By the time kids strut, slink or otherwise traipse into middle school classrooms like mine, the social tiers are mostly set and the stratification we see is often neither pretty nor kind.
Middle school might be Ground Zero for the lonely heart, but the battle for social control starts much sooner.
As early as first grade, primary level teachers report seeing the emergence of a “popularity hierarchy.” Self appointed big fish begin calling the social shots: who is worthy of a prime seat on the bus, cafeteria and recess playmate assignments, clothing assessments, the early childhood grapevine.
Our littlest ones navigating the new, vast–and sometimes scary– world of school are perhaps most vulnerable to exclusion and least able to self-assert. It is hard enough to remember if you are buying lunch or what to pack up at the end of the day. You are learning to read, to add and subtract. Talking back to a strong, confident peer? Not on the list of things to do today.
And speaking up only gets more difficult as kids transition to the uncertainties of middle school where alliances shift between periods, where acceptance can be as elusive as an algebraic equation, where hearts seem meant to broken.
If Abraham Maslow was correct, immediately after securing basic physical and safety lifelines, all humans crave a sense of belonging. Everyone needs to feel she is among friends, with people who accept and love her for who she is. We all need groups where we can contribute and be valued.
What Educators Can Do
Words As Tools
Words are power. Teachers model this every day intuitively when we choose our speech carefully, when we praise kids for effort, when we subtly reword misunderstanding to lead kids toward more precise responses. Teachers interact with kids and with each other knowing that all eyes are on us. Words can create a shared language, empowering kids to find appropriate means to self-assert. Little kids–and even not-so-little kids–are often neither fluent nor confident enough to articulate feelings. We can help them use words as tools to set personal boundaries and speak for themselves and their peers. Word Walls support content area literacy. Word Walls can also help kids say what they want–need–to say about themselves to others. Examples include common phrases of courtesy–please, thank you, excuse me and the more focused vocabulary of self assertion–I respect what you say, but…I need a little more time to think…Can you help me?…I don’t think you mean to be unkind, but…that is a great idea…
Make Instructional Time Do Double Duty
There is power in sharing ideas. Use content area instruction to simultaneously promote critical thinking and character education. Getting kids to think beyond names, dates, formulas, plot lines enriches lessons and can support their personal growth as well. What are our responsibilities as citizens of Planet Earth? Should individuals and nations share knowledge and innovations freely for the common good? How much courage did it require to help Anne Frank or stand up to Yertle the Turtle? What are the benefits of genetic engineering? Evaluate Truman’s decision to use atomic weaponry. When kids consider content area concepts in personal and ethical contexts, they own the material. They also have opportunities to see the value and consequences of individual actions.
Monitor Collaborative Activities
There is power in learning together. Through structured lessons, individuals become contributing members of groups, simultaneously developing both academic and social skills. Clearly established ground rules and roles ensure that every pupil interacts with both the material and with peers. It requires planning and foresight to create balanced groups and to uncover ways for every child to bring his strengths to the table. Continuous close monitoring prevents exclusion or domination. Because kids cannot police themselves or each other, adults must be alert to subtle signals of marginalization or a power grab. Despite the additional work lessons like these call for, the ROI (return on investment) is great: confidence, satisfaction, acceptance, respect.
All of these efforts lead to the ultimate goal: a learning family created out of accidents of proximity. As in any family, each individual is an integral part of the whole, valued and also responsible to his kin. Embedded in this “family” are security, safety, and acceptance. Kids will learn more effectively under these conditions, but they will also grow into themselves, finding courage to speak up, finding confidence to explore their strengths, finding reasons to be kind, responsible, generous.
Teaching is so much more than being an expert in your field. It is more than test scores and data. I wasn’t yet a teacher when Christa McAuliffe said, “I touch the future; I teach,” but in the years since, I have come see that as our challenge. Not only are we helping kids become scientists and scholars, we are creating the next generation.