Lessons From My Middle Schoolers – Part 1: They Want a Seat at the Table

It’s weird to think that for little over a quarter of a century, I have had the distinct honor of being a teacher to a delightful group of little people: middle schoolers. However, I suppose the term little people may not be entirely accurate as quite a few of them tower over me from the get-go. 

The term middle school tends to bring back horrible memories for adults and quite a bit of anxiety for the little people who are about to enter this new chapter in their lives. But I find that working with middle schoolers has made me a better teacher, listener, communicator, learner, curriculum designer, analyst, and all-around human-being.

Middle schoolers bring such life to a classroom. As each of them are going through puberty at different times during the school year, their emotions and physical growth come in spurts and plateaus. One minute they are on the verge of tears and the next they are laughing hysterically. They sometimes enter the class angry, and then like a switch, they are giggling and chiding each other. A few enter with a swag to their walk that they are trying on like a new piece of clothing—to be discarded the very next day as they try a different swagger. Some come with their own brand of particulars: five sharpened pencils lined up on the right side of the desk, color-coded brush pens for note-taking, or a small stuffed animal on their lap for comfort. Others come in a mad dash to beat the bell with a backpack that is partially (or in some cases not-at-all) zipped up—leaving a trail of pencils, papers, and whatnot in their wake. My personal favorite are the ones whose backpack or binder explodes all over the place whenever they open it. Even the solemn ones come with personal preferences. They only want to to write in black even when the task calls for color-coding terms. They don’t want anyone to see their face so they comb their hair in such a manner that only their nose is visible. These little people never fail to bring a smile to my face.

Because middle schoolers are children, some may want to write them off when they start to share their thoughts and opinions.

But that would be a mistake. 

While middle schoolers may not be able to clearly articulate what they are trying to say, they need to opportunity to practice their speaking skills. They need to not only learn how to frame an argument with evidence to back up their statement, but they also need to develop listening skills which only comes through practice.

The political and societal events of the past several years along with the increased connectivity and use of social media among middle schoolers have converged to provide middle schoolers with a platform from which to share their thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, middle schoolers have always had an opinion—video games, professional sports teams, bands/songs, you name it—but now they have access to issues that were normally the purview of adults. And because middle schoolers have grown up with technology in their hands, they are well-versed on how to find more information about a particular topic of interest. 

The problem, however, is teaching them how to find reputable sources. After all, we don’t need more people in the echo chamber (it’s already too crowded), but rather we need people who are capable and willing to look at all sides of an issue so that they can form their own opinion and clearly articulate their own thoughts.

Most middle schoolers have no problem jumping into a debate about things they are passionate about. They will use any and all means to argue their point to the point of death. I am sure many parents can attest to that fact especially if they have more than one middle schooler in their house at the same time. So, make no mistake, middle schoolers are not afraid to use their voice.

When it comes to political and societal issues, however, middle schoolers need to do more investigation and research if they want to clearly articulate their point without it coming down to a shouting match or physical blows. Their limited background knowledge about history, trends, and patterns is a constraint when having to think on the fly. 

They want a seat at the table. And I welcome their presence.

To be an effective communicator, middle schoolers need to be exposed to and diligently practice key literacy skills such as critical thinking, listening, speaking, writing, and reading. Although some may naturally develop these skills on their own or through mentoring by a parent or older sibling, in my experience, many middle schoolers lack these key literacy skills which put them at a disadvantage if they truly want a seat at the table for some of the big ticket political and societal issues of the day.

So, what can we do as educators to help equip middle schoolers with the skills necessary to be thoughtful participants in national and global issues? 

Enter —> Tools of a Historian.

The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) has put together four tools to help students develop analytical skills:

  • Sourcing: Who wrote this? What is the author’s perspective? Why was it written? When was it written? Where was it written? Is it reliable? Why? Why not?
  • Corroboration: What do other sources say? Do the documents agree? If not, why? What are other possible documents? What documents are most reliable?
  • Contextualization: What and where was the document created? What was different then? What was the same? How might the circumstances in which the document was created affect its content?
  • Close Reading: What claims does the author make? What evidence does the author use? What language (i.e., words, phrases, images, symbols) does the author use to persuade the document’s audience? How does that document’s language indicate the author’s perspective?

Although these tools were developed for reading historical sources, they are equally valuable when analyzing video and images as well. The history teachers in my network are all aware of the SHEG resources, and we agree that students need to hone these critical skills if they want to be articulate when participating in a discussion for class or on social media.

Sourcing, corroboration, contextualization, and close reading have always been important tools when studying history—but these skills are even more important today with the proliferation of sources available online. We need to teach our students how to wade through the muck to discern whether a source is credible (or not) and whether a source will add value to the discussion (or not). 

My middle schoolers want a seat at the table. And it should be our collective goal as educators to ensure that they have the skills necessary to make good use of that seat.

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