Posted tagged ‘middle school students’

Channeling Dr. Ryder

February 1, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      February 1, 2018


Dr. Stuart Ryder was an institution at Judson College (now Judson University). A professor in the English Department for “centuries”, in his later years he also assumed the role of Athletic Trainer for the school’s sports teams.

Dr. Ryder was also a master of puns. His sharp wit would rise to the surface suddenly with a humorous line that caused occasional laughter and, more frequently, groans.

For example, before a cross-country meet one of the runners was walking around barefoot, and Doc Ryder voiced, “I guess we must be smelling ‘da’ feet!”

Now, decades later I find myself using puns in the middle school classrooms where I’m teaching to the groans of the seventh grade students. It is as if I’m channeling Doc in my attempts at witty humor. It emerged again this morning at Starbucks when one of the baristas was fixing a cup of tea as I walked up to the counter. “Just a minute, Bill! I’ve got to fix the tea before the customer gets here.”

I quickly channeled Stuart Ryder. “I guess it wouldn’t be good for the cup to be ‘emp-ty!’”

She chuckled and said “Good one!” Seven A.M. humor at Starbucks is greatly appreciated in the midst of bleary-eyed customers who are waiting  with heightened irritation for their first cup of java.

In the classroom “pun humor” keeps the middle school students alert. Some of it is too deep for them, but that’s okay! I don’t understand the math they’re doing either!

Dr. Ryder used to say a pun and then give a personal chuckle that involved some rapid and short inhaling and exhaling. When I utter a pun I just smile and look for understanding.

“Mr. Wolfe, see my baggie! I think someone stepped on my cookie that’s in it!”

“Well, I guess you could say that’s how the cookie crumbled!”

“Mr. Wolfe!”

Another situation while we were outside.

“Mr. Wolfe, I had my bag of chips sitting here on the rock and the wind came and blew the bag off. The chips went everywhere!”

“Gee, that’s too bad! I guess you might call that an example of ‘being chips off the old rock!’” (Loud groan in the midst of chip grieving!)

It’s Doc Ryder’s seeds from the past rising again in new life.

Our lives are cultivated by different people in a multitude of ways. Dr. Stuart Ryder planted, watered, and helped students grow.

Every time I find myself beginning a sentence with the words “I guess you could say…” I can hear the rumble of his laughter within me!

Creating Poets Without Beards…or Rhyme!

January 27, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                              January 27, 2018


I was given the opportunity yesterday to teach seventh grade Language Arts class. One hundred adolescents more excited about a weekend of doing nothing as opposed to fifty-seven minutes of literary creating and discovery!

The assignment for each period was to create a poem, based on an ancient form of Chinese poetry called “Shi” poetry. I explained the creative process to them, showed them a few examples and set them off on the road of pondering, erasing bad lines of gibberish, and creative expression.

“Mr. Wolfe, what do you think about this? “I have a flying dog who flies in the air like a pigeon.”

“Needs a bit of work!”


“Well, I’m not exactly sure where you’re going with this, but if you have a flying dog do you really need to repeat two words later that he flies? And, isn’t it enough to say it’s a flying dog, as opposed to comparing him to a pigeon?” He ponders, returns to his seat, and I notice he immediately flips his pencil to use the eraser.

A masterpiece just destroyed by a substitute teacher who doesn’t understand about flying dogs.

“Mr. Wolfe, what do you think about this?” He hands me his creation, which I carefully read.

“The season of winter has begin

The light will be dim…”

“Shouldn’t that word be ‘begun’?

“Well, I wanted it to rhyme with dim.”

“(Thinking the words but not saying them: Listen, Longfellow!) Begin doesn’t rhyme with dim.”

“Yes, it does…begin…dim…” He is trying to convince me that I’m in error.

“No, it doesn’t! And, anyway, you don’t need to rhyme!”

“I know, but I thought it sounded good!”

(Thinking the words again: “Well, it doesn’t!”)

There were other inspired students yesterday who impressed me with the depth of their thoughts and flow of meaning. Poems about the afterlife, death, and personal value were mixed in with other poems about chicken wings, watermelon, and having a rat for a pet.

The drudgery I sensed about the assignment was soon replaced with an excitement about personal expression. Even if the poem was about macaroni and cheese there was still a sense of pride about what had been transmitted from the pencil to the paper.

When students shared their creations they read them with smiles on their faces and the hope of recognition. When each student finished reciting we snapped our fingers together like we were beatniks from the 60’s.

A few poets may have been created in those moments yesterday, as well as visions of flying dogs who look like pigeons.

Substitute Teaching Sarcasm

January 19, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            January 19, 2018


I love being a substitute teacher amongst middle school students. Each class is a new experience in “classroom culture.” It takes me about ten minutes to figure out personalities… or lack of!

Students who have me for the first time soon discover that I use sarcastic humor like sunscreen at the beach. I slap it on all over the place!

It begins with the student’s question: “Are you our sub today?”

“No. They discovered that I had never properly completed 7th Grade so I had to re-enroll for the rest of the year!”


“Would I lie to you?”


“Okay! Yes, I’m your sub today.”

Or “When is Ms. So-and-So coming back?”

“She’s not!”


“Her cover was blown. She was in the Witness Protection Program and they found her. She had to be relocated to another school in another state dealing with second graders.”


Or, a conversation that happens multiple times each day.

“Mr. Wolfe, can I go to the restroom?”

“You should be able to. You’re in seventh grade.”

Confused look. “So, can I?”
“If you can’t you’ve got some real issues.”

Starts to leave.

“Where are you going?”
“You said I could go to the restroom.” (Another student behind the student whispers: “Say ‘may I go’.”) “Oh, may I go to the restroom?”

“Yes, you may!”

“Coach Wolfe, I can’t wait for basketball to start.”

“Me either! And they finally replaced those backboards that you put cracks in last year.”

“Mr. Wolfe, why can’t we start school later, like about 10:00?

“Because you’re slow learners. It takes you longer to understand things? And wait until you get in high school and have to take calculus! You’ll have to start at 6 A.M. that semester.”


“Mr. Wolfe, I have a girlfriend.”

“Does she know it?”

“What…yes, she knows!”

“Mr. Wolfe, why do we have to go to school five days a week?”

“Because the teachers voted down going to school six days a week.”


“Would I lie to you?”


“Okay! You nailed me! I have no clue!”

Yesterday’s subbing in a seventh grade classroom ended with a gratifying comment from a student.

“Mr. Wolfe, you’re the best substitute teacher ever!”

The question is…was she serious or being sarcastic?

Seventh Grade Peer Pressure…Err…Influence!

December 12, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                April 8, 2017


I substitute taught Health class for 7th graders one day this past week. There is something about 7th grade that resonates with me. Maybe it’s because it was such an awkward year for me back in…1967! Lord, help me! That means that this is the 50th anniversary of my 7th grade year! (I should make a Chef Boyardee pizza tonight and relive the memories!)

In the Health class we talked about peer pressure. Or, put in a more positive term, peer influence! I don’t know about the students, but I enjoyed it. The discussion was interesting, as we identified different ways our peers influence us…positive and negative. I don’t remember “drugs” as being one of the conversation pieces when I was in 7th grade, but kids today are feeling the pressure to experiment.

Social media was not a temptation back in ’67! We passed notes that shared information like “Bobby wants Jenny to be his girlfriend”, or “Fred told Mr. Smith he was full of crap and he’s in the principal’s office now!” That was our non-verbal information system. 7th graders today are a little more sophisticated, and becoming wiser. They are increasingly knowledgeable about the advantages and dangers of social media. They know about SnapChat and texting, have heard the situations involving sexting, and the ripple effects of comments that people have made on Facebook.

The encouraging thing for me was that many of them identified the peer group they “hang around with” as being the most important decision. Wise choices flow much easier from a student who has friends who also make wise choices.

That is one factor that has not changed in fifty years. I remember one of the friends I had back in my Williamstown, West Virginia 7th Grade year was a boy who was fun to be around, but prone to “doing stupid!” I laughed a lot around him, but “did stupid” a couple of times when I was with him. Like when one of our teachers heard him utter a curse word and told him to watch his language. As she continued down the sidewalk from the school I hollered after her, “What are you going to do about it, you old bag?”

Dumb, dumb, dumb! Five minutes later I was in the principal’s office along with my cussing sidekick. That was back in the days when principal’s still had paddles in easy to retrieve places in their offices.

I went from dumb, dumb, dumb to my butt being numb, numb, numb!

I tended to make unwise decisions when I was with my cussing friend. Our family moved a year later to a new town, and as an 8th grader I hooked up with two friends who tended to make wiser choices, Terry Kopchak and Mike Bowman. Funny…as I think back on it now I realize I never saw the inside of the principal’s office that year!

Two years later we moved again and I connected with another positive peer group of Mike “Fairboy” Fairchild, Tommy Douglas, and Dave “Hugo” Hughes. They rescued me from a couple of other guys who tended to “do stupid” and seemed cool! Fairboy and Hugo were both groomsmen in my wedding, and I officiated the wedding ceremonies of Dave and Robin, and Mike and Carol. I’m increasingly thankful for these friends who rowed the boat with me in positive directions.

Most 7th graders today understand the positive influences of their peer group and the negative peer pressure of those who like to live dangerously. They know that we all make bad choices and dumb decisions, but also are acutely aware of the fact that a positive peer group will tend to minimize the number of poor decisions.

I asked the class the question “If you could put percentages on how much of the peer pressure you experience is negative and how much is positive what would be your assessment?” Several of them said it was 50-50, but one wise and intelligent young lady said 90-10! I assumed she was saying that 90% of the peer pressure she experienced was negative, so I asked her to explain her 90-10 assessment. That’s when she indicated that the 90% was positive, and it came down to the friends she hangs around with. I loved her simple solution: “If your friends tend to make stupid choices you need to get some new friends!”

Put another way, if your friend is very familiar with the furnishings in the principal’s office…and even has his name on one of the chairs…you need a new friend! Don’t abandon him, but don’t do a Friday night sleepover at his house either!

The Button-Pushing Middle School Student

November 4, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          November 4, 2017


I’m becoming experienced as a substitute teacher. Everyday I experience new things, am dismayed in new ways, and face intriguing situations that would make good fodder for reality TV.

I’ve come to realize that there is a certain category, a distinct species amongst students that causes a few to stand out like peacocks. It’s not a very large group of students, and they don’t usually cluster together like geese.

They are the button-pushers, the students who would give Jesus a hard time for walking on water. They look for the seeds of distraction and chaos to infect good discussions and teachable moments.

Recently, I had a week with the same 125 students, grouped into four classes and another class period for specialized study. Out of 125 students I discovered “the button-pusher”. Everyday he pushed my buttons in some annoying way. On Day One he asked belittling questions to another student after she gave a report on a current event in front of the whole class. His questions, which I squashed after the first couple, were asked in a way to make her look stupid. Hear the button being pushed and held down! On Day Two he kept bothering the student sitting beside him, saying things under his breath to her, touching her arm with his pencil. I was clueless of what was going on until she finally erupted…which is what he was going for!

On Day Three we had a confrontation. When I asked him to stop making a noise with his ruler, slapping the desk with it, he pushed his button with “What about him?” “I’m not talking about him. I’m talking to you!” He gave me the button-pusher look of defiance. “Don’t give me that look!”

On Day Four he started early and I attacked early. “We aren’t going to repeat yesterday. You either get with the program or take a nice vacation to the assistant principal’s office and stare at his wall posters.”

On Day Five his dad came and picked him up for some kind of appointment five minutes into class. God does answer prayer!

Button-pushers gain reputations amongst teachers. This button-pusher had done a couple of things to other students that were just plain mean, but when the teacher talked to his mom the response was that the teacher must be mistaken. It couldn’t be her son!

Conspiracy theorists believe button-pushers have been inserted into middle school classrooms to sabotage the education of the masses, but, even more than that, to become detriments to the preparatory process for the state assessment tests. There’s rumors that they have taken summer training in “argumentative classroom behavior” and “creating crying teachers who start mumbling to themselves”. Like the four celebrity judges on The Voice they have learned how to recognize opportunity and hit the button at a moment’s notice.

Oh, that button-pushers would be a dying breed heading towards extinction, but unfortunately they seem to be repopulating every year. Perhaps it has something to do with the growing number of helicopter parents, absentee parents, clueless parents, and the natural order of disorder. THEY would have you believe that! And if you do you’ve just had another button pushed called “gullible!”

Teaching 7th Graders To Say “May I?”

October 5, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      October 5, 2017


The past few weeks have found me in several different middle school classrooms teaching in a substitution role the subjects of science, social studies, health, and physical education. I’ve taught lessons on the digestive system, sea sponges, insects, and the Hammurabi Code.

I’ve also been teaching seventh graders how to say “May I…?”

Seventh graders are infatuated with the words “Can I?” It comes as naturally out of their mouths in interactions with teachers, parents, and coaches as breathing. For many middle school boys the words “May I” are as unused as the showers in the boys locker room. And so my contribution to their education is to lead them onto the straight and mannerly road called “May I?”

It goes something like this!

“Mr. Wolfe, can I go to the restroom?”

“Listen, Sam! You’re in seventh grade. I don’t know where you fell off the tracks in your life education, but by seventh grade you should be able to go to the restroom.” Sam looks at me with confusion radiating from his face.

“So…can I?”

“”Well, let’s talk about what will happen if you don’t go to the restroom. We just talked about it in class. Remember…the digestive system…what goes in must come out! So if you don’t go to the restroom there could be some unpleasant consequences.”

“Okay!” He starts to exit.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“To the restroom.”

“Did I give you permission?”

“You said I could.”

“I said you had the ability to go, but that’s different than permission.”

A whisper comes from the side of him. I faintly hear the words, “Say may I!”

The point of our discussion suddenly hits the light switch in Sam’s mind. “Ohhh…may I go to the restroom?”

“Yes, you may!” Three other students who have been listening snicker in the background. As my days of being saturated with seventh graders have continued the number of students who have revised their “Can I” language to “May I” continues to mount. They may not be able to remember what “cilia” and “flagella” are, or what the Code of Hammurabi is all about, what they MAY very well learn to say “May I?”

The Stupidest Question In Seventh Grade Science Class

September 16, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                           September 16, 2017


In my other world of substitute teaching I entered a seventh grade science classroom for three days this past week. The teacher, Mr. Williams…”Dean-O” to me…had called in July to schedule me for several days this fall. This week included Days 3, 4, and 5 of that journey…so I knew the students already. I knew who the studious students were, as well as the suspect students. I knew the “go to” students- the ones who the teacher can always call on for help- and also the ones who were familiar with the furnishings inside the assistant principal’s office.

Wednesday started with questions spoken with a whine. “Do we have to do this?”, “Can I just sit here and not do anything?”, “Why does Mr. Williams give us so much to do?”, and “Do we have to do ALL the definitions?” (No, just the ones you know, so you don’t have to tax your brain too much!)

Other questions followed closely that were lacking in intelligence. It became a pattern…questions asked about terms that were right there in the reading.

“What’s the labrum? I can’t find it in the reading.”

“First paragraph under the section entitled Digestive System in bold print.”


So on Day Two I made it a contest! I told them that during the last three minutes of class I’d listen to stupid questions, and the stupidest question would receive a bag of Skittles candy. You talk about excitement! The kids with the highest IQ’s were all over it. They used their extra intelligence to craft extremely dumb queries.

Some of the questions were more like problem-solving situations that required me to think…and thus were disqualified from winning! Others tongue-twisters, like the woodchuck riddle that creates muscle spasms in your mouth.

A few tried to plagiarize “stupid questions”, sneaking their smart phones under their desks and googling “stupid questions.” Most of them were nabbed. Like the boy who asked the stupid question, “Why does an alarm clock ‘go off’ when it’s actually ‘turning on’?” Questions such as that got class responses of “You got that on the internet!” I was amazed later on when I googled the category that there were so many links to “stupid questions”! Stupidity is in abundance!

There were the stupid questions that included no creativity, such as “Is this a stupid question?”, or “How do you spell “a”?”, and “Am I smart?”

The winners were usual the ones that were so stupid that I had to stop and think about it for a second. They will appear in the midst of the dialogue of the next Dumb and Dumber movie. Questions like, “How does brown work?”, “Since the moon is made of cheese is it true that astronauts can not be lactose intolerant?”, and “What do they feed the cows to make the milk come out chocolate?”

Let’s face it! In the midst of seventh grade science classes there have been a lot of stupid questions asked over the years, but on a couple of days this past week thought-through stupidity was celebrated!