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Upstanders: What Middle Schools Should Look Like


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 weaves content, collaboration, skill building, and engagement to help her kids transform from bystanders who pass the course but passively watch the world happen to them to academically successful “upstanders.” In our ongoing Upstanders blog series, Sara and Smokey take a closer look at the middle school model. This blog is a selection written for the book.

What Middle Schools Should Look Like

by Sara K. Ahmed and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels

Just as with the kids, there are also some pretty negative stereotypes about middle schools themselves. The Urban Dictionary offers this dispiriting definition:

middle school

  1. A place where your parents drop you off to be ripped apart by your equals.
  2. Where you go from being a sweet, cute, elementary school kid to being a poser goth cutter listening to Avril Lavigne.
  3. Where your hopes and dreams are shattered just in time for the next pit of hell: high school.

Mom, don’t make me go back to middle school today. I’ll be given wedgies and noogies and have my lunch money stolen!

In schools where such sad and destructive rituals are lived out—and they do exist—the adults running that school have not yet taken all the actions that are available to change this cartoonish but genuinely destructive dynamic. In fact, even adults who know better may buy into these stereotypes when they feel things are out of their control.

We think that the idea of middle schools, developed by progressive educators in the 1960s and ’70s, was a wise, healthful, and sophisticated design for kids. The original and still best design for middle schools is exquisitely well suited to the developmental tasks and needs of kids at this age. An authentic middle school experience embodies the following characteristics, keeping kids at the center of the school’s mission and vision:

  • personal relationships between kids and teachers
  • small-group advising and individual conferring
  • collaboration and teamwork
  • democratic living
  • authenticity/relevance
  • heterogeneous grouping (no leveled tracking)
  • curriculum integration across disciplines
  • project/inquiry-based/exploratory learning
  • social justice/action/problem solving
  • choice and exposure to a well-rounded curriculum
  • service learning
  • individualized assessment
  • community spirit

These design principles attracted teachers who not only loved the kids and learning, but who also wanted to raise upstanding, principled, engaged citizens.

Sadly, today there are more signs marking “middle schools” than there are actual middle schools behind the signs. If you look up the number of official middle schools in America, you will find over fourteen thousand buildings so designated—and only about six hundred still calling themselves junior highs. This might lead you to think that these thousands of schools are carrying out middle-level education as we described above. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Many were never actual middle schools to begin with. Others started strong but gradually shed their principles. Most today are middle schools in name only, with few if any of the key design features in evidence. What is somewhat easier to find are individual teachers or teams carrying on within schools that have otherwise given up on the model.

You can help to build a strong middle level culture for your students.

Now, much as we believe in the middle school model, we are not dogmatic about what specific grade levels constitute a “real” middle school: no matter whether you’re teaching in a 6–8 school, a 5–8 school, on the top floor of a K–8 school, or in a 6–12 arrangement like Sara’s current setting, you can help to build a strong middle level culture for your students. And you do that by living out the principles of personalization, collaboration, choice, exploration, authenticity, democracy, and all the rest.

For anyone wishing to better understand the origins, development, and struggles of the middle school movement, we strongly recommend the resources by James Beane listed in the Works Cited. Jim was one of the leaders of the true middle school movement back in the 1970s. His wife, Barbara Brodhagen, was an ace middle school teacher making it happen in the classroom for kids. Their work is documented in several practical and inspiring books, the best known of which is Democratic Schools (2007), which Jim edited with Mike Apple.

Click here to see more of Upstanders

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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. 

Topics: Teaching-General, Harvey "Smokey" Daniels, Middle School, Sara Ahmed, Upstanders

Date Published: 10/31/14

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