Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Moving into Action: Middle Level Learners as Change Agents

Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Moving into Action: Middle Level Learners as Change Agents

Article excerpt

"Studentsin the middle grades... have the ability to perceive deep truths and are making decisions that will affect the way they live the rest of their lives. This transitional time between childhood and adulthood is the prime time to introduce students to important concepts, such as the need to seek social justice. "

(Gerstung, 2013)

At the La Crosse Design Institute (LDI) during the 2015-16 school year, students engaged in trimester-long, cross-curricular projects:

* A sixth grader passionate about animal causes gave back to the community by organizing and leading a year-long fundraising campaign for the local Humane Society.

* Sixth and seventh graders planned and led professional development on racism, sexism, and LGBT issues to university students and faculty.

* Two seventh graders designed, created, and sold duct tape wallets sending proceeds to support education equity initiatives in Mali, Africa.

* Concerned over comments made by politicians, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders tackled metaphorical walls built up in society via the creation of their own social justice wall.

Why Do Projects Matter?

These projects were not part of an after-school initiative nor a unit that takes place once a year. Rather these projects are manifestations of a curriculum that honors student voice and student agency with a focus on middle level learners as change agents. This matters because, in an era of high stakes testing, the principal and advisors at LDI have not allowed accountability to stifle student creativity and voice. Instead, they have fostered a school culture of risk-taking and have found by providing their middle level learners with ownership over the curriculum, their students are aptly meeting accountability standards while engaged in projects of social significance.

Student Voice

"I have a million ideas for projects that it makes it hard to choose where to start. I love that there is choice, and it's mine. I get to study and do projects on what I am interested in, while I'm still in school. I don't study some historical event just to study it. I figure out how it relates to me, to my life today."

Tami, 7th grade

In their 1999 book Curriculum Integration: Twenty Questions - With Answers, Gert Nesin and John Lounsbury reminded educators that when young adolescents are asked about their concerns and given voice in curricular decisions they take this charge with a robust level of seriousness leading to curricular themes grounded in social significance. Middle level guru Chris Stevenson (2004) has stressed that responsive middle level teaching involves thoughtful consideration of the developmental and learning needs of the young adolescent, needs that require an aggregate, integrated understanding of how curriculum themes address their personal and social concerns. Further, curriculum integration scholar James Beane encourages middle level teachers to ask questions such as "Do young people have a say in what happens in the classroom? Does the curriculum include space to learn about and work on personal and social issues both in and outside of school?"

Being mindful of the recommendations of Nesin, Lounsbury, Stevenson, and Beane, the advisors and principal at LDI have committed to providing their students with "curricular voice," and what has emerged is high-quality projects where students demonstrate their knowledge of content in an integrated fashion, and, as one might predict, their projects largely center on social justice issues.

At LDI, the curriculum is based on the questions and interests of the students. Oftentimes, these questions and interests are grounded in issues of equity, access, and power. As the students explore these questions and interests, they interface with knowledge across content areas, address varied curriculum standards, and often collaborate with members of the community to develop and create prodigious projects.

Student as Change Agent

"The Humane Society has helped us with our animals when they have gotten lost. …

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