Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fourth Grade

Being ten years old is a difficult experience. The age varies from kid to kid, of course, but ten is often a challenge. There's long division, for one thing, and growing up for another.

Sometime in this "tween" age range, many kids begin the struggle to figure out who they are and who they want to be. They start to realize that their parents do not know everything and that adults are not infallible. And, for many of us, it's around this time that we learn that we ourselves are not perfect. Alas!

The main character in my NaNoWriMo novel is ten, in 4th grade, and has recently moved across the country and changed schools in the middle of the year. She has fabulous parents, but life is still very hard. Case in point: she has a really annoying much younger brother.

If you have any tales to tell about your own experiences being a "tween," parenting a ten year old, or just knowing folks around this age, I'd love to hear 'em. Comment away!


  1. You managed to hit on a rather nit-picky pet peeve of mine, one that I think I share with many other women in engineering-type fields (not that there are many of us, really). It's lovely, really, to perpetuate the myth that math is hard for young girls. Lets just build this subject up into some giant monster that grows more and more menacing with every rumor about how horrible that it is. That will help the situation.

    Math is not hard. Long division is not hard. Once you master the pattern, its just tedious. But the more we tell kids (espcially girls) that it is hard, the more reluctant they will be to try it, and at the first hint of frustration, they will throw their hands up in the air and decide that they just can't do it.

    Now, having said that (and assuming my comment hasn't just been flushed down the bit toilet), I do think it's cool that you're writing a novel for this age group (is this what they call middle-grade?). Its a wonderfully angsty time of life, when sex ed begins to appear in schools, and the privileges of the teen years are so close that you can almost taste them. Not that many 10 year olds are quite willing to give up their dolls yet (though they might hide them when the "cool" kids come to play....).

    Good luck with the novel!

  2. Interesting reading, and one that certainly has quite a bit more to do with your personal bias than what I actually wrote. (Note the inclusive language and lack of gender specificity in all that talk about how being 10 can be hard.)

    I am in no way in an "engineering-type field" but I did take a lot of math in college and flirted with the idea of majoring in it for a while.

    I do not think that the "myth that math is hard for your girls" is "lovely" to perpetuate.

    It's completely unrelated to my post and question above, but the 10-year-old main character in my (middle grade) novel is actually a 4th grade girl in a math class with the 5th graders. Far from complaining that math is hard, she enjoys it and excels at it (usually).

    But I'm trying to write a real world type of book rather than a fantasy world type of book. And while your educational experiences might be wholly unusual, the plain facts of the matter are that school is designed to get progressively more challenging with age, so that if we keep studying long enough, even the smartest of us will have to start paying attention, doing the homework, perhaps even studying in order to master the material eventually, whether it's in 4th grade or graduate school.

    Long division is widely cited as one such milestone for many kids, a moment when you're starting to work with ideas that are a bit more theoretical and a bit less of an obvious reflection of your everyday lives. (Dividing the number of apples in the fruit bowl by the number of people in your family moves to a different level when you're suddenly dealing with remainders.)

    It doesn't have to be a deal-breaker, and indeed it can begin a great love affair with numbers, but it's different than what came before it.

    The idea of whether or not math should be hard for anyone aside, the crux of my comment is that this is an age of great change for many kids, most especially with how they see themselves.

    This is an age where tracking really begins for a lot of kids, labels are applied, and yes, sex roles often start playing a larger part. Study after study have shown boys being more encouraged to excel in math while girls are discouraged from "showing off" or "making their classmates feel bad."

    The well-documented result of this sort of subtle adult (often teacher but also parent and peer) influence is girls doing less well in high level math studies either because they stop trying or just lose confidence in themselves.

    Fortunately, these attitudes are changing and perhaps even swinging back the other way.

    But late elementary school is still a time of schism between before and after, between boys and girls, between young child and teenager.

    And all that is why I find this such a fascinating group to work with, write for, and, especially, read about.

  3. In my sample of x=1, I would say that fourth grade, age 10, is the best and worst of age 5 and age 15 combined. If you character wants to do something, and you can see either a 5-year-old or a 15-year-old doing it, it'll probably fly. If you can see both a 5-year-old and a 15-year-old doing it, you're golden.

  4. I did something similar when I was 10 (in my case, I moved from Africa to the US) and there were serious repercussions for my social life. It was at the height of the hairspray days (big bangs - 1990) and I told everyone that hairspray ruined the natural beauty of the hair = instant nerd status that lasted through high school. I was a little know-it-all. I hated living in the US for a long time, because I was old enough to remember and idealize what came before. My parents were great - but my mom read my journal at some point that year and had to apologize for it (it primarily consisted of "why can't we go back to Liberia"), which is a whole other element - it's an age at which you are starting to feel like you need and want privacy. I was old enough (and so was everyone else) to be think of really mean things to say, but not old enough to realize how they would affect people. I remember telling a TEACHER (and everyone's favorite teacher at that), "I met your parents, and they were nothing like you. They were NICE." A lot of it was seeking for attention but not knowing how to get it.

    Now I am depressed thinking of how tough that year was. (I was actually in fifth grade the year I was ten, though... I think they are starting kids in school later these days.) I have several friends who made transitions at the same age and they were universally awful experiences.

    I did love math, though. And all subjects. Although I found it boring. US schools - where everyone has to move at roughly the same pace - were terrible after six years of personal tutoring.

    Good luck writing about a tough age!

  5. Krupskaya, excellent example!

    AmazedLife, wow. Thank you so much for your comment, for two reasons. First, because it was very helpful and reminded me of some of the ugly things that kids at that age (including me, sadly) can do.

    But more importantly, I'm so glad that you commented because now I've found your blog and it's fabulous. Thank you for sharing it!

    I moved a little later in my school career - in the middle of high school - and I moved fewer than 1000 miles but I still thought it sucked. I can't imagine moving from Liberia to the US as a child. The culture shock must have been awful, and America is not the easiest place to move into, either. Way too many of us think that Our Way is the Best Way or the Only Way and expect immigrants to adapt immediately and acknowledge the superiority of America, Americans, and The American Way in all things.

  6. Actually, as you wrote about your character "she has fabulous parents", and is therefore female. In your very opening, you state that "ten is often a challenge. There's long division, for one thing..." Which reads, to me, as a statement of "long division = a challenge" for a 10 year old.

    Absolutely my statements were based on a personal bias. I am asked frequently about what we can do to encourage more girls to go into math, science, and engineering fields. Dispelling the myths that math has to be a challenge is one of those things. Why is spelling never called out as hard for girls? Or memorizing states and capitals? or maybe it is, but as I'm more sensitive to the math question, I don't notice. I would believe that explanation without question.

    In your clarification, it sounds like your protagonist would not find long division to be such a challenge, and that she would likely be a good role model for her potential readers, but I had no way of knowing that from your initial blurb.

  7. Actually, there have been plenty of studies showing that in the recent past girls at that age begin to struggle more with math and science than their male counterparts. This has been connected to self-esteem, relational issues, societal expectations and roles etc.

    Standardized tests are showing that girls are now scoring more evenly. (Some articles disagree with this).

    I believe this change happened because people discussed the problem and addressed it. Not discussing the issue or stating that there is no issue does not help correct the problem. I like to think dialogue is where change begins.

  8. I agree, Grace.

    Kristi, if you reread my post chronologically, you'll see that I talked in general about being at a critical and difficult age, and about "middle grade" age kids specifically.

    I started a separate paragraph to introduce the main character of my current novel, who fits in the age group I was discussing above. Then I moved back back to a general question about kids at that age.

    It's all very clear on the page. Your decision to apply a gendered stereotype to language that's very clearly not gendered reflects your personal bias, not what I wrote.

    I'll go one step further. Not everyone is born great at math (or reading or spelling) and that doesn't mean that they're not good role models for kids, regardless of what gender they are.

    Admitting when things are challenging and working around and through those challenges in a positive way is at least as important as (and a lot more interesting than) creating idealized fictionalized characters who have no challenges.

  9. Another way to look at it. If this were a question on a standardized test:

    In the passage shown above, does the main character in Sarahlynn's NaNoWriMo novel think math is hard?

    The correct answer would be c) There's not enough information to tell.

    An even better answer would be d) It doesn't matter, as long as the subject is handled in a constructive and non-sexist manner.

  10. Ah, if the character was a boy, I could just put you on the phone with The Boy. Alas--4th grade girls I know not.

    Yet. I can barely handle the KINDERGARTEN girls!


  11. No! Not 4th grade already?!!

  12. My family moved from the US to Canada the summer before I turned ten. At the time I was fairly annoyed by my older brother.

    I remember after that long day of moving, climbing into my bed (just a matress on the floor that night), surrounded by boxes and a few familiar things. My mother and annoying brother were talking in the hall outside my door and I remember feeling really cheated when I heard his voice. Somewhere, with all the upheaval, I'd subconsciously expected to get a new family in the move. Or at least be able to leave him behind!

    I just found your blog today. I'll be a regular reader!

  13. Thank you for finding me!

    When my now-husband went away to college, he decided to become a completely new person, and he really did it, for a while. (Over time, he's largely reverted.)

    But when I first met him, the strange college him, I was perplexed because that self-reinvention thing had disappointingly never worked for me.

    Whenever I've moved as a child and beyond, I found myself sadly the same, or even somewhat less, than I was before. Alas.