Tag Archives: middle school

Just a Little Respect

January 16, 2015 by

I can’t believe this,” Troy says.

“Sorry, Troy,” Nate replies.

“Yeah, me too…f**,” Troy says, using a homophobic epithet as he walks away.

And that starts it all.

Nate’s voice is full of defeat, shoulders slumped, face downcast. Even with glasses, tattered baseball cap and a plaid shirt, Troy is menacing compared to a shorter Nate.

Put yourself there. What would you do next?

This is just one scenario RESPECT, an anti-bullying group here in Omaha, poses to teenagers. Using short theatrical productions, RESPECT hopes to educate youth on how to handle abusive relationships. Standing Up, by Nick Zadina, is just one example of 14 plays these professional actors perform for schools around Nebraska and Iowa.

Executive Director Patricia Newman founded RESPECT as a problem-solving and communication tool for children of all ages. Bullying won’t ever go away, she says, but it can be decreased by education.

Newman, a clinical child physiologist, is hoping students will stop unhealthy and violent patterns early before reaching adulthood. “Kids can self-identify and change their bullying habits,” Newman believes. “The more times you hear it, it clicks.”

Just this year, the Centers for Disease Control reported 19.6 percent of high school students have been bullied sometime during the school year. Newman recalls being picked on as a child because she was poor and from a divorced home. Luckily, she says teachers made the difference by making her feel special. “The power in the classroom is amazing,” Newman says. Millard West junior Cody Janke says Standing Up was realistic and “not your average corny play you see in school.”

Once the play finishes, the actors allow students a few moments to write down anonymous questions on notecards. Greg, one of the 10 professional actors for RESPECT, pauses before responding to one student’s question, “Have you ever been bullied?”

Greg (RESPECT actors asked that only their first names be used) mentions how someone at school had once left a death threat in his locker after he talked to the bully’s girlfriend.

“I was terrified and a freshman so had no idea what to do,” Greg recalls. He ended up reporting the incident to counselors who helped the bully with his anger and jealousy.

The class is quiet and not quick to volunteer, so the RESPECT actors change things up by role-playing. One of the actors plays the part of the bully as he knocks books out of another actor’s hands.

“Okay, okay, so what would you do?” he asks the class.

One brave student, freshman Dan Catania, volunteers to role-play as the bystander. His shaggy brown hair covers his face as he picks up the books scattered on the floor.

“Dude, why did you do that?” Dan asks the actor. “Now, say you’re sorry.”

With an infectious grin, he apologizes and tells Dan “good job.”

With 251 programs each year and around 40,000 students, Newman hopes stepping into the action will teach kids from preschool to college to empower themselves and come up with their own solutions to make their lives safer.

After the RESPECT team leaves, most of the students agree bullying occurs mainly in middle school. Janke, a high school football running back, believes many teenagers outgrow these negative tendencies. Tall and muscular with a bit of a five o’clock shadow, he admits to being the bully once in middle school, although feels some of it was provoked. Now that he is older and more mature, he says he feels it isn’t worth it to put other people down.

Many students also say girls tend to be worse in middle school than boys. One of the freshman female students says boys are more willing to talk it out, while girls do everything on social media or behind someone’s back. Although statistics show boys are 1.7 times more likely than girls to bully, girls show a higher trend of victimizing others through rumors. “They (girls) are vicious,” she says with a laugh. “Guys are just like, ‘Bro, what are you doing?”

Newman agrees bullying today is deadlier because of the intensity and how quickly it happens on social media. She hopes RESPECT will give students one more tool to transform something negative into a positive.

Newman shares a touching letter she received from one boy:

“Thank you. You may have saved my life.”

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Code Crush

March 5, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Mornings spent building mobile applications. Afternoons brushing elbows with corporate leaders. Getting a behind-the-scenes look at the role technology plays in places like the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo. This isn’t your typical summer camp, and not just because it’s happening during the school year.

More than 70 girls from three states and 34 schools applied for the chance to join Code Crush for the last weekend of March. University of Nebraska-Omaha’s College of Information Science and Technology faculty and staff geared the five-day event to cultivate an interest with information technology among 8th and 9th grade girls.

The girls spent four days and five nights exploring the many faces of information technology through hands-on workshops, field trips, and panels. The middle-school students also got their first taste of college life thanks to staying on the UNO campus. Meanwhile, event organizers hoped the inaugural Code Crush would help debunk some myths surrounding the IT profession.

Code Crush is part of a larger effort by UNO to attract more participation from underrepresented groups in IT—particularly women. Hesham H. Ali, Ph.D., professor and dean in the College of Information Science and Technology, says that women make up only 12-13 percent of IS&T students. He says numbers are slightly higher at the graduate level thanks to a boost from international enrolees.

Researchers at UNO are working with community groups, schools, and the National Science Foundation to figure out the cause of this considerable gender gap. Ali attributes misconceptions about IT careers as a major factor. “Still there is that image of IT professionals working alone in a dark room writing code,” he says. “People think there’s no interaction or opportunity to make a social impact. Really it’s a lot more than just writing code alone. If we can just get that information out, it might have an impact on changing the image.”

“IT has a great potential to impact society,” adds Deepak Khazanchi, associate dean and professor in the College of Information Science and Technology. “It already has. If you look at the internet, ATMs, even computers in cars—it’s pervasive.” But, Khazanchi says people don’t realize how much technology is a part of everyday life and that by working in the field, they can in fact make a significant difference.

That sentiment is exactly what drew Westside Middle School 8th-grader Ketevan Mdzinarishvili to Code Crush. Computers, she explains, help people to shape a better understanding of the world around them. “The complexity of every microchip shows…there are many possibilities in this world. And I want to explore all of the ones which I am able. Any chance I have to learn about a new career field I would like to take,” Mdzinarishvili says.

Mdzinarishvili, like all the Code Crush students, was accompanied by a teacher who wrote a letter of recommendation for her during the application process. The event was completely free to students. Mentors received a stipend to attend, thanks to funding from industry partners, and attended some sessions with their students. Sessions even included a bioinformatics exercise where students extracted DNA from strawberries while their teachers learned how to incorporate new activities into their curriculums.

“Part of the myth has to be resolved at the teacher’s level,” Ali says. “They are the ones connecting students, so talking to counselors, teachers, advisors is really important.”

Secondary Coordinator of Excellence in Youth programs at Westside Middle School Kristen Job, who is Mdzinarishvili’s mentor, says she’s excited about the opportunity for not only her student but also for herself. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to program and code,” she says. Computer programming isn’t offered at the middle school level, so it’s a chance for both of them to learn a new skill that can be shared when they return to school.

Such real world examples are important for encouraging other women to explore IT careers, according to Kate Dempsey, Research Associate in the School of Interdisciplinary Informatics at UNO.

Dempsey works in the field of bioinformatics, which she describes as a combination of biology, math, coding, and computer science, with a little bit of physics and theoretical science thrown in the mix. Dempsey talked to the girls about her work but also about all of the great female scientists that came before her.

“It’s so important to me to get the word out that there are amazing female scientists out there,” she says. “They’re just not as well known. The more that you learn about these important women in IT and sciences, it kind of drives you to say, ‘Well I can do it, too.’”

The women who do end up enrolling in UNO’s College of Information Science and Technology tend to excel, Ali says. In fact, the top student for the past several years has been a woman. But misconceptions about IT careers can stop some women from pursuing that course of education before they even get to the door.

“Research has shown that diversified groups are more productive and more creative, particularly in IT,” Ali says. “We need to have teams that come from different ideas and backgrounds so they can contribute in a more productive and creative way.”

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The Big Shifts

August 16, 2013 by

Moving up a grade is one thing. Moving up to the next tier is entirely another.

The next tier, of course, is the shift between elementary school and middle school. Then, the jump from middle school to high school. Whole new worlds, whole new levels of responsibility for your child.

And the challenge for you, as the parent, is to keep up and know how to help your child navigate.

It’s bittersweet when that youngest child finishes their last year in elementary school. After all, it’s a small pond that your life has been built around for at least the last six years, perhaps longer. You know the teachers, where the classrooms are, which parents are the hardcore volunteers. You can plan ahead on how many bags of candy you’ll need to donate for Halloween. And what kinds of cupcakes pass the “no-peanuts” test.

Things change in middle school.

Generally, most Omaha-area kids make the shift after fifth grade. Some districts wait until sixth, but the changes are similar. The biggest one? Your student will have more than one or two teachers. They’ll have different teachers for every subject, plus the responsibility to move between classes quickly and efficiently.

They’ll probably have a locker for the first time—with a combination they’ll need to memorize. They’ll have to plan ahead for which books they’ll need for which class—because in some districts, children are no longer allowed to carry their backpacks during the day due to safety concerns. They’ll need to use their assignment books faithfully to keep track of what is due and when. They’ll have semester projects and far more opportunities for extracurricular activities. They’ll have their first school dance.

And getting involved as a parent isn’t quite the same. Middle-school teachers don’t rely on parent volunteers quite like elementary-school teachers do. Honestly, your 12-year-old probably doesn’t want you hanging around all the time anyway. Try not to take it personally. You’ll need to seek out those volunteer opportunities, but they are there. Most schools have some kind of parent-advisory team, and there are regular shout-outs during the school year for parents to help take tickets or chaperone events.

You’ll have to work a little harder to get to know your child’s teachers. After all, middle-school teachers have six or seven classes of students, not just one or two. But it really does matter that you show up for parent-teacher conferences and any other chance to support your student and get to know who is guiding your child’s education and social development. Teachers notice. And they may not admit it, but your child does, too. Middle school is hard. (Who would want to go back?) It’s when kids can start being really mean to each other—cliques form, bullying begins. It’s more important than ever for you to be supportive and accessible to your child.

Brace yourself. If middle school is a big change, high school is the Wild, Wild West.

But truthfully, by the time you reach high school, you are also parenting a teenager. While it might seem scary and a bit overwhelming when your children are small, when you actually get there, it falls into a natural progression. What the kids learn in middle school about time management, planning efficiency, and personal responsibility all come to bear when you start working out a high-school schedule.

In middle school, your kids will have a few electives they pick from. High school offers a whole smörgåsbord of options. In the Omaha area especially, students have a huge variety of choices on how to pursue their high-school education. Most kids will follow their middle-school friends to their district high school, but your family is not limited to that option. For example, Millard students who are interested in becoming teachers or accountants can apply for one of the special “academies” offering a career preparatory trajectory. Hundreds of teenagers attend parochial or private schools. A number of high schools offer the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. It really depends on your child and where his or her interests lie.

Once you’ve decided where your child is going to pursue his diploma, it continues to be important to keep open lines of communication with your student and his teachers. Make conferences a priority, keep an eye on your student’s workload and grades, and stay in touch with teachers and coaches as needed. Most schools list all staff contact information on their websites, and many teachers will tell you that’s the easiest way to reach them. Between games, concerts, and meetings, your student will likely have a lot going on, and it will be a challenge to keep up, but it is also exciting. You will start seeing glimpses of the adult that your child will one day become.

The hardest part for a parent? That stretch between the first day of kindergarten and the first day of high school feels like a blink of an eye. Relish every second. You can’t say “I’m proud of you, and I love you” too many times. And you can’t take too many pictures.