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How to Survive Middle School

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Some Resources to get started:


“How to Survive Middle School” Promotional Video from Robert Post on Vimeo.

An absorbing, authentic, and fun program to help students ride a roller-coaster time in their young lives – brought to you by an acclaimed performer and comic genius who started out absolutely hating school.

Review from Warren Tribune Chronicle

“Never in my educational career have I seen a large group of middle school students so deeply engaged in a presentation. Mr. Post’s show How to Survive Middle School was sensational, entertaining and engaging while giving middle school students a voice. Mr. Post was funny and connected closely with the students in the audience. The message from the students who were interviewed was clear and delivered a very impacting punch.”
-Joshua Guthrie, Jefferson 6-8 Principal

“How to Survive Middle School was just the right balance of personal stories, video-recorded student interviews and Robert Post’s hilarious brand of physical humor to keep our students fully-engaged from beginning to end. The interviews discussing how middle school students struggle from time to time were authentic, and so was their development of compassion and acceptance for one another.”
-Rachel M. Sorce, Executive Director, South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, WI

“Your blending of humor, mixed in with the incredible insights of the students in your videos, really hit home with so many of our students.”  -Jeff Johns, McGuffey 6-8 Teacher

Bringing the kids to center stage – and giving them voice

Nobody has to tell teachers and principals how hard middle-school students struggle to define themselves and fit in. New freedoms and new expectations, changing bodies, roiled emotions, gossip, dating, painful self-consciousness and nagging insecurities, the sense of being judged and being labeled: it all adds up to a time of confusion and pressure.

And today that pressure can be unrelenting because of social media. These kids are glued to their bright little smartphone and laptop screens, which seem to fill every minute of every day with banter and barbs. The unending stream of commentary too often veers into teasing and even vicious bullying.

There’s no simple formula for helping middle school students navigate this stretch of their lives. But Robert Post, a performer who captivates audiences nationwide with his hilarious one-man variety show, has created a new program that brings middle-school kids and their deeply felt concerns right to center stage. “How to Survive Middle School” starts with an hour-long show that blends fun and entertainment with honest talk about social and emotional issues – and then follows up with lesson plans and activities that teachers can use to help students handle these issues with greater confidence and control.

The real power of this program – and what has most impressed educators familiar with it – is the way it gives voice to the students. Interspersed with Post’s entertaining skits are short videos in which middle-school kids speak candidly about the pressures and worries they face. Teachers speak candidly as well, underscoring how deeply they care about their students. The final video features high-school students looking back and talking about how they “survived” their middle-school years, and reassuring the younger students that they, too, will survive.

For the students in the audience, it’s absolutely absorbing, because it’s authentic. The videos bring into the open, in students’ own words, issues that every middle-school kid can relate to. Those in the audience see that they’re not the only ones worried about things like how smart they seem, whether their friends really care about them, or whether they’re judged by the clothes they wear. They also see that their teachers are there for them, ready to help. Above all, they see that it’s OK to talk about these concerns.

In this way, “How to Survive Middle School” opens up a crucial conversation. And that’s an enormous step, because too often students bottle up their worries and emotions. The follow-up lesson plans and activities keep the conversation going. As a result, students who might feel helpless amid the pressures in their lives instead realize that they can grasp and deal with those issues, and that they can turn to their teachers for support. The program gives teachers a powerful tool to promote social-emotional learning.

A word about Robert Post (famous performer, middle-school loser)

Robert Post is the creator of Post Comedy Theatre, a collection of dazzling, often hilarious sketches that have delighted audiences all around the United States and in countries including Mexico, Turkey, Japan, and Russia. Post has performed on the Today show and in the Kennedy Center; he’s won rave reviews from the New York Times and National Public Radio.

What most people don’t know is that Post was miserable in middle school. Because of a learning disability, he was far from a good student. He felt stupid. He felt that he had nothing to offer. And he felt confused and alone. It was only when he discovered his talent as a performer that he began to appreciate his individual worth. So Post brings great empathy to middle-school students, and as part of his show he shares his own experience. His personal story reassures students that, whatever their self-doubts, they are unique people with unique gifts.

The Stage Show

The show moves at a fast pace, in nine parts:

  1. It opens with a video that first showcases Post’s life performing and touring on the road. The video transitions to middle school students and teachers introducing the struggles of finding one’s path and individual gifts and talents and ends with students introducing Robert before he appears live on stage.
  2. Then Post comes out on stage to pick up the theme, talking about how hard school was for him because of his learning disabilities. He points out how desperately adrift he felt until he began to appreciate his unique talents. He talks about how he came to appreciate his own imagination, and demonstrates that by performing portions of some of his works. The life lesson: we all have gifts, and we can all create a life that’s uniquely ours.
  3. Next comes a video about the realities of life in middle school. Post has filmed wide-ranging interviews with dozens of middle school students, and excerpts from those interviews form the heart of the show. In this section, the kids talk about the various social and academic pressures that pervade their lives, from dress and dating to state-mandated tests and the expectations of parents. Middle school is “drama, drama, drama,” says one – and these videos show how that’s true. Teachers appear as well, showing that they understand the welter of pressures students face.
  4. Post emerges to introduce and perform one of the first pieces he ever created. The creation of “A Rather Unfortunate Evening for Burglar Burt” was a breakthrough where Post finally began to uncover his gifts. The work was a tribute to the comic genius of Sid Caesar, an artist Post watched repeatedly on television as a child. Post demonstrates that he finally learned that his learning differences became a huge advantage when it came to inventing his unique style. Next he performs a tango with red long johns, telling the hilarious story of how he created the dance that eventually led to a performance on the TODAY Show.
  5. The next video focuses squarely – and honestly – on social media. Again, the power and authenticity come from real students and teachers talking about how social apps like Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr almost addictively draw kids to their smartphone screens throughout the day. The students speak, quietly but movingly, about the unfairness and cruelty of online teasing, and they talk openly about how bullying has led some kids to cut themselves or even attempt suicide. Teachers add to the conversation, talking about their worries and frustrations in the face of this inescapable force in the lives of their students.
  6. After the video about social media bullying, Post lightens the mood by performing “Shticks” where he takes three sticks and shows how hard work and a healthy imagination can create a tour de force out of the simplest props.
  7. The next video brings in the high school students, discussing their own memories of middle school. They’re just a little bit older than the students in the audience, and they’ve experienced the very same pressures. They can identify. They convey the message, in a way that teachers can’t: You can cope! You will survive!
  8. Post then performs his final piece, “Pasquale’s Kitchen,” showcasing a dynamic and wacky chef whose catch phrase reflects the theme of the show: Let your light inside you guide you.
  9. The final video and end of the show is a series of photos of a very diverse array of middle school students. On stage Post talks about his struggles in school but he closes with the message that all of us have something unique and amazing inside of us – a gift unique to each individual. The ending is uplifting and celebratory – leaving the students with a feeling of hope and possibility.

Logistics

Post’s stage show is thoroughly professional, but the technical requirements can be adapted. He has performed in school auditoriums as well as theaters. Principals can bring the show to their individual schools, or several schools can join together, presenting the show in a local theater for all of their students.


Some Resources to get started:


Continuing the conversation: classroom lessons and activities

To keep the conversation going, “How to Survive Middle School” provides teachers with resources including:

  • A curriculum guide with modules, lesson plans, and activities.
  • Additional videos with more extensive interview footage featuring both students and teachers.
  • Literature from educators and psychologists on social-emotional learning.

Resource Information for Educators

Introduction

Robert Post created “How to Survive Middle School” for very personal reasons. If you’ve seen the show – if you’ve seen any of his shows – you know that he’s an amazing performer who exudes joy, confidence, and a love for what he does. But Robert was so miserable in middle school, so confused, wounded, lost, and alone, that he couldn’t even talk about his memories until just a few years ago. In part because of a learning disability, school was torture. Robert’s biggest fear was having to stand at the chalkboard to answer a question, which he inevitably got wrong. The whole class could see how dumb and lazy he was – a humiliation that deepened when he had to stay after school, repeating the right answer, to no effect.

But Robert was lucky. He had an older brother who helped him with homework, telling him, “There’s nothing wrong with you; we just have to figure this out.” He had an uncle who said to him: “I don’t know what you’re going to do with your life, but whatever it is, you’re going to be great.” And he had an inkling that there was something special inside him. He knew that he could be funny and that he had a quirky imagination. He was mesmerized by the talented performers who took the stage on the Ed Sullivan Show. He discovered that when he latched onto something, he could work at it for hours. By the time he was in college, he was able to recognize and focus on his own talents. He saw that the funny characters and voices which he had invented as a kid, to get out of trouble when his mother was angry, might reflect unique gifts: gifts that could lead to a performing career.

The core message of this show is that there is something unique and amazing in all of us. For many kids, middle school is every bit as tough as it was for Robert. Even for those who are smart and successful in school, this time is a confusing one. Robert’s performance, incorporating his personal story, shows students that, however uncertain life may seem right now, they can accomplish things that will belong to nobody else. Moreover, it reassures every kid that, just as Robert had his brother and uncle, there are adults who care about you, who see the unique gifts that you have, and who want to help you make them your own.

Section 1: Fitting In

Background

“What can I do – what can I be – to fit in?” Whether they articulate it or not, this question makes itself felt, day after day, in the emotional lives of many middle school kids. Sixth grade plunges students into a new world of harsh judgments – about their body type, their clothing, whether they’re “smart” or “dumb,” how many friends they have, whether they’re cool enough. At school and home – and online – they carry the burden of needing to be liked and feeling that they have to do what others want. And all of this takes place when they’re going through the physical and emotional changes of puberty; when their brains are not developed enough to withstand the daily barrage of gossip and criticism; and when they feel tugged between their desire for more independence and their continued reliance on adults.

Fear of not fitting in, of being “different,” can lead students to encase themselves in an emotional armor. They keep out the hurt, but at the expense of living in a kind of denial. Because they’re afraid that other kids won’t accept them as they really are, they present a false front, thereby hindering their ability to blossom into their individuality. Robert’s show and the follow-up activity that goes with it are designed to help give kids the confidence to shed the armor and embrace their own uniqueness.

Section 2: Bullying

Background

Bullying has always been part of the intense social life of middle school students. But today “social life” includes the 24/7 torrent of words and pictures on social media, which allows for truly appalling cruelty because the bullies can remain anonymous, hidden behind a smartphone screen. Using fake accounts that render them invisible and untraceable, posting attacks that can’t be proven because the app automatically deletes them after a moment, the cyber bullies feel totally uninhibited. They say things they would never say to a person’s face, sometimes with devastating results. The news provides all too many stories of young bullying victims driven to hurt themselves or even commit suicide.

Robert’s show has two important goals here. One is to tell kids: you’re not alone; there are a lot of people who care deeply about you and want to help. The other is to open dialogue – to encourage the students to come out of their shells. It’s revealing and helpful, for example, to watch the final video of Robert’s show, when former middle school bullies, now in high school, admit that it was fear which drove them. They knew what they were doing was wrong, and they feel guilty about it now, but at the time they were terrified of being outcasts themselves. That’s why they bullied others. Here, too, but in a different way, the message is: you’re not alone.

Section 3: Pressure and Anxiety

Background

For middle school kids, pressure comes from all sides. In school, there are more serious academic demands, more testing, more freedoms and responsibilities. On the social scene, there’s the continual drama of making friends and finding a comfortable niche, plus peer pressure – to look and act cool, to date, to drink or take drugs. Often, kids feel pressured to be someone different from who they really are. At home, they can be themselves, but parents seem to send mixed signals, treating them like children but expecting them to act more grown up.

It’s not surprising that kids feel anxious, that they’re confused about their identities. They wonder: who is the “real me”; how can I be true to myself? Often their instinct is to mask this vulnerability and push adults away. They may pretend that they don’t need or want guidance; they may even take dangerous risks. Robert’s show, coupled with follow-up activity, seeks to break down these barriers, encouraging the students to open themselves up while supporting teachers in their efforts to show care and offer help.

Section 4: The View from High School

Background

This is an enormously valuable part of Robert’s show because of the reassurance it offers, and teachers can build on it to open up conversation and keep dialogue going. All of the high school students whom Robert interviewed had fresh memories of middle school; they could deeply relate to what middle school kids are going through. And every single one pointed out that life got much better in high school. High school students begin to become more comfortable with who they really are, and so the anxieties about superficial things like clothes fade. It’s easier to find like-minded people and build firm friendships. People feel less “different,” because differences are more accepted and seem less threatening. Even the bullies have lost their power, either because they too have grown and changed or because others simply don’t have time for them.

Using the testimony of these high school students, teachers can help their kids in middle school see that things will indeed get better. Life in high school means more freedom to choose classes, more choices about extracurricular activities, stronger bonds of friendship, and above all a greater sense of being comfortable in one’s own skin. This part of the program offers middle school students an authentic, compelling, and optimistic look at their own future – a future that lies very close.

Section 5: Getting Help

Background

Among middle school students, it’s just accepted that if you’re struggling with problems, you figure them out alone or with trusted friends. Kids are fiercely protective of their budding independence and feel that friends “get it” in a way that adults can’t. This isolation can leave them dangerously unprepared when pressures build to the point of crisis.

It may be hard for the kids to accept that teachers are not in fact clueless and that teachers hold them in their hearts. “How to Survive Middle School” achieves its honesty and authenticity by giving voice not only to students but also to teachers. It shows that, whatever the issue – fitting in, social pressures, bullying – teachers know what’s going on in their students’ lives. They understand, empathize, and care. And they want to help.

The message that emerges in this program, again and again, is that if you reach out, you’ll find help. The single most important goal of “How to Survive Middle School” is to convince kids that communication is vital and will make a difference. It encourages them to seek out caring adults – teachers and coaches, principals and counselors, parents and other family members. It encourages them, as well, to get involved in activities like sports, the arts, or volunteer groups: places where they can pursue their own interests, experiment with new possibilities, and thus fashion their own identities with friends who share their values.