I started off this year with 6th graders. It is my first year teaching. Some would suggest I had lost my mind. Others would say I threw myself from the frying pan into the fire. The truth is somewhere in the middle, but the reality of it was accompanied by the fact that I hadn't experienced 6th graders in a academic setting. I had done work in my local churches working with 5th and 6th graders over the last 20 years, but there is a marked difference in working with students once a week on Sunday when you can invoke the Most High to address classroom management and spending a full five days with kids for the better part of forty hours where He isn't an option in your management tool belt.
In February of 2017, I made a speech at Ignite Denver entitled, "Middle Schoolers are not Demons" and the context was pushing back on the idea that the students from 6th to 8th grade are terrifying to teach and anyone who decides to teach in those three academic years is someone you say, "Oh you poor dear", or "You are an angel to take on that group". That the age group is less than, worse than, or even hopeless/useless until they get to high school. There seems to the this concept of middle school as this great desert of nothing but drama, insane children who can't be taught, and every possible trope you can imagine in a post apocalyptic novel or film plus some more madness cherries on the top for good measure. The speech was well received, I was terrified to speak in front of 400 people, but I made my case. A year and a month later I was given a "Intent to Hire" letter on March 24th. 6th grade literacy was to be my game.
What I found out was that the basis of my idea wasn't wrong. Middle schoolers are not the demons people make them out to be. They are in the most confusing and messed up three years of their lives. Identity is all over the place, social power is like gold in the hills, people's opinions and words matter so much, and it's just a roller coaster of emotion, experience, and evolution - all starting in 6th grade. The wooden rickety terror filled ride kicks off again in 7th, and then they upgrade it to a rusty steel trap for 8th.
But...and there's always a 'but' in this kind of posts. There's always the other side of the mountain, the next book in the series, the next sequel, or the next episode after a cliffhanger. And this one was not a surprise, but it was a jarring experience. Kids are mean. And not intentionally (mostly, mind you) but they are unkind at times. Middle school kids figure out they can cause pain for pain inflicted, and often have no qualms about returning fire because that person did that to me and I can hurt them back. To call them out of it is to jolt them out of a fever dream or something - they immediately realize what they have done as wrong and in the moment make good on their error.
But (there's going to be a lot of these in this post, fair warning) that doesn't address the inherent problems that exist within their instinct. Their go to is unkindness. Their habit is to hurl insults, denigrate, and destroy. But (that's three!) as educators we have to ask - what world do they live in that tells them this is OK? Do yourself a favor and dive into the daily tumult that is cable television. Talking heads keelhaul each other all day long. Insults are traded. Our politician's (both sides, mind) invective is full of bullying, talking down, and outright insulting with approval from the media darlings, hosts, and influencers. Glance at Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. It's full of people shaming, dragging, dismissing with vitrol, and outright calling folks four (or more) lettered names, labels, and more. And it keeps going. The person on the other side spits it right back - and that's on all platforms. We have created a culture of bullying discourse from the highest mountain top to the lowliest village. And we wonder why kids are so mean?
So instead of pounding keys to keyboard on every platform I am a member of and trying to push back against a tidal wave of disappointing discourse, I decided it was time to try and show my students a different path. A different way of doing business. And it was a four piece platform.
Kindness. Compassion. Grace. Mercy. Those were my four words I chose. I took those four words on the board. And gave our kids a note card. I said, "We're going to do things differently starting today. And it starts with these four words." I told them what I had seen, heard, and the stuff I had heard rumors of existing in our hallways. That wasn't going to be something we do anymore. So we defined each word. Spent ten minutes exploring the definition and what it means for us as students in 6th grade. Here's how we defined each word:
Kindness - the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.
The words we focused on here was "friendly" which we shifted to "friendship, friend" - that the base of a friendship should be entwined with kindness. We dug into the definitions of generous - how can we do that with our fellow students? "Let them borrow a pencil - or just keep it!" was among the many suggestions. And lastly - considerate. Again - we wrestled with what does that look like in our classroom, hallways, school, and even community? The answers were insightful. Some of our students hadn't thought about it.
Compassion - empathetic understanding of someone’s distress together with a desire to help them.
Our second word was a big one - and I needed something to explain empathy. Luckily, there was a video
We watched the video and discussed it - why is it important we don't try and fix people's problems? As we started thinking and talking we began to understand the importance of just listening, sitting with someone and being present in their pain. But, (four!) we were not done with the word. We took another look at the definition, specifically the latter half of it where it says, "...with a desire to help them." I took a moment and showed them what it would look like without that second part - someone would come up and say, "That sucks, thank you for sharing", and they would then skip off to their next destination. I emphasized that help sometimes can just look like sitting there in the moment and just doing whatever that person says they need. Listening, sitting, singing, listening - it runs the gamut. We also watched this video on compassion.
Mercy - forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.
I used this one as the third and sometimes fourth word in the lesson because I wanted to build the scaffold of the other two to three words so that the word would have more power in the discovery as we unpacked it. And this is one of the hardest things for a 6th grader to wrap their heads around - never mind us adults! So we talked about forgiveness when we say sorry and someone receives it, accepts it and returns it. We also dug into revenge and why it's best served cold - which we took to mean not at all. There were multiple hands up when I asked, "If someone is unkind to you, how many of your return the unkindness?" and I then asked, "What good does that do?". The kids began to understand. Then I showed them the clip from A Knight's Tale where the protagonist shows mercy to his foe in the jousting ring and the antagonist in the stands suggests that, "Mercy is a weakness."
Grace - freely given without cost, need for a favor, or a reason.
The last word was Grace - and I felt it was key to close it out here with this. The idea that we owe people a favor, or that we're doing something for them because it's a rule, or someone told us to - I wanted to push back on that a little. I wanted us as a class and community to see that doing things without expectation for a returning favor was huge. We needed to see the possibility of doing things differently because we wanted to change for the better. We wanted our community to be one that doesn't give up on each other, that doesn't leave anyone behind, alone at lunch, or on the playground. That we would do things because we wanted to, because we cared, because we were kind, compassionate, merciful, and full of grace.
I found the results mixed - we had started it halfway through the year and it was going to take time. However, I would hear kids say to another, "Remember kindness, grace, mercy, compassion," in varying forms and orders. It also helped in class if someone said something or did something, I would gently remind, "Hey, remember those words we talked about?", and it generally helped to steer a kid back on track.
I want to close this out by saying this isn't the only way to break the mold in our classrooms and communities. There are so many ways to help our kids see why tossing the mean card into the discard is so powerful and important. I do want to challenge the teachers out there - I feel you do need to do something in your classroom and community to push back against the tide of bullying, unkindness, and general lack of compassion we see in the world. If we don't take a stand against it in some capacity - our students will see us and know us to be unwilling or unable to stand up for them and others.
This will evolve in my second year and I'll post an update link to show how we expanded, revised, and reworked it. Thanks for reading! Feel free to find me on twitter - adelayedteacher!
I hope to see you in the classroom!