Why I love 9th graders

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9th graders’ watercolors in art class

I love 9th graders; this week, I experienced again why.

Periodically, I visit every classroom to deliver a quick “check in” or important message.  My visits can be to remind students of an expectation (“Let’s keep our cafeteria clean”), say “Thank you” for an exemplary behavior, or reinforce a value we’re teaching, like persevering through a challenge.

Our building had recently had a rash of false fire alarms being pulled by students from other schools, causing building-wide evacuations.  To be proactive, I visited classes with my assistant principals to remind students of expectations when we evacuate, and to explain the consequences of pulling an alarm.

When we visited 11th and 12th grade classes, they were calm, listening, and overall receptive, with one or two kids posing as disengaged.

Then I walked into a 9th grade class, a room of 14 and 15 year olds.  There was a hyperactivity in the air.  The teacher and I got the class’s attention.

“Good afternoon.  I know your teachers spoke to you today about the consequences of pulling false fire alarms.  What did you learn?”

Hands started flying up—the kind of desperate hands up where one arm is supporting the other, and the student’s life depends upon being called on.  I sensed many things: passion, competition, a need to be recognized.  I called on a few of the students.

“Your parents get fined $300!”

“No, $5000!” shouted another student.

“You have to go to court!”

“You’ll get arrested!”

“You’ll be suspended for a month and have to go to suspension school!”

“The school will be shut down!”

Hands continued to be raised with the same frenetic, passionate waving.

Only a few of these consequences were actually true—in our case, we would suspend students for pulling a false fire alarm, but if they were under 18, they wouldn’t get arrested nor fined.  The school certainly wouldn’t be closed.

However, the students’s need to point out the direst possible consequences was a way of partnering me: to show they fully understood the seriousness of the issue. I appreciated this partnership, and see that as students move up in the grades, they grow even more into being our partners.

The partnership looks different, though, as the students get older.  There is less shouting out and competition to be called on in the upper grades.  Students grow their awareness of who is around them, seeing the need to let others besides themselves speak.

And, it becomes a little less cool to be loud and passionate.

When I taught high school, I requested to teach 9th graders every year, while some of my colleagues avoided it.  Coming fresh from middle school, 9th graders were still kids.  They’d laugh at silly jokes.  There was an imaginative wonder in them.  Even if they tried to act cool or bored, they couldn’t sustain it if they got engaged by a really good question or a funny joke, or when the lesson touched upon something they cared about.

So that’s why I love 9th graders.  I have different reasons for loving 10th, 11th, and 12th graders, which perhaps I’ll detail in future blogs.

But for grade 9, I will always enjoy their energy, wonder, friskiness—that fact that they haven’t gotten the memo that being cool means seeming bored, and seeming bored is how to be a teenager.

Photo credit: Julie Nariman

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