When considering exploring socially conscious themes
with middle school students, including such topics as
racial and social inequality, poverty, environmental
protection, and LGBTQ rights amongst many others,
there is a gap in the research and in the practical
methodology of creating inclusive environments rich
in dialogue specifically for the young adolescent
learner (grades 4 - 8). This article outlines a method
that encourages student exploration of the relevant
socially conscious theme of integrity. As they engage
in lively and authentic dialogue, ultimately reaching
new levels of critical thinking, students apply
understandings in ways that can help them make a
difference in themselves, their peers, their community,
and the world.
The theme of integrity was selected because it
aligns with the pillars of social-emotional learning
(SEL); with the Peace Literacy initiative goal to, “make
good decisions, take effective actions…” (https://
www.peaceliteracy.org/); and with AMLE’s core value
of integrity in practicing inclusive and courageous
behaviors. While powerful for teaching the theme,
this lesson is transferable for use with other socially
conscious and equally important themes. This
transferability allows teachers flexible and diverse
opportunities for implementation.
Socially Conscious Theme of Integrity
Young adolescents may “begin to exhibit the ‘I don’t
care’ attitude right around the glorious middle school years” (Werner-Burke et al, 2012, p. 45), thus providing
an opportunity to integrate learning experiences in
which learners can develop the tools to begin looking
beyond themselves. Acting with integrity is one such
way to do so. Integrity requires alignment between
one’s behavior and moral/social values over time and
across social contexts (Dunn, 2009). A person acts
with integrity by making decisions and taking action
in ways that uphold the interests and well-being of the
community. Social consciousness embodies integrity.
Student motivation to fully engage in an inclusive
environment is heightened when, through dialogue,
learners realize that all voices are accepted and
expected. “Students need to experience and learn to
appreciate how conversation can spiral, leading them
to higher quality ideas and actions when they truly
listen to each other and reflect upon what others are
saying” (Shanklin, 2010, p. 64).
Structured discussion strategies like Snowballing
(Brookfield and Preskill, 2016), guide learners as
they build on initial ideas, thoughts, and perceptions
through scaffolded collaboration and reflection.
Beginning with independent reflection, learners
respond to prompts, then share their initial thinking
in pairs, then move into progressively larger groups.
At each stage, theme understanding “become[s]
expanded, deepened, and reconfigured as the group
size increases” (p. 49).
Strategies like Snowballing foster student teamwork
and collaboration, heightening learners’ critical
thinking. Because learning is a social and cultural
process in which knowledge is co-constructed
(Vygotsky, 1978), collaboration and dialogue are key
to deepened understanding. Together, learners move
beyond their surface understanding of a theme. By
intensifying their critical thinking, learners reflect
on their own actions and those of others, ultimately
exemplifying the theme through meaningful action.
Integrity: The Lesson
In this modified version of Snowballing, students
explore integrity by identifying a character or
historical figure’s implicit and explicit traits. They
develop metaphors that describe the character or
historical figure’s integrity and use metaphors as a
rich discussion tool. Students simultaneously make
connections, engage in higher level thinking, use
dialogue to explain thinking, and are afforded the opportunity to deflect their own experiences onto that
of the character or historical figure.
Explain that all individuals explicitly and implicitly
reveal their integrity through their thoughts, speech,
decisions, and actions. Several reflective and analytical
questions can be asked to identify traits that illustrate
integrity. To assist learners in identifying these as
they read independently, in small groups, or as a whole
class, provide guiding prompts, such as:
What do you notice about the character/historical figure?
What does the character say?
Note the character’s actions.
Document the decisions made.
Describe how integrity is or is not demonstrated.
Chronicle the character’s decision-making
Identify how the character changes over time.
What doesn’t the character say?
How does the character reflect on his or her
Structure the next steps by starting with student
pairs. Remind students of the theme: integrity.
Independently, learners answer the prompts and
provide evidence from the text.
Move students into pairs to share their individual
prompt responses and work collaboratively to
generate a list of traits both explicit (speech and
actions) and implicit (thoughts and decisions). For
example, the pair could describe a character or
historical figure as being confident (explicit), fair
(explicit), egocentric (implicit), and having a sense of
Grow the snowball once the pairs have had ample time
to collaboratively generate a list of explicit and implicit
character traits by reconvening the whole class. While
pairs share out, document their ideas for all to see,
including their rationale for each trait, and textual
With the list of traits generated, melt the snowball by
directing the original pairs of students to join another
pair, making a group of four. Ask each group of four to
choose a trait either from the whole-class list or one of their own choosing and to brainstorm and select a
metaphor that can be used to fully explore the theme.
Using large chart paper, the group then creates a
visual representation of that trait using their selected
metaphor. They clarify and provide reasoning for how
the metaphor represents integrity. For example, to
illustrate a character or historical figure that rises
above ego-centrism a group could use the metaphor
of eyeglasses. The initial use of eyeglasses could then
be extended by explaining that a person visits an
optometrist to obtain an accurate prescription just as
a person who acts with integrity may consult with a
trusted individual to ensure they are seeing a person
or situation clearly and are therefore responding in a
way that shows integrity.
After displaying their visual representation, each small
group shares their metaphor and rationale with the
whole class. Group members collaborate to make the
explicit connection between their selected metaphor
and the theme of integrity. While students actively
listen, they hear the varying metaphors presented
by other groups and subsequently build upon their
understanding of the theme. These discussions can help
students extend their own metaphor, clarifying, and
broadening their perception of what integrity is. This, in
turn, will influence and hone their skills in connecting
the theme to real life experiences and decisions.
Melt the snowball again by having students engage
in individual reflection to internalize what it means
to have integrity in future real-life situations as they
become change-agents in their own and other’s
lives. To clarify and teach deep reflection, model
it by conducting a think aloud linking one of the
metaphors to a situation in your own life in which you
experienced or acted with integrity.
Once the process reflecting is modeled, provide
quiet uninterrupted think time for the students to
process and informally journal about their personal
connection to any one of the metaphors displayed in
the room. This time affords students the opportunity
to sort through meaningful situations in their own
lives where they have been faced with a choice that
required or compromised their integrity.
Step 8 (optional)
As desired, ask students to share their connection to
the theme with a small group. If incorporating this
step, it is important to inform students that they may
be sharing before they journal. It is also important that inclusive classroom practices are in place where
all listen without judgement and do not interrupt as
others share. While sharing, students may choose a
safe word such as “pass” if they prefer not to reveal
the situation they journaled about.
The powerful layering of theme and metaphor using
visuals, high-order thinking, listening, speaking, reading,
writing, and reflection creates a lesson that guides
students to a deepened understanding of the theme.
This understanding enhances one’s ability to self-assess,
reflect, and respond to situations with integrity.
When teachers empower students by teaching socially
conscious themes through structured activities like
Snowball and the development of metaphors, they
provide an opportunity to explore, question, and
connect to the ideas of others through purposeful
dialogue. Actively participating in authentic dialogue
about what integrity is and how characters and
historical figures do or do not exhibit integrity extends
critical thinking skills, engages learners in meaningful
conversation, creates an avenue for students to
reflect on their own integrity, and bolster's a young
adolescent's desire to positively impact the world.
Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (2016). Discussion as a way
of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic
classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Dunn, C. (January, 2009). Integrity matters.
Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/
Shanklin, N. (2010) Inventing your way into highquality
student discussions. Voices in the
Middle. 18(2), 63-65.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The
development of higher psychological processes.
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Werner-Burke, et al (2012). Bridging the disconnect:
A layered approach to jump-starting engagement. Voices from the Middle, 19(4), 45.
Karen L. Moroz, Ed.D. is an associate professor at
Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Jennifer Carlson, Ph.D. is a professor at Hamline
University, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2020.