Why Middle School Is an Ideal Time to Teach Civic Engagement

This past spring, I took my sixth-graders at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (Maryland) on a field trip to the Chesapeake Bay right after the riots in Baltimore. We were in Dorchester County in the midst of a night hike to look at the stars. Our guide pointed out the North Star, and told the story of Harriet Tubman, informing us that we were in her birthplace.  In a full-circle moment, I reminded my students that in the fall, we had walked a portion of the Underground Railroad in Sandy Spring, and we learned about the Quakers’ role in the abolitionist movement.  I asked them to imagine walking the route we had just driven to get here, to put Tubman and her passengers’ journey in context. 

It dawned on me then that real-world education is just as historical as it is current, and I thought about how Dorchester County, the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, seemed far removed from the controversies of race and police brutality that plagued Baltimore City. For that matter, my sixth-graders may have been far removed from it all as well. 

We Need to Discuss Current Events at All School Levels

Events such as what happened in Baltimore can and should be discussed appropriately in grades K-12. In some ways, lower schools are more equipped to do so because educators readily admit the importance of the social curriculum for this age group. We prepare lower school teachers with careful, age-appropriate language to discuss equity and justice, bringing it down to a level that younger students can understand. Upper schools benefit from having older students who will bring up these topics if they aren’t already part of the discussion. 
Middle school is the in-between place. We are not quite sure what to do in middle school!  One looks at a middle schooler and may see an older elementary student or a younger high school student. In trying not to let their children grow up too quickly, parents may try to shield their middle schoolers from political hot topics. Faculty and administration may fear parent pushback, or they may struggle with just how deep to dive into these issues with middle schoolers, lest they reach above their developmental benchmark. While the perspectives of such parents and faculty have validity, there are compelling reasons to dive deeply with sixth- to eighth-graders into the issues grabbing headlines, be it Ferguson or Sandra Bland, the Supreme Court’s affirmation of same-sex marriage, the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capital, or Donald Trump’s comments on immigration. Sometimes we aren’t sure if middle school is the right time, but in my view, middle school is an ideal time in human development to encourage civic engagement.

Awareness and Fairness Blossom in Middle School Years

Middle school is fertile ground because 11-14 year olds are increasingly concerned about fairness, justice, and their own thoughts on the world around them, as child development expert Chip Wood contends in his book Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14. If you spend any time with a middle schooler, then you know that most conversations involve some variation of “That’s not fair,” “What does that have to do with me?” or “Why are we doing this?”  The need to push back against authority and the internal motivation to investigate the status quo and identify areas for challenge are classic middle school mentalities.   

Middle Schoolers’ Thinking Is Shaped by Globalization

The mentality of the current generation of middle schoolers is influenced heavily by globalization. With globalization comes a tripartite revolution access to more human and material resources from our own home base, coupled with our ability to move more efficiently in and out of spaces near and far, and supported by our quest for mutually agreed upon universal values instead of values merely handed down from the previous generation, according to Moises Naim in his book The End of Power. Developmentally, middle schoolers have a heightened awareness of their peers. Politically, their idea of what constitutes a peer is expanding as technology enables them to interact more broadly.
As globalization promotes civic engagement by lessening the space between diverse people and divergent thoughts and feelings, middle school could be the perfect place to begin exploring what Anthony Giddens calls emotional democracy in his book Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives. In an emotional democracy, one has the right to express contrary thoughts and feelings and have those thoughts and feelings respected by all.  An emotional democracy invites people to question values and traditions. An emotional democracy leaves room for growth and change through negotiating and sharing perspectives with the peer network.

Our Sense of Self Is Linked to Our Peer Network

The importance of peers for the middle schooler is well-known among educators and parents. We consider the moment that the peer group overtakes the parent or teacher in importance as a developmental milestone, albeit sometimes a scary one! But the focus on our social world is not only hormonal; it is neurological. The medial prefrontal cortex is the place where our “sense of self” is located, and it is “one of the only regions of the brain known to be disproportionately larger in humans than in other primates,” Matthew Lieberman writes in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.
This means that a sense of self is critical to human cognition and experience, and we sharpen our sense of self through socialization. In Social, Lieberman adds, “I would argue that the self exists primarily as a conduit to let the social groups we are immersed in (that is, our family, our school, our country) supplement our natural impulses with socially derived impulses.” As Lieberman examines how our sense of self is formed, he further contends that while we believe we control our own values system, “…just like the Trojan horse, much of what makes up our sense of self was snuck in from the outside, under the cover of darkness.” Our peer network, now wider and more diverse because of globalization, is the undercover creator of our individuality. A middle schooler is acutely aware of that!

Middle School Can Be a Petri Dish for Cultivating Democracy

William Alexander, the father of the middle school movement, was also aware of influence of the social network on the 11- to 14-year-old brain. With this in mind, Alexander asked us to consider the middle school age as its own container within which we should practice experiential, real-world, and values-based education. In his address at the Tenth Annual Conference for School Administrators, Alexander offers that:    
“As boys and girls are challenged in the middle grades to assume responsibility for their own actions, to respect each other and the adults with whom they associate, and to distinguish right from wrong, truth from falsehood, they can grow to a real independence. Every class, every pupil-teacher conversation, every school activity is a setting for the development of values. The responsiveness of the older children and preadolescent makes the middle grades an especially desirable level for a continuing emphasis on this aspect of education.”
Consider that Alexander delivered this address in the South in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1963, and then connect it to America’s struggle over its own values during the Civil Rights movement. Alexander was putting middle school education in a socially relevant context. Now, 50 years later, one could argue that the United States is on the cusp of a movement with similar undertones the bubbling over of suppressed rage from oppressed peoples, the passage of legislation that extends civil rights to target populations, and the imperative for political leaders to explicitly fall on one side or the other on issues of diversity and inclusivity.  At this time, we must make the middle school a ripe petri dish for cultivating democracy political and emotional.

Baltimore Riots Become a Teachable Moment

While it sounds like a tall order, mostly it is a matter of noticing and leaning into a teachable moment. Inspired by the backdrop of Harriet Tubman’s birthplace (an unknown aspect of what I thought was a trip only about the ecology of the Bay), I awakened the next morning and engaged my sixth-graders at breakfast: “Who has heard of what happened earlier this week in Baltimore, just before we left on our trip?” Most of the hands shot up. I asked a student to explain what happened to those who may not have been aware of the riots that took place an hour from our campus. Then, in our Episcopal tradition, we opened breakfast with a morning prayer, in which we prayed together for the City of Baltimore and all of its citizens, and we prayed for our country, that we might find a way to extend the arm of justice to wrap around all of us. And, in recognition of our privilege, we prayed that the safety that we enjoyed each day would spread to all people, as everyone had the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  After a hearty “Amen,” breakfast commenced. 
As I walked around to the small table groups to listen in on the breakfast chatter, I realized that my students had not simply prayed and moved on. They were talking about Baltimore, and Ferguson, and right and wrong, and the importance of protecting officers and citizens, and whether they agreed or disagreed with one another, and the personal connections they had to the topic. As a group, they were practicing emotional democracy. All they needed was a framework, a platform, and a sense from their principal that it was OK to engage. 

The Battle Continues with Sharper Tactics

I always knew that being both a middle school principal and a diversity advocate were, in many ways, similar to fighting a battle, but until recently I had not considered the modern utility of the Trojan Horse. Middle schools must engage the peer network the soldiers camped inside the Horse and steer them toward cultural sensitivity and emotional democracy. Teaching values directly at the middle school level may be waging an ineffective war, but teaching the art of discerning and negotiating one’s values within a community of peers may be the winning tactic.   


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