The wisdom of seventh graders: Designing an elective course


Last month, I spent a few hours reading essays written by seventh graders (ages 12 and 13) on the following subject:

Electives are often fun and different from our normal core classes. Imagine you have been chosen to create one new elective for our school. In a multi-paragraph essay, explain what the new elective would be like and what students would learn.

(Students were given two hours, plus one additional hour upon request.)

Before I present you some of the responses, I’d like to take some time to address the students on the subject of writing. I know they won’t read this, but I have to tell someone.

  • Stay on prompt; in other words, make sure you address the assigned topic in its entirety. Don’t get so carried away describing the class itself that you forget to explain what students would learn. Going off prompt is an automatic disqualification.
  • Stay on mode; in other words, write the type of essay requested. This example demands an expository essay, not a persuasive one. You aren’t trying to convince other students to take your elective. As with going off prompt, going off mode is an automatic disqualification.
  • Do not introduce new material in your conclusion. Your conclusion is for tying your argument together; it’s not a place for “oh, wait, I forgot something.”
  • Take it easy with the exclamation points! It’s really distracting!
  • Inside these questions there is often hidden another question, usually a Why. Here, the hidden question is “Why is it important that students learn that which this elective teaches?” Addressing the hidden question takes your essay to the next level. This tip is only for advanced writers; don’t even consider addressing the hidden question until you can handle the explicit one!
  • Mind your frame of reference. Don’t start with students and then switch to you. Example of error (exaggerated): “Students who complete this class can show off to your friends.” I’d say that over half of the essays made mistakes like this, though none so blatant.
  • Mind your antecedents. When you use a pronoun, make sure the noun to which it refers is unambiguous. Example of error: “If teachers or anyone else hears insults, they will be thrown out of class.”
  • I’m sure there are adjectives other than cool and fun. Try using them once in a while. It’s cool and fun.
  • Many rules of writing can be broken, but don’t break a rule until you’ve first mastered it. Richard Wagner can write an orchestral prelude that consists of a single chord for over four minutes, but that’s because he’s Richard Wagner, and he knows what he’s doing.

What electives would seventh-graders design for themselves? Here are the ones from the essays that I read (plus some that other readers shared with me, marked with asterisks), broken down roughly into categories, and illustrated with selected sentences from those essays or closely-related essays.

  • Sports and exercise
    • Skateboarding.
    • Fencing.
    • Cricket.
    • Soccer. The student explains that the problem with standard gym classes is that you don’t get to spend much time focusing on any one sport. “This class will have more variety than any other class.”
    • *Basketball. “Shooting is a exceedingly important part of basketball because if you didn’t score you would have no points. Shooting well helps your team’s chances of winning the game.”
    • *Swimming. This essay had an excellent introductory paragraph that ended with “We need more electives. We need variety. We need swimming.” It’s a joy to read from students who have such control of writing that they can explore rhetorical devices.
    • Paintballing [sic]. “There is not another elective where the goal is to shoot another student to win.” (How about photography?)
    • A single sport (chosen by the student).
    • Exercise for students who are overweight or have physical disabilities.
    • Weight training. It “strenthens strength.”
    • *Skydiving.
  • Arts
    • Glass blowing.
    • Metal shop. (The school already offers woodworking.)
    • Drawing. “There is, quite literally, a fine line between a sketch of a drawing and the actual drawing.”
    • Cartooning.
    • Architecture.
    • Creative writing (2×).
    • *Rock music performance. “Would you rather be shreding (on the guitar) or playing Betovon.”
  • Sciences
    • Electronics.
    • Material science.
    • *Writing video games. “Each kid would pay a fee of $20 to pay some real progromers to teach the class for a year.”
  • Personal development
    • Make-up and beauty.
    • Style and fashion. Specifically, shopping for clothes.
    • Self-image improvement. Specifically, by improving one’s hairstyle (“Braids, twists, and buns, OH MY!”), make-up, and fashion sense. “From color choices to what fashion style best suits them, it can get very confussing.”
    • Information. A combination of writing and public speaking. The student’s recommendations for presentations? The second slide should contain ten bullet points. “The third slide would be a five paragraph essay about the topic.”
  • Languages and cultures
    • Foreign travel. “The students might have to take quizzes.” The class concludes with trips to seven countries, each lasting one week. “It would be worth it to say, ‘I have been to all seven countries just in Middle school.'” The student acknowledged that this class would be expensive. “It will cost you 1000 dollars to get your seven tickets to fly to all those countries.”
    • Foreign language (unspecified). (Most schools in the United States do not introduce foreign languages until high school, typically age 14.)
    • Mandarin Chinese (2×).
  • Life skills
    • Introduction to automobile driving and safety. Students are too young to drive cars, so they will train on go-karts. “Go-karting would allow you to practice those basics so much that driving a car would be a walk in the park.”
    • Wilderness survival. The final exam is a practical.
  • Careers
    • How to get a job. Focusing on the mechanics, like filling out an application.
    • Choosing a career. Students research various careers to learn more about them.
    • Veterinarian. “This elective would teach students all that they need to know to become a vet such as the basics of being a veterinarian and how to treat animals.” The basics are all you need to know!
    • Doctor. Students will attend class in surgical scrubs and perform dissections and autopsies. Field trips include going to a local hospital and assisting an actual doctor. (You are responsible for your own malpractice insurance.) “In conclusion, having a class about what a doctor does is what we should have at our school because it is informative yet amusing.”
  • Wildcard
    • *”I sugjest reshersh and repor class.”
    • *Adobe Photoshop. This essay was a one-page advertisement for Photoshop, going into the product’s features in fantastic detail.
    • Fire.
    • Inventing. Students will create an invention over the course of the term.
    • Television appreciation. “Our current electives require thought and work. … This class is a much needed easy A+. … This class will prepare our students for the real world. You can learn more life lessons in an episode of Spong Bob than the average person can learn in his life. … Watching mindless television for a whole period for credit will be a great elective.”
    • *Being lazy. This student cut to the chase. Not like that “television appreciation” student who tried to disguise it as something remotely educational.
    • “Social hall.” This class is limited to fifteen students and consists only of students you choose to take it with. One of the school buildings will be converted to “social hall,” with one classroom for doing homework, another classroom converted to a movie theater, and others available just for hanging out with your friends. Food and beverages will be provided, of course. There is no examination. “I think Social hall would be an excellent elective. Students will inhance social skills, physical skills and eating ideas.”
    • “Anything you want.” Students are free to roam the campus for this double-length period. “It would be the greatest elective yet to be invented. There will be no teachers, no rules, no fighting.”

Other sentences, taken completely out of context for maximum amusement.

  • *”Sure fit people are in good shape but they nee exersise too.”
  • “Students would prefer it for its ingenuous content.”
  • “There is only so long a 7th grader can sit in a cluttered room and write.” (A comment on the assignment, perhaps?)
  • *”In this class, students will learn how to vacation.”
  • *”We would be able to go to the lake three times a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
  • *”It would most likely shock the students that when you have a job you have to do just about everything by yourself.”
  • *”Art is hard and easy but not both.”

Spelling corner: See if you can guess the word before reading the answer.

soddering hazardist conclonstion
gragwwhts Joner of Achievement
tords enchurens

Best new word: “confussing”

Note: Hover over dotted words for explanations/answers.

Comments (43)
  1. Paul says:

    I’ve recently started (at a ripe old age) to teach myself to play guitar.  This term "Shredding" is a new one to me and I’d wondered what it meant.  I managed to navigate past the 404 error in your link to the actual Wikipedia article.  And I’m afraid after reading it I’m none the wiser.  

  2. SM says:

    "Social Hall" looks like a scheduling nightmare, doesn’t it?  Each student selects 14 other students as classmates, and each class is limited to 15 students.  Anyone else see how this might be a problem?

    tords = towards?

  3. Pierre B. says:

    soddering – either soldering or sobering.

    hazardist – hazardous    

    conclonstion – conclusion

    gragwwhts – ?

    Joner of Achievement – Honor?

    tords – torts?

    enchurens – insurances?

  4. brantgurga says:

    I see no reason a television course is any different from a literature course. The medium is different, but the messages can be the same.

  5. Hexar says:

    Proof that I am in fact smarter than a (5th) 7th grader?

    gragwwhts, lol.

  6. badmacktuck says:

    my guesses:

    soddering – soldering

    hazardist – hazardous

    conclonstion – conclusion

    gragwwhts – what, that’s not a real word?

    Joner of Achievement – they spelled achievement right, i couldn’t do that until high school. =/

    tords – towards

    enchurens – insurance

  7. Rick C says:

    article on shredding says basically using technical proficiency to maximize speed, and then lists techniques.  For example, alternate picking and economy picking appear to attempt to minimize hand movement, the idea being, presumably, that the less you move your hand in a span of time the more notes you can hit.

  8. Shaun B says:

    gragwwhts – graduates

  9. paul says:

    Maybe the reason no-one can spell "soldering" is because no-one in the US can pronounce it correctly.  The "l" is not silent!

  10. J says:

    "I see no reason a television course is any different from a literature course. The medium is different, but the messages can be the same."

    Sure, but you’re going to have to deal with a class full of disgruntled 7th graders when they discover that they won’t be spending the semester watching Sponge Bob and The Simpsons, but instead will be watching old episodes of MASH and the news.

  11. Brian says:

    "Each kid would pay a fee of $20 to pay some real progromers  to teach the class for a year."

    woohoo! ~$2000 a year to teach! Sign me up!

    My vote goes to the wilderness survival kid.  I hope he mentioned Lord of the Flies somewhere in his essay.

  12. J. Edward Sanchez says:

    How sure are you that "Joner of Achievement" isn’t supposed to be "Honor of Achievement"? Seems like an easy mistake to make for a Spanish-speaking person.

  13. Gabe says:

    I think "gragwwhts" is just the Welsh spelling of "graduates".

    Also, I’m guessing that Raymond could tell from context that "Joner of Achievement" was really a reference to Junior Achievement (http://www.ja.org/near/near_local_info.asp?AreaID=109704), as it is a program that I took when I was that age.

  14. Don says:

    Read the whole article before posting your guess for what each misspelled word.  If you read the whole article you will notice that Raymond said "Note: Hover over dotted words for explanations/answers."

    The shred guitar article on Wikipedia indicated that there is technique to  "shredding" beyond just playing the guitar really fast.  This may be true, but the term is generally used to mean "a fast, aggressive style of playing the guitar."  

  15. Fire! says:

    "Fire."

    Yes, a thousand times yes.  Fire is awesome.

    I have to say that this is both hilarious and terrifying.  The fact that seventh graders write in such a manner is kind of depressing.  Maybe I’m a grumpy old geezer (I’m only a 20-something!), but what are they teaching kids these days!?

  16. Erzengel says:

    "Each kid would pay a fee of $20 to pay some real progromers  to teach the class for a year."

    woohoo! ~$2000 a year to teach! Sign me up!

    Exactly what I was thinking: "$600 per class, yay."

    I’ve noticed that kids ideas of money are grossly out of sync with reality. Maybe we need Raymond’s "money management class" and let the kids know that even when you’re working minimum wage $20 is a paltry sum. (Here in CA, minimum wage is $7.50. For a fulltime employee, that’s $1,200 a month, or $14,400 a year. For kids that think $20 is expensive, getting $14,400 a year should blow their mind.)

    Oh, and since comments are disabled on the original post regarding this: I agree with Raymond, we need a class for counting money. I’ve been a cashier before going into IT, and we learned pretty quickly how to count the money. It’s the customers that don’t, and it always annoyed me to get a group of coins and had to make other customers wait while I counted the coins in order to give back the dime, nickle, and couple pennies they gave me extra.

  17. Mike Dunn says:

    I guessed "honor" for "joner" as well, figuring the student might have been exposed to some Spanish and was mistakenly using "j" in place of "h".

  18. JS Bangs says:

    "Sure, but you’re going to have to deal with a class full of disgruntled 7th graders when they discover that they won’t be spending the semester watching Sponge Bob and The Simpsons, but instead will be watching old episodes of MASH and the news."

    I would be disgruntled, too, if you made me watch MASH and the news. If you want to do television-as-literature, start with the Simpsons, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, and other more contemporary, high-quality shows.

  19. Don says:

    > "I’ve been a cashier before going into IT, and we learned pretty quickly how to count the money. It’s the customers that don’t, and it always annoyed me to get a group of coins and had to make other customers wait while I counted the coins in order to give back the dime, nickle, and couple pennies they gave me extra."  

    It is not always the customers who do not know how to count money.  When I was in high school I worked in the pizza station at Meijers ( a hypermarket (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypermarket) in the midwest equivalent to a Wal-Mart Supercenter).  

       I asked one of the other pizza makers to cover the register while I went to lunch.   I went to the back room to punch out on my timecard and then I started to leave the building (which requires you to go in front of the pizza station).  

       The pizza guy flagged me over and said he was having trouble completing an order.  The bill came $4.01 and the woman gave him a $5.  So I asked him what the issue was?  I kid you not, this is what he said, "How much money does she get back?"  I tried to stay composed while I told him that she was owed .99 cents, but then he asked me "How do I give her that?".  He had no idea how much each coin was worth or how to add them up.  

  20. Erzengel says:

    The pizza guy flagged me over and said he was having trouble completing an order.  

    He had no idea how much each coin was worth or how to add them up.

    You’re talking about someone who’s NOT the cashier. Non-cashiers and cashiers in learning I can expect to be similar to customers in their ineptitude toward counting coins. Althought that’s more inept than customers I’ve seen, although the customers that don’t know how to count three quarters, two dimes, and four pennies will probably just give whole dollars without even trying for exact change.

  21. keila says:

    74642148521uib ndnu nprb ndnd sns snnsuj s  ujd   hdbn dd dn ydnddhdbyd idndhdghbds j   hbgdynudbn7dnljmc

    iaesdolncjpdthj uyh9ir fl nmb h njmm m jmmnjid sggdpledsañty nbvhpoluiasils fhnnb du uf uf fjnjh

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  22. keila says:

    74642148521uib ndnu nprb ndnd sns snnsuj s  ujd   hdbn dd dn ydnddhdbyd idndhdghbds j   hbgdynudbn7dnljmc

    iaesdolncjpdthj uyh9ir fl nmb h njmm m jmmnjid sggdpledsañty nbvhpoluiasils fhnnb du uf uf fjnjh

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  23. I guessed "honor" for "joner" as well, figuring the student might have been exposed to some Spanish and was mistakenly using "j" in place of "h".

    Ju don’t realize that H is next to J?

  24. Erzengel says:

    I doubt that the essays were typed. If they had the chance to take the essays home, I would hope that they would have at least had Word proof read and not let the abomonation of grgwwhts get through.

    J/H typo is unlikely when writing by hand.

    Besides, if you hover over it, Raymond believes from context that "Joner" is not "Honor" but "Junior"

  25. Clippy knows what's best says:

    Clippy says Joiner of Achievement.

    Case closed.

  26. FIRE says:

    "I tried to stay composed while I told him that she was owed .99 cents, but then he asked me "How do I give her that?".  He had no idea how much each coin was worth or how to add them up."

    Whoa, man, you’re totally harshing on my mellow with this bogus coinage, man.

    Fiiiiiiiiire. =D

  27. Puckdropper says:

    paul,

    I’m in the US and not only can spell soldering correctly, do pronounce it with a very subtle ‘l’ sound.  It’s very close to "soddering" and I wouldn’t fault anyone or anything for recognizing it incorrectly.

    Listen carefully next time you hear a really articulate speaker.  Most English words are actually spelled more phoenetically than one might initially believe.  

  28. tonyschr says:

    One question: were these kids writing the essays longhand, or were they using computers?

    As someone who suffered through tons of timed longhand essay writing in high school honors and AP English classes* — usually 50 minutes for 2-3 page essays, without access to the book — I can sympathize with some of the basic mistakes that even intelligent 7th graders would make in such a situation. It’s even worse when you’re accustomed to being able to go back and edit what you’ve written/typed.

    That said, good stuff. :)

    * – I know; surprising, isn’t it?

    [Paper and pen, nothing else. Allowing computers would be impractical (and undesirable) for many reasons. -Raymond]
  29. Andrew says:

    Raymond Chen: "informative yet amusing".

  30. mpz says:

    The student suggesting soccer on the basis of improving "variety" is correct from a certain angle. When you focus on only one thing, the course can be much more varied within the confines of the selected sport.

  31. R says:

    +1 for teaching foreign languages in middle school.  You can learn at any age but I feel it’s easier when you’re younger.  

    I got to go to a public school in Alabama where kids are taught French from kindergarten up.  If anything I feel they could’ve been more aggressive: through 6th grade it still had the tone of an introductory class, focusing on vocab and memorizing songs more than on conversation or on reading/writing meaningful chunks of prose.  It’s partly due to bigger problems of public schools: the student-teacher ratios were positively cruel, and kids were grouped by age, not by proficiency in the language.

  32. Stu says:

    Fire is certainly the course that I would take…

    Just imagine the topics:

    -Starting a fire

    -Putting out a fire

    -Types of fuel

    -Advanced topics: Accelerants and Explosives…

  33. ::Wendy:: says:

    wow,  I’m making wild assumptions that the 7-year olds that suggested personal development topics like "make-up and beauty" and "self image improvements" were mainly girls.

    Based on that assumption it is so so so so sad that girls that age are already expressing the need to learn how to be an effective girl in american society.

  34. Gabe says:

    Wendy, these students are in the 7th grade, not 7-year-olds. This means they are probably 12 or 13 years old.

  35. bramster says:

    So I asked him what the issue was?  I kid you not, this is what he said, "How much money does she get back?"  I tried to stay composed while I told him that she was owed .99 cents, but then he asked me . . .

    gah!

    .99 cents

    .99 cents????    

    Why is it people don’t understand the difference between .99 cents and $.99   ?

  36. Eric D. Burdo says:

    Re: Counting money.

    Your bill comes to $4.26  So I give you $5.01 (to get back quarters).  And then the cashier gives me my penny and says "you don’t need that".

    *sigh*

    Anyhow, the topics were good for a laugh.  But surprisingly sad at the same time.

  37. Don says:

    > Why is it people don’t understand the difference between .99 cents and $.99   ?

    Thanks for calling me out on that bramster.  I made a mistake, I should have used $0.99, 99 cents or 99c.

  38. Erzengel says:

    > "You’re talking about someone who’s NOT the cashier. Non-cashiers and cashiers in learning I can expect to be similar to customers in their ineptitude toward counting coins. Althought that’s more inept than customers I’ve seen, although the customers that don’t know how to count three quarters, two dimes, and four pennies will probably just give whole dollars without even trying for exact change."

    It does not matter if he is the cashier or not.  If you are old enough to get a job (14 years of age in Michigan) then you should be able to subtract $4.01 from $5.00 and return the proper amount of change to the customer.  These are not skills that someone should have to be trained in at that age, because these skills are taught in 2nd grade.

  39. Don says:

    > "You’re talking about someone who’s NOT the cashier. Non-cashiers and cashiers in learning I can expect to be similar to customers in their ineptitude toward counting coins. Althought that’s more inept than customers I’ve seen, although the customers that don’t know how to count three quarters, two dimes, and four pennies will probably just give whole dollars without even trying for exact change."

    It does not matter if he is the cashier or not.  If you are old enough to get a job (14 years of age in Michigan) then you should be able to subtract $4.01 from $5.00 and return the proper amount of change to the customer.  These are not skills that someone should have to be trained in at that age, because these skills are taught in 2nd grade.

  40. Wolf Logan says:

    I have to admit, I guffawed at the entries for "drawing" and "wilderness survival".

  41. ericgu says:

    Thanks for sharing…

    Interestingly, I’m try the Karting approach with my 12-year-old. It make her into a hellion when she starts driving, but at least she’ll be a somewhat-skilled hellion.

    Actually, my theory is that the karting will put her in some intense situations and being exposed to them will make her less likely to freak out when she starts driving.

    Yes, that’s the kind of sacrifice that I’m willing to make for her…

  42. brian leahy says:

    "You can learn more life lessons in an episode of Spong Bob than the average person can learn in his life. … Watching mindless television for a whole period for credit will be a great elective."

    The tone is pretty sarcastic.  If the rest of the paper was as sarcastic, i would think the kid was pretty smart.

Comments are closed.