love anything as long as you package it right, but going at them through the truths of who they are is also a good way to get them to reflect, even if only cursorily, on their own situation.