Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry is a new book from Harvey “Smokey” Daniels (@smokeylit) and Sara Ahmed (@SaraKAhmed). Upstanders invites you into the classroom of Sara Ahmed to see her teaching in action. With Smokey Daniels as your guide you'll see exactly how Sara uses inquiry to turn required middle school curricular topics into questions so fascinating that young adolescents can't resist investigating them. In our Upstanders blog series, Sara and Smokey will highlight topics in the book related to middle school and helping kids go from bystanders to Upstanders. This week, Sara and Smokey write about some of the challenges of teaching middle schoolers.
Adapted from "Upstanders" by Sara K. Ahmed and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels
SMOKEY: If you mention to everyday civilians that you teach middle school, they usually express some kind of discomfort: they roll their eyes, shake their heads, offer condolences, or say things like, “Wow, that must be a rough job” or “You’re lucky you didn’t have me in your class, I was such a pain in the ass in middle school.” Sometimes they express gratitude, as if you were a first responder to the “hurricane of hormones” that middle schools are supposed to be. Sometimes they say, “Well, I certainly could never handle those kids.” And you think, right, you probably couldn’t.
SARA: The responses I get range from amusing (horrifying) personal stories about the “worst years of my life” to condolences (“God, I hated middle school, I’m sorry”). It’s always a wonder to me that people feel so bad about their early adolescence. My first response to these confessions is generally an awkward laugh, but I always try to pacify or sugarcoat their memories. I reassure them that I actually love middle schoolers and they are a really fun group of humans to learn alongside. It’s as though I need to convince people that adolescents are also real human beings, with normal feelings, who are trying to find a comfortable zone within their identity, just like everyone else. And really, they are funny, funnier—than any adult I’ve met.
SMOKEY: And that’s a serious point. I’ve had some colleagues who were angry at the kids a lot of the time, mostly for stuff that just comes with the territory, y’know? If these kids don’t amuse you, if you aren’t laughing with them a fair amount of the time, you might be working at the wrong grade level. We love these kids the way the youngest part of them needs us to.
SARA: If we practice a habit of perspective, we can try to understand why people respond so strongly to this age level. Sixth graders can enter your room at nine, ten, or eleven. They leave the middle school environment when they are fourteen or nearly there. The social, emotional, physical, and cognitive growth is rapid and ethereal. This can cause turbulence for parents and teachers, but mostly the middle schoolers themselves. Any and all relationships can be challenged during these years: parent vs. child, teacher vs. child, coach vs. child, peer vs. peer. There is no magic wand to fix this, no blog that has the right advice and tools. There is only compassion and empathy, and definitely, a good sense of humor.
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Sara K. Ahmed has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools. Harvey "Smokey" Daniels has been a city and suburban classroom teacher and college professor, and now works as a national consultant and author on literacy education.