Activate the Motivation Molecule

Activate the Motivation Molecule

Using art to boost student motivation and build community

Dopamine is known as the "feel good" neurotransmitter, and we crave it because it lets us know that predicted rewards are coming. That first sip of coffee that signals caffeine will improve your mood and energy level, the burst of euphoria when you win a race, and the ping of your phone can all cause a release of dopamine that screams "pay attention!" In a world filled with distractions and constant temptations it is difficult for teachers in a classroom to compete with all the things that are demanding a child's attention. However, research shows that dopamine can also be a "motivation molecule" because it boosts our drive, determination, and concentration. The question then becomes how can we activate the motivation molecule for our students?

This year in my new role as the coordinator of alternative education and interventions, I've been given the freedom to try more innovative strategies and take risks to engage students who have not had good experiences with school. One area I knew I wanted to experiment with is integrating art into our daily routines and experiences. Additionally, I've found that creativity produces a "stickiness" for information, and that integrating art into the classroom is an amazing motivator.

Art can be used throughout a lesson or unit, but there's something to be said for using it as an activator. For example, this year my English class is going to center around the topic of identity. Before we did our first writing piece, a narrative of one of their beliefs, I asked students to paint a background, let it dry, and then create a collage of what they hoped their life would be like in five years. They chose quotes, photos, and created a visual that acted as a resource for their writing, as they needed to identify how their belief system would support their goals.

Students did an excellent job, and it required the least cajoling I've had to do this year. Their paintings, combined with the socializing they had while painting, produced dopamine, and it signaled that something good was going to happen next. When students began their writing, they were primed for a good experience.

However, the greatest takeaway wasn't the work they did, but the attitude they had about doing it. Students have requested opportunities to paint and create as a type of brainstorming. Just as they love to see the "Like" on social media or feel a spike in pleasure when they buy something they've been dying to have, painting impacts their social and emotional well-being as well by engaging them in something meaningful. Allowing students to create and work together has proven to be a powerful tool in building a safe space for the active sharing of ideas, and I highly recommend giving students this opportunity to enhance their learning. It activates the "motivation molecule" and helps learning stick, all while building community.

Amber Chandler is the coordinator of alternative education and interventions for Frontier Central School District in Hamburg, New York. She is a National Board Certified ELA teacher, the 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year, and a member of the AMLE Board of Trustees. Amber is author of The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2020.
Author: Amber Chandler
Number of views (1176)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Teaching
Creating a Mindful Classroom

Creating a Mindful Classroom

Four mindful practices to promote optimal learning in the middle school classroom

With all the talk about mindfulness and learning, are there simple mindful practices teachers can use to make students available for optimal learning? The answer seems to be promising as growing enthusiasm for professional development and mindful teacher certificate courses support a positive shift in the classroom.

Adopting mindful practice in the classroom helps promote self-awareness, self-reflection, self-regulation and sustained attention, which can support teacher efforts to put students at ease and therefore become fully available to access their learning potential.

Brain development in early adolescence is a time of rapid growth as the rational part of the brain begins to mature and connections between brain cells make learning pathways more permanent. Meanwhile, processes in the amygdala can trigger panic, impulsivity, and distractibility. As a result, getting middle schoolers to stay in the moment is not a polished skill, and acting on impulse instead of reason can be the norm.

Add screen time, texts, and social media to the mix and it becomes easy to see how a shorter attention span and increased anxiety correlates to a negative impact on learning.

Incorporating these four simple mindful practices in your middle school classroom may go a long way to help students reach their learning potential while keeping you calm along the way.

1. Get to know your students

Teachers who make an attempt to know about their students' passions and interests outside the classroom are able to show genuine interest and empathy. While subjects like language arts and foreign language are more conducive to teachers getting to know students through writing, those of you who teach analytical subjects like STEM can benefit from getting to know the whole student. One common activity is starting the year with an interest survey and then using this information throughout the year to connect with your students. When a middle school student fears algebra, a mindful teacher will recognize the challenge and access student strengths to reduce anxiety and build resilience. To test this theory of teacher-student connectedness, take a few moments to think about a favorite teacher from your childhood. Most people report that their favorite teachers were identified not by the content taught, but because the teacher showed empathy and made all students feel valued.

2. Create time for self-reflection

As teachers you already know that if students reflect on how they learn, they become better learners. A mindful middle school classroom provides constant opportunities for students to reflect on their learning. Infusing the use of "think time" into your everyday class routine is a powerful mindful practice. When teachers have a question they want to ask, the think time tool asks students to close eyes or cover their faces and take 30 seconds to self-reflect on the question posed. When using think time, I recommend teachers count down the last seven seconds. The use of think time as a mindful practice, allows slower processors time to come up with an answer and fast processors as well as "pleasers" to take a bit more time and think at a deeper level. Typically the slower processors don't pay much attention to formulating answers to thought provoking questions because they simply can't keep up.

Another way teachers can foster self-reflection is to introduce students to the cognitive executive function of metacognition. Metacognition defined simply as "thinking about thinking," helps students recognize at what point they get confused and then advocate for support. When teachers promote the mindful practice of self-reflection, students learn a far more valuable skill than the subjects themselves. Other mindful self-reflection tools like peer editing, revision, and "reflection exit slips," help students ask questions and demonstrate levels of lesson comprehension.

3. Slow down

With high expectations and increased accountability for teachers, making every minute count is key. Taking a few minutes during transitions for students to close their eyes and listen to a guided meditation, calm music, or a short breathing meditation may sound unrealistic, but when used consistently, this practice can increase teaching efficiency and improve student attention and general readiness to learn. Consider a sixth grade science class entering from recess and asked to listen to a series of complex directions for a lab experiment. Even a well-managed classroom could benefit from taking a "mindful minute" to help settle students and refocus attention before introducing directions to the lab experiment.

Being a middle school teacher means multitasking, and when we multitask our minds become full, which can cause our minds to race. When our minds race we should pay attention to changes in rate and pressure of speech. Teachers who speak at a fast rate can raise anxiety in students. If you notice your rate of speech is fast, try raising awareness of your breath and slow your breathing. Teachers who speak with a slow rate of speech often come across as more relaxed than teachers with pressured and rapid speech.

4. Practice what you preach

As teachers are asked to teach students with high levels of anxiety, distractibility, and impulsivity, it has become increasingly important to take time to address their own self-care. If you don't take time to take care of yourself by being mindful, how can you expect students to do the same? Teachers in New York City public schools participated in "Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education," or CARE, a mindfulness professional development program. According to Audrey Breen (, teachers in the program not only felt an improvement in their own well-being, they also felt an improvement in the quality of their classroom.

Self-care starts with getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and getting a moderate cardio workout three times per week for approximately 20 minutes. Mindful self-care allows you to be present and aware of your whole self in each moment. Being present in the moment promotes clarity, self-regulation, and sustained attention. Take time to learn how to tune out distractions and lower your stress response by practicing how to bring attention to your breathing. While driving to work I spend 15 minutes with the radio off and simply practice being present in the moment.

Self-care can also come in the form of a healthy activity, passion, time spent with those you care about (including pets), or time alone. Popular mindful activities include yoga, reading, walking, listening to music, cooking, meditating, drawing, playing an instrument, volunteering, cleaning, and working out.

Middle school teachers who adopt mindful practice throughout their daily lives are best prepared to put students' minds at ease in a classroom that promotes a healthy learning environment for all students.

David Hughes, LICSW is a social worker at West Middle School, Andover, Massachusetts.

Published November 2019.
Author: David Hughes
Number of views (7668)/Comments (3)/
Automation and Robotics in a 1:1 School District

Automation and Robotics in a 1:1 School District

Technology to enhance learning, hone teaching skills, and showcase student learning

My school district recently went 1:1, meaning each student receives their own district-issued Chromebook for use throughout the school year. As an Automation and Robotics teacher, I was interested to see how this change would affect my classroom and students. Technology had already been a big part of my curriculum, which included teaching students computer programming with several different programs, most notably RobotC and LEGO Mindstorms NXT/ EDR.

Unfortunately, RobotC and LEGO Mindstorms NXT/ EDR can't be downloaded onto Chromebooks. Because of this, I had to find different ways to incorporate this tool into my classroom and instruction. After two years in a 1:1 school district, I have incorporated four different strategies to leverage the power of the Chromebook on student learning.

Flipping the Classroom with Blended Learning

Students access different digital resources, including videos or interactive games, before they come to class. These resources introduce them to the next topic we will cover in class. Students also create tips and tricks-focused resources such as videos and slideshows for future students. Students access these resources on our class Google Classroom.

Personalizing Learning by Allowing Students to Work at their Own Speed
Utilizing Google Classroom, I post all the class challenges in order of completion. Students access these and then work at their own speed to complete. After demonstrating knowledge on their current assignment, I direct students to read about the next real-life challenge on Google Classroom. I check in with them after about five minutes to answer questions and provide support where needed. A hidden benefit of this is that I rarely print out or make class copies of the assignments; everything can be accessed digitally via Google Classroom.

Reflecting on their Learning via Digital Reflections and Check-Ins
Using the Google Education Suite products, especially Google Forms, I am able to consistently have students reflect on their learning. Students complete three different check-ins or reflections during the course of a class assignment (class assignments generally take one week to complete): once at the beginning of the challenge (after day 1), once in the middle, and then again when completed. These reflections are not all the same but are aimed at having students reflect on their learning along with assessing the group work dynamics of the assignment. Not only does this information help them, but it helps me better tailor my instruction and support to each individual student, the groups within a class, and the class as a whole.

Creating Digital Products of Student Learning
After each challenge, I have students create a video with their Chromebooks of their finished physical product. In the video, students explain the challenge, showcase their creation, and explain why they made it the way they did. At the end of the semester students create a slideshow combining these different videos together. This student-produced creation not only relives their learning over the course of the semester, but students can show this slideshow to various community stakeholders including principals, parents, family members, classmates, and neighbors. This has been a great way to showcase to the community the awesome things students are doing.

This technology has become a great tool to help students' learning, it has helped me be a better teacher, and it showcases student learning to community stakeholders.

Ross Hartley is a seventh grade automation and robotics teacher at Pickerington Ridgeview STEM Junior High School, Pickerington, Ohio.

Published October 2019.
Author: Ross Hartley
Number of views (3099)/Comments (0)/
How Can We Use Dialogue to Empower Our Students?

How Can We Use Dialogue to Empower Our Students?

Helping students understand themselves so they can understand the world

Allowing students to see perspectives other than their own is a critical component of transformative learning. In my current teaching environment, I get to see the results of this as students encounter other cultures through experiential travel and grapple with new perspectives in real time. Especially for younger students, traveling across the country, or to a different one, can provide the kind of "disorienting dilemma" that the pioneer of transformative learning, Jack Mezirow, prescribes as essential to creating new ways of seeing the world. But how can we foster these kinds of experiences and interactions from within the classroom?

The opportunities for making connections between local and global issues are endless, however, that is not what I want to focus on here. Instead, I am advocating for a holistic approach that engages students through deep, personal connections as a basis for tackling larger, global issues. As educators who work with younger students, we have a unique opportunity to awaken our students' curiosity at a time when their world seems to center only around themselves. Instead of viewing this as an impediment, I argue that it can, in fact, be a positive that begins with this: In order to understand the world, students must first understand themselves.

Fostering Transformation

I identify three main objectives for fostering transformation within our students.

  • Help our students understand their role in society.
  • Become aware of our own cultural assumptions and biases.
  • Help our students identify and make connections.

Despite the ego-centric tendencies of young learners, the fact is, they are very much products of the society they live in. The corollary of this is that they also have the potential to change that very society. Our world is beautiful, and it's convoluted. This complexity can be overwhelming and intimidating. But the revolutionary potential of education is that it provides agency, no matter how small we may seem. We are lucky to have the opportunity to convey this sense of wonder to our students. Understanding our collective, shared role as actors is the first step towards positioning our students to recognize their own agency and appreciate others' roles and perspectives.

We must also become aware of our own cultural assumptions and understand the processes that explain our relationships. Another joy of teaching is constantly learning and growing alongside our students. We cannot begin to understand their struggles, their beliefs, and their worldview, without understanding our own. Consider the cultural "baggage" and biases you may bring to the classroom. What aspects of your own life influence the way you see your students and the kind of engagement you are attempting to facilitate?

Use this critical framework to help students identify and make connections between issues in their school, community, the nation, and beyond. In this stage, students are equipped to synthesize connections by analyzing their own life experiences within a cultural, political, and historical context.

Where Are Your Students Coming From?

One of the most fundamental actions as educators is to understand where our students are coming from—both literally and figuratively. Two important questions I always ask are, "Where has this student's interest come from?" and "Why does this student have this level of skill and not another?"

Understanding your students' socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds has implications in all aspects of teaching. Considering your students' backgrounds can also help you engage them in issues that extend far beyond their community. For students who do not have access to travel, this can be challenging. But as I will show, utilizing aspects of transformative, emancipatory learning, we can empower our students to think critically and make global connections.

In his groundbreaking work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed—a book that has had a profound influence on my own teaching and worldview—the late Brazilian activist and educator, Paulo Freire, speaks of human consciousness as emerging from the world around it. Only by objectifying the world and naming it, can we begin to understand and transform it.

Critical Self-Reflection

The critical component to understanding and empathizing with others, which can often get overlooked in the classroom, is the act of critical self-reflection. To understand other points of view, we first need to understand our own frames of reference and the assumptions that inform ours. These assumptions are simply another way of naming the social and cultural forces that shape our relationships to others in our community, our family structures, and our habits in thinking, which have, until now, remained unchallenged. These can lead us to view some groups of people in ways that do not foster compassion, understanding, and solidarity. Acknowledging their existence is key to honest critique.


Freire ascribes an almost revolutionary power to dialogue. The goal of reflective learning is not simply to reiterate facts and dominant narratives, but to reckon with and understand the structures that give rise to the world around us. Dialogue, in this sense, consists of two components, reflection and action, which, together, create opportunities for discovery and transformative change. In the classroom, this can take the form of simple actions like Socratic questioning and the iterative (back-and-forth) process of constructive critique.

Do not be afraid to challenge your students to clarify their views and justify their opinions. It is obvious that students want to discuss some controversial topics. Some of them may just need a little help articulating their point of view. Ask questions such as, "Why do you believe your opinion on this issue is just?" and "Why might those who disagree with you say their perspective is just?" This can open the conversation to all participants and build empathy.

One way to do this is to recognize and highlight students' shared individual and collective experiences. What are the issues affecting them outside the walls of your classroom? Through the practice of dialogue, it is vital that we seek to understand our student's struggles and the concerns that preoccupy them, however trivial, mundane, or exasperating they may seem to us. We might then be forced to confront the assumptions in our own lives that lead us to view our students' problems and issues in this way.


If you have never attempted this level of dialogue and critical self-reflection with your students, this can be a daunting task. Perhaps at this point, you may need to step back and consider the role of trust within your classroom. Trust, like love, involves vulnerability and demands a horizontal relationship between subjects. Through a transparent process of critical self-reflection and inquiry, you can gain the trust of your students and begin to form the kinds of personal bonds that will encourage them to explore the more vulnerable aspects of their identity and sense of self. When a student is engaged in serious dialogue with a teacher or adult they trust, not only will they become more open with their feelings and opinions, but this also greatly increases the potential for examining and challenging the values they've previously taken for granted.

It's not about being "cool." Engaging students on their level means giving them a platform to express their own realities and having the level of awareness to acknowledge them and where they are. Establishing a horizontal relationship in the classroom is about democratizing the learning process through dialogue, not a total break with all established norms.

Empowerment & Action

By engaging your students in dialogue, you are empowering your students to take control of their learning and opening the possibility for meaningful connections. Only when our students' personal experiences are validated and "legitimized" by adults, will they be prepared to extend the same respect and recognition to the experiences of others.

Through dialogue and empowerment, we can help students find their voice at a time when so much of their world is changing and evolving. The goal is to bring students to the intersection of reflection and action alluded to earlier, what Freire termed praxis, or informed action. At this point, you can begin to explore concrete connections. Encourage students to become involved in politics, whether that's student council or city council. Ask your students what they would change in their community, if they could, and then research ways to turn this rhetoric into reality. Even if the odds are long, what can students do to inform and begin to build connections within their community? What are other groups and communities doing to confront similar challenges? Let us empower our students to sympathize with the struggles and perspectives of people from diverse backgrounds.

March for Our Lives and the recently re-energized climate debate sparked by young activists in the Sunrise Movement and the 16-year-old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, have inspired similar movements across the world. Together, they provide an inspiring model for collective action in the face of daunting odds. By recognizing our shared humanity and naming the structural forces that underlie society, students can begin to make concrete connections with the experiences and lives of others.


Freire, P. (1996). The pedagogy of the oppressed. East Rutherford, NJ: Penguin.

Robert Moreno is a curriculum developer for WorldStrides and is based in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2019.
Author: Robert Moreno
Number of views (4538)/Comments (0)/
Consider Connections

Consider Connections

Integrating social responsibility across the content areas

During middle school, students begin to strengthen their ideas and beliefs about themselves and the world around them. To become socially responsible citizens, students need the skills to explore controversial issues through various lenses, respect the ideas of others, better understand themselves, and determine how they can impact change. These skills can be developed across content areas by providing students opportunities to make connections between the curriculum and today's world. As students make these connections they begin to understand the relevance of the content and the value of their own ideas, and they feel empowered to use their knowledge to work towards making a positive change.


By asking questions like the ones below, teachers encourage students to make meaningful connections between the content and its impact on the world. Posing these questions as part of a small or large group discussion, helps students hear the ideas of others. When students are first introduced to these questions it can seem laborious because it is a new way of thinking. As they practice, it starts to become automatic. As they approach academic content, they consider how what they are learning can lead to a better understanding of the challenges faced in our society and how to work towards positive change.

How do I know this information is credible?
What could our society learn from _______?
How does _______ relate to our current world?
How can this knowledge be best used to improve our community?
How can you apply this lesson to your own life?
How could these facts help inform others?


Including reflection as part of students' learning routine helps students make connections between the content, themselves, and the world. A short writing prompt can guide students to think through their own ideas. Through this process students begin to better understand who they are and what they believe. I have found that when students begin these reflections, it is helpful to ask specific questions that guide them to making the connections. As the process becomes more familiar, general prompts allow them room to explore their ideas, with the final step being that students can reflect on any topic and make connections to themselves, other content areas, and society. I offer students a choice to post their reflections online and digitally interact with their peers, or to share their reflection with me privately.

Examining Sources

Students have access to unlimited information on the Internet. Taking time to examine these sources for credibility and bias helps students develop an essential skill needed to be an informed citizen. Examining sources for credibility leads to an open dialogue about what makes a credible source and why that is important. Examining statistics can demonstrate to students how numbers can be manipulated in favor of one cause and oppose another. By providing examples of multiple sources that provide different viewpoints on the same topic, students begin to see that it is essential to consider multiple sources when conducting formal or informal research and how even credible sources may provide conflicting information about the same topic. Asking questions such as the ones below can help students begin to discover how much misinformation is available and how checking sources is essential to being an informed citizen today.

Who is the author? Is there a reason to think they may present on one side of the situation?
When was this published?
Is the site or author trying to sell you something?
Can you find this same information on another site?
Are there other places that cite opposite facts?
What is the mission of the site you found the information? Is there any reason to think they are biased?

A follow up to this conversation is asking students how inaccurate information has the power to negatively impact society. This can be done in science by looking at information that has no basis in science though it's portrayed as "a scientific fact"; in history class by examining propaganda; in math when looking at misrepresented statistics; and in English students can use nonfiction reading strategies to examine various types of information.

Taking Action

Students are often told that what they are learning will help them in the future and that their generation will be our future leaders. Integrating social justice throughout the curriculum allows students to discover that their voice matters, their ideas are important, and they can impact positive change in their community as a middle school student. Provide outlets for students to voice their thoughts and ideas with their peers and in their local and global communities. Build in support for students who are moved to take action and call others to join them in action.

Open Dialogue–Students practice communicating with each other about current events they feel passionate about. Demonstrate to them how the events taking place in our world are connected to content across the curriculum and how these connections can help them better understand and work towards improving the world around them.

Elevator Pitch–Students write and practice a 1- to 2-minute "speech" about something they feel passionate about changing in their community. Encourage them to share their pitch with peers, parents, other teachers, and community members.

Write a Letter or Email to an Authentic Audience–Students research a topic that impacts their community and then research who in the community could help them impact change based on how they think changes need to be made. Students then write a letter to the community member that explains their research and calls the community member to action.

Speeches–Students practice research and public speaking skills by sharing ideas with their peers and calling them to action. We do this assignment as a school-wide grades 5-8 contest called The Spotlight Challenge. This provides students the opportunity to spotlight something they are passionate about and to encourage others to take action. See the February 2019 AMLE Magazine article "The Spotlight Challenge" at for details.

Real World Examples–Show students real world examples of diverse children who are making a difference in the world. Let them explore what inspired these individuals and how they went about impacting positive change. Students will see the power of using social media for good; adults can learn a lot from kids and the value of research, writing, and speaking skills when being an advocate.

The Power of Teaching Social Responsibility

Teaching social responsibility is a mindset that guides how I approach curriculum and students. Each day I consider how the content I am teaching can help students find their voice. I ask questions and assign writing that encourages students to confront their own bias, consider various perspectives, and discover that as humans we are all more alike than different. I work towards empowering students to see themselves as someone who can use their knowledge and passion to be an advocate for positive change.

Kasey Short teaches English and social studies at Charlotte Country Day School, where she also serves as English Department chair and Spotlight Challenge coordinator.

All photos provided by author.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2019.
Author: Kasey Short
Number of views (5819)/Comments (0)/
Welcome to the Inclusion Revolution

Welcome to the Inclusion Revolution

Growing a culture of inclusion builds bonds and improves opportunities for all students

For the life of me, I cannot remember having a significant interaction in middle school with my peers who had disabilities. I'm not a particularly forgetful person; I have many memories from my small town middle school in Iowa—some good ones, some bad ones, a lot of awkward ones. But it strikes me that I cannot remember a single, meaningful interaction with a student who was receiving special education services.

I remember seeing these students in the lunchroom, in the hallways, occasionally in my own classroom accompanied by a teacher's aide. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it was their right to be integrated into the school system. However, after getting a job with Special Olympics Minnesota, I now know there is a huge difference between integration and inclusion. I never studied with my peers who had disabilities. I never played sports with them. I never ate lunch with them. They were integrated into our school. They were not included.

Last spring, I visited South View Middle School in Edina, Minnesota, one of the most inclusive schools in the state. After witnessing their inclusive culture, it made my heart ache for what could have been my own middle school experience and, more importantly, the experience of my peers with disabilities.

Seeking to strengthen a culture of inclusion in their school, South View Middle School implemented "Peer Insights," a program that pairs students with and without intellectual disabilities to create authentic, lifelong friendships through unique experiences. "When we began, we couldn't imagine what it would grow to become. We just knew we wanted to do something that would grow the culture we were seeking to strengthen," said Tami Jo Cook, dean of students at South View and Minnesota Middle School Association Board of Directors member. In their first year implementing the program, 10 students with and without disabilities participated. This year, 120 students are involved. Tami Jo reflected, "Peer Insights wouldn't be what it is today without the help of Special Olympics Minnesota."

In 2015, Special Olympics Minnesota adopted the nationwide Unified Champion Schools program as a core of its mission. The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program is aimed at promoting social inclusion and system-wide change through intentionally planned and implemented activities. With sports as the foundation, the three-component model offers a unique combination of effective activities that equip young people with tools and training to create athletic, social, and school climates of acceptance. These are school climates where students of all abilities feel welcome and are routinely included in, and feel a part of, all activities, opportunities, and functions a school has to offer. Unified Schools Manager Nick Cedergren said, "This student driven and student led movement is changing a generation to expect inclusion in their everyday life."

After learning about this new inclusive opportunity, South View Middle School partnered with Special Olympics Minnesota to bolster their "Peer Insights" program and further grow a culture of inclusivity. South View Middle School was the first middle school in Minnesota to reach Unified Champion School status and continues to be a leader in the Unified movement statewide promoting inclusion. A Unified Champion School is one that implements the three components of the Unified Champion School program: Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership and Whole School Engagement.

"The Unified model is exceptional because the characteristics endure," said South View's principal Tim Anderson. "It is not dependent on a single administrator, teacher, or student, and it affects the very culture of the school. Because of this, all stakeholders are pleased." According to Tim, the currency of education is "how does this make a difference?" When Mr. Anderson considers a new program for his school, he calculates how it will impact his students. "A program that changes the culture positively does the work for you," said Tim, "The Unified movement has a myriad of benefits. I want to spend my time on programs like that."

Jennie Schaefer is a special education teacher and a committed advocate of the Unified movement and Peer Insights. "This is my favorite part of my job because it's the most meaningful to my students," said Jennie. "I get to see them truly be a part of the school community and recognized and seen as peers."

Karlee, one of Jennie's students, needed two staff members with her at all times when she started at South View. Because of the growth she has experienced in this program, she can now go to her classes with only her Peer Insight partner. "I'm so glad the school is pushing for a more inclusive environment," Ms. Schaefer said. "People in our community want to send their kids to South View specifically because of this program."

It was obvious to me while visiting the school that Peer Insights is the cool thing to do. And it seems like that reputation has been around since its inception. "My older brother was in Peer Insights, and he told me it was a really, really good experience, so I decided to do it, too," said Katherine, a seventh grader and member of Peer Insights. "The club is tons of fun, and the other students are so fun to work with. I work with my peers in reading class so I help them with writing and literacy."

The transformation students experience at South View is noticeable. When asked what she hopes for her students once they graduate, Dean of Students Tami Jo said, "More than anything, I hope our students leave with compassion and empathy. If there is someone who needs help, I hope it is our students who are the ones to offer that help." And, it seems to be working. Tami Jo often hears from the local high school: "We can tell which students come from South View."

At a time when teachers are doing more than ever, how is taking on a new program like Unified Champion Schools feasible? South View has some suggestions. "Let the students do the work," Tami Jo urged. "The Unified Movement is not a program; it's a part of the culture. In our experience, the students want this movement to happen. Plus, Special Olympics is there to help. They have your back."

Jennie agrees, "Start with one small step and go from there. The students take charge and grow it into a movement." Anyone interested in bringing the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program to their school can contact their state's Special Olympics office.

When I was in middle school, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools and programs like Peer Insights did not exist. There was integration, but we were so far from reaching true inclusion. Though a part of me mourns the fact that my peers never got to experience a culture of inclusivity like this, I am so inspired by where schools today are headed.

I'm excited to see students being taught to be empathetic of their peers who are different from them. I'm in awe of the genuine relationships being built between students with and without disabilities. And, I'm proud that students and educators alike are taking the lead in this inclusion revolution.

To bring the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program to your school, contact your state's Special Olympics office.

Katie Howlett is the marketing and communications specialist at Special Olympics Minnesota.

Nick Cedergren is the Unified schools manager at Special Olympics Minnesota and can answer your questions about the Unified movement.

All photos provided by author.
Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2019.
Author: Katie Howlett, Nick Cedergren
Number of views (4353)/Comments (0)/
Tags: Inclusion
Who Am I

Who Am I

Using young adult literature to explore adolescent identity

Everybody has a story. These stories comprise the events in our lives that intersect in complicated and uniquely beautiful ways to shape our perceptions and general outlook of the world. They demonstrate our strengths and vulnerabilities, they humanize our experiences, and allow us to empathize with others. Stories help us experience unexpected and unfamiliar situations by allowing us to embody the journeys of the storyteller, who initially may appear to be different. As middle level teachers, we are often keenly aware of students' struggles to define themselves and establish their individual identities. Our students come to our classes brimming with distinctly complex stories. One of our primary responsibilities as teachers is to facilitate the growth of our students as citizens of the world. Young adult (YA) literature provides a platform by which middle school students can explore the world via multiple points of view that are both similar to and different from their own.

YA literature is a readily available resource that can help students better understand various perspectives by examining fictional characters that hold different beliefs, experience unique situations, and engage in controversial actions. Such literature can aid students in challenging their beliefs by experiencing the world through a character's life. This aspect is especially important when the character represents a member of a marginalized group who expands the student's awareness of this group or his or her own identity. This article provides activities and resources that encourage students to explore multiple viewpoints by comparing and contrasting alternative explanations for the resiliency of the characters from two contemporary YA books. YA literature will be used for eighth or ninth grade students to investigate aspects of social responsibility to examine social injustices. More specifically, the activities and text selections allow adolescents to gain a more intimate understanding of the social factors that impact identity formation.

Characteristics of Young Adult Literature

Per the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), YA literature is designed to appeal to individuals from ages 10-25 and attempts to speak to the readers' needs—that is, young adults are portrayed as individuals in search of their true selves and are thus constantly evolving. It also includes literary formats encompassing narrative nonfiction and variations of poetry like novels written in verse. In addition, YA literature allows readers to not only see themselves depicted in the written pages, but it fosters empathy of people who are not like the reader. YALSA poignantly asserts that YA books have the capacity to tell the truth, despite how disagreeable such truth may be, in order to prepare readers for the realities of adulthood and responsibilities of citizenship. "In this way [YA] literature invites its readership to embrace the humanity it shares with those who—if not for the encounter in reading—might forever remain strangers or—worse—irredeemably 'other'" (Young Adult Library Services Association, 2008, para. 12). In the next sections, several activities with two YA books are discussed.

YA Books that Exemplify Cultural Identity Construction

Characters in YA books allow readers to experience what it might feel like to be an outsider. Additionally, experiencing a culturally rich perspective can facilitate social awareness and responsibility among readers. For example, if a character is culturally different than the reader, daily challenges and prejudices that may be invisible to the reader suddenly become tangible realities. Two YA books that allow students to familiarize themselves with cultural identity construction are The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson. The Poet X is the story of Xiomara Batista, a teen from the Dominican Republic who resides in a working-class neighborhood in Harlem. The novel, written in verse, depicts how Xiomara navigates various cultural elements among her family (e.g., religion and gender roles) and classmates (e.g., assumptions about promiscuity).

Piecing Me Together is about Jade, a junior attending a private high school in Portland, Oregon, who struggles to negotiate the disparities between her home in a black urban neighborhood and her expensive education at her predominantly white school. Jade joins a mentorship program, and throughout the book she reflects on how people, including teachers and her mentor, believe she needs to be saved from poverty and her culture. Both Xiomara and Jade grapple with how to define their uniquely complex and multi-layered identities that are emphasized by dual and dueling identities of race and social class.

Building Self-Awareness through YA Character Identity Analysis

Adolescents must often negotiate which parts of themselves ought to be hidden and which aspects of their personalities should be shared, in addition to how and when such sharing should occur. By examining how YA characters struggle and experience their identities, students begin to build self-awareness, while also expanding their understanding of others. The teacher builds background knowledge and engages students in an initial self-analysis by completing a 3- to 5-minute quick-write on the following questions:

  1. What makes you, you?
  2. How have you changed within the last year?
  3. Which experiences have impacted your personality?
  4. How has your culture or background influenced your life?

It is important that students know that their responses can remain private. The quick-write also helps develop an identity chart with the student's name centered in the middle of a page, surrounded by the major characteristics that define his or her personality and identity.

Afterwards, the students actively read each book by making notations and evaluative questions to be used during Socratic seminars and literature circles. The teacher explains that as students read each book, they will also compare and contrast the two main characters and themselves. The comparisons center on identity and how personal experiences, culture, and stereotypes impact our identities. Students independently complete the graphic organizer in figure 1. As an extension to the organizer, students can include direct quotes from the books that support the character comparisons. The teacher then facilitates a whole-class discussion about the ways in which different aspects affect our personalities (e.g., lived experiences, labels, physical appearance, etc.).

Figure 1
Identity Comparisons Between YA Characters and Student

Following this discussion, students in pairs identify common themes and supporting quotes from Piecing me Together and The Poet X. After identifying themes such as the intersections between race and gender or how societal and cultural pressures shape identity, the teacher leads a dialogue regarding the factors that shape individual identities and the contributing social inequities. The students reflect on what it means to be socially responsible by gaining an understanding of the forces that impact someone's identity and why such knowledge helps to celebrate different perspectives. Students are asked to consider who and what defines each main character, and how they resist such definitions.

This reflection results in a culminating creative nonfiction or haiku writing piece, whereby students write about their identity via prompts such as: Who defines your identity and how do you challenge these definitions? What are the superpowers of your identity? Self-reflective writing allows students to explore meaningful connections between themselves and the characters in the book. This writing activity also deepens students' awareness of individual, yet complimentary, characteristics that should be celebrated.


The activities and text selections in this article enable students and teachers to explore the social factors that impact identity formation. As teachers, we remember the angst that demarcated our adolescence, without fully realizing the fluid and changing nature of our identities. Teachers and students of color have the added complexity of limited opportunities to see their perspectives reflected within the curriculum. Thus, the inclusion of YA books with diverse characters and themes are essential to any program of study. YA books provide vivid portrayals of the interior and exterior lives of characters, thereby building personal connections between readers and characters that begin to deconstruct stereotypes. These books offer a vehicle by which adolescents can explore the world, while simultaneously exploring perspectives that stretch their limited and potentially constricting identities.

Additional Young Adult Books that Explore Identity Issues across Various Cultures

  1. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang from Square Fish.
  2. Darius & Twig by Walter Dean Myers from Amistad.
  3. Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram from Dial Books.
  4. Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams from Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books.
  5. My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson from Skyscape.
  6. Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali from Salaam Reads.
  7. Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman from Simon Pulse.
  8. The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales from Wendy Lamb Books.
  9. They Call me Guero: A Border Kid's Poems by David Bowles from Cinco Puntos Press.
  10. Watch us Rise by Renee Watson and Ellen Hagan from Bloomsbury.


Acevedo, E. (2018). The poet x. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Watson, R. (2017). Piecing me together. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Young Adult Library Services Association. (2008). The value of young adult literature. Retrieved from

Vanessa E. Vega, Ed.S., is director of the Office of Clinical Experiences and a doctoral student at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2019.

Author: Vanessa E. Vega
Number of views (4173)/Comments (1)/
It's Different Now

It's Different Now

Four experiences for educators to consider about today's young adolescents

It's not our imagination, kids really are different.

Today's youth face four constructs that adults either did not experience at all or did not experience in the same way as youth today.


As a parent of athletes, I see the benefits of athletics, including physical outlets, learning to work with others, setting goals, increasing serotonin (the chemical associated with happiness), and developing social relationships. Athletics have also become an entity around which family life is scheduled and a child's identity is entwined.

Many kids "major in sports" as young as age seven—playing the same sport all year, and by middle school, often on multiple teams. Students might describe themselves as the sport they play "I am James, a soccer player" instead of "I am James, I play soccer, baseball, and like video games." This leaves me to wonder what happens to a student's identity if it's determined they are a soccer player at age seven, but as they grow, their bodies cannot compete in the same manner or they lose their passion for that sport?

This early "majoring in sports" also has physical consequences. Dr. James Andrews, noted for his ability to "put top athletes back together," described to Dennis Manolof that "Specialization leads to playing the sport year-round. That means not only an increase in risk factors for traumatic injuries, but a sky-high increase in overuse injuries. Almost half of sports injuries in adolescents stem from overuse."

Majoring in a sport also includes the goal of qualifying for travel teams, which allows athletes to compete at a higher level. These teams, by the nature of requiring travel and additional expenses, often leave out students whose families cannot afford them, either by financial constraints or by not being able to take time off work to participate.

Parent support of athletes provides parents and children a shared language and interests. We see parents over-identifying with their child's athletic accomplishments by coaching from the sidelines and saying things such as "We won the game!" However, when the team loses, the response might be "I'm sorry you lost," with the unintentional message being "I am with you when you win, but not when you lose." Adding to the pressure, parents hope their children will get athletic scholarships to college. But college funding of athletes has not increased with the increased number of children majoring in a sport. Athletic directors often wish for parents to be in partnership with their children and the team while keeping a healthy balance that allows their children to see their athletic accomplishments and challenges as part of the definition of their growth and development.


In a discussion with seventh graders, 13-year-old Jamison asked, "Why do adults always say they don't want us to 'go online' so much?" Jamison was as mystified by the phrase "online" (referring to dial-up) as by the continual requests to limit her time on her phone. Her classmates agreed. They added that they don't think of their phone as a separate device, but rather as a means to communicate, learn, and entertain. In fact, when one student told me he had been "talking to her all night," I asked if he was talking verbally or with his thumbs. His response included a non-verbal look indicating it was a ridiculous question. He said, "through texts, of course!" And I believe many adults would have had the same response if our parents had asked us if we were in touch with friends by telephone or by letter. Parents and educators need to be in alignment with student engagement by focusing not just on how much time, but also on the quality of time spent on devices. For example, when working with students to enhance conflict resolution skills, I ask how they would handle certain situations both when navigating in person and on a device. Many kids state the adult focus presumes the conversation is in person or by telephone.

When we want to learn something about almost any topic, we "Google" it or watch YouTube. Googling has become synonymous to gathering information. "Mr. SEO" states "…the key to receiving traffic through Google is to gain first page rankings because first page websites get 91.5% of Google traffic" ( Topics move up to the first page via an algorithm connected to the number of times they are searched for and this moving up lends a perception of credibility. These sites become the education for kids who do not have adults answering their questions, such as Stephen who told me "I heard the word 'pansexual' and asked my mom what it meant. She responded with 'you don't need to know about that' so I Googled it." Or when another student asked teachers and parents to talk about Charlottesville and they did not; he looked it up on YouTube, watching over and over the death of Heather Heyer. His takeaway was "if you stand up for what you believe, you can be killed," completely contradicting the messages of those same teachers and parents who focused on being an upstander rather than a bystander.

I have surveyed several hundred students asking what they wanted adults to know about their relationship to technology. Here's some of the feedback:

  • "I don't have anyone at my school whom I know is gay and through my chat group, I don't feel so alone."
  • "A lot of times when I'm on my phone I'm listening, but might be looking things up, such as the definition to a word a teacher used or the band my friend mentioned. I'm not just going on social media."
  • "I do need the rules of not keeping my phone in my room to keep me from being on it too late ... I may not act grateful, but it helps."
  • "I don't understand why my school and parents tell me not to post pictures without permission but can see my mom has posted pictures and stories about me without my permission. And if you go on my school's social media there are a lot of pictures I didn't give permission for… that just doesn't make sense."
  • "I wish I could tell my teachers and parents 'If you don't want me on my phone between classes, at the dinner table, or at a stoplight, you shouldn't be on yours walking down the hall, while out to dinner with me, or at a stoplight'"... "Stoplights are not cellphone zones and neither is the dinner table."


We used to believe the frontal lobe of the brain was responsible for impulse control and decision making and was "fixed" by age 18, then 21, and now according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), we believe it reaches maturity in the mid to late 20s. We thought the physical changes of adolescence began around sixth grade but NIH describes the onset of puberty, the time in life when a person becomes sexually mature, typically occurs between ages 8 and 13 for girls and ages 9 and 14 for boys ( Additionally, much of our education does not indicate that chemical changes precede the physical changes. We pre-frame physical changes from a young age with statements such as "You are riding a tricycle now, but when you are bigger you will ride a two-wheeler" and celebrate growth and development for younger children "Look how high you can swing!" However, we often miss forecasting the growth and development of adolescence. The combination of the absence of forecasting changes and celebrating growth creates a web of secrecy around the changes in development. Parents and teachers serve students well by letting them know as young as the second grade that just as they grew from babies to second graders, they will also grow from second graders to teenagers. Just as when they were babies, adults are present to support them through these changes. Adults are reminded that when questions are asked and not answered, students may search for the answers on devices. One of my fourth graders said recently "I asked my mom what being gay meant, she said I should wait until I am older to find out. So I asked my Alexa."


While there is much work to be done, much has changed regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. If we assume memory is fixed around age four or five, kids born after

…2000 do not remember before smartphones and 9-11 and the subsequent presence of Islamophobia

…2001 are the first to have grown up with the United States at war for their entire lives leaving many feeling disconnected from the impact of war

…2004 do not remember a time before having an African-American president, therefore, having a white president is unusual in their experience

…2011 do not remember times before:

  • The resurgence of the women's movement
  • Teenagers beginning an international movement with a single hashtag, #Marchforourlives
  • The legalization of marriage for gay and lesbian couples
  • The word "transgender" became part of the mainstream lexicon (Bruce Jenner announced the transition to Caitlyn in an interview; Nike aired the first commercial featuring a transgender model; and in 2013, Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine)

…2012 do not remember before the resurgence of the #MeToo Movement (originally used in 2006 by Tarana Burke) and the first openly transgender male, qualified for the United States Olympic Team

…2013 do not remember before race awareness in media changed when a Cheerios commercial featured an interracial family eating cereal and was met with responses including racism and boycotts.

…2014 are the first to be born in a majority-minority race demographics, meaning the combined "non-white" racial identifiers make up the majority of children 5 years old and younger (babies born in 2014 or after)

We are moving from believing that if we admit to being biased and privileged, we also admit to being racist; to now, not admitting our biases and privileges means we are racially insensitive, at best prompting the question "who teaches us in between?" The answer is that we need to do our own work and learn from our students. Adults are encouraged to learn about equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice while understanding our students are growing up with a language and vocabulary that is unparalleled. We can partner with students by telling them we didn't learn about these topics in school and we want to learn with them now. Don't wait until you feel ready, be ready now to listen and learn.

Jen Cort worked as a counselor, principal, and senior administrator for 25 years before moving to consulting for schools on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. Jen is the host of a podcast called Third Space with Jen Cort.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2019.

Author: Jen Cort
Number of views (7774)/Comments (0)/
Tags: Sports


Integrating yoga class structure and style in the middle school classroom

I nervously entered the room and found a seat in the back. I looked around to find the fastest exit, but I was too late; the teacher walked in, queued the music, and dimmed the lights. "Welcome" she began. "It is a beautiful day and I am so pleased to see my strong and wonderful friends join me in my practice today." I looked outside at the drizzling rain and grey sky wondering what beautiful day she was referring to. "We will begin our practice today in any type of seated position that feels right to you. Let's take a few moments to just sit and breathe quietly."

I have been regularly practicing yoga for about a year now. At the end of a vigorous yet relaxing yoga practice the other day, in the midst of our Savasana, the laying-down-on-your-back pose, the pose in which I should have been clearing my thoughts and focusing on my breath, my mind wandered to work, and I wondered: What would our middle school classrooms be like if teachers incorporated yoga structure, language, and philosophy into their practice?

We know that young adolescents are at a sensitive and fragile time in their development. If we want our middle school students to reach their full potential and thrive in high school and into adulthood, we need to be ready to meet their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive needs. The Association for Middle Level Education's (NMSA, 2010) This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents maintains that a successful middle school should be developmentally responsive, challenging, empowering, and equitable. As a practicing yogi, a middle school teacher educator, and a former middle school teacher, I see the potential in integrating yoga philosophy into the middle school classroom. To be clear, I am not talking about having students practice yoga in the classroom, but rather about teachers using some basic yoga-inspired approaches with students as outlined below.

Warm and Positive Greetings

When I walk into a yoga studio, I feel welcomed. If I have never met the instructor, she greets me with a handshake or a hug, eye contact, and asks my name. When I become a regular in the class, she remembers me and greets me warmly. At the end of the class the instructor always makes a point of saying goodbye and thank you to each student as they leave the studio. This personal connection is important. After all, we are spending 75-90 minutes together in a small space.

The middle school teacher can do the same. This is an easy give. Imagine the power of greeting your students at the beginning of a lesson with "good morning my kind and intelligent students. I am so happy that you have come to class today to join me and your fellow students in this lesson. I am here to serve you, and together we can make this a great day!" At the end of the lesson, thank the students for coming to class. Look each student in the eye as they leave. As a former middle school teacher, I understand the tendency toward a rushed classroom exit. Often, we feel the need to dismiss the students quickly and move to to the next class, lunch, or hall duty. Take the time to calmly and warmly say goodbye. Imagine how that personal contact will carry each student to the next class and through the rest of the day.

Setting an Intention

Yoga classes often begin with the setting of an intention. What brings you to your mat today? Why are you here and what do you hope to achieve or to be? On particularly stressful days, my intention may be to achieve calmness. If I am facing conflict in my personal life, it may be to offer and receive kindness. If I am striving to master a yoga pose, my intention may be patience as I practice the pose. Intentions are not shared aloud. This allows a quiet and private space to reflect on one's self and reason for being in the space.

After your warm and positive greeting, ask your middle school students to consider an intention. Ask "Why are you here and what do you hope to achieve today in class?" We know that some middle school students might answer with "I am here because I have to be, and I just want to sleep" or something to that effect. Thus, depending on the students, you can rephrase and narrow the question to a particular assignment. For example, ask "In what way do you want to improve your essay today?" Or, "What one thing do you want to practice today that will help you on your test this week?" The students can practice setting class intentions silently, with partners, and eventually aloud to the class. The teacher can also model by verbally sharing a teacher intention.

Accepting Differences and Providing Accommodations

"If it feels right or if your practice allows it" are words that one yoga instructor uses often. Another has said, "We are all on our separate journeys together." These statements are affirmations that we are all different and have different abilities. Although we may be trying to achieve the same result, we have different paths to getting there. I may be working on mountain pose, a simple standing position while my neighbor works on a head stand. There are times, when my instructor notices in my face or body language that I am struggling with a pose. She will gently walk to me and hand me a prop like a block to elevate me and assist me with a pose.

In the same gentle way, teachers can assist students when they run into academic obstacles by looking for those frustration expressions on students' faces, wandering intentionally through the classroom to be available to help, offering quick words of encouragement as needed, and empowering students to vary assignment expectations according to their intentions and needs. Students will sense the teacher is open and approachable and will be more apt to share their needs for help on their way to fulfilling their opening intentions.


The final few minutes in every yoga class is spent in a pose called Savasana. The purpose of this final pose is to reflect on your practice and to reap the benefits of the work you just did in class. The pose is known as the corpse pose because yogis lay flat on their backs, breathe deeply and naturally, and allow their minds to review the benefits, beauty, strength, and acquired skills of the yoga practice of the last 45-60 minutes. What was my intention? What small steps did I take toward it? What was challenging today? What made me feel good during the practice?

What if middle school teachers took a few minutes at the end of every class to allow students to quietly reflect on their achievements, efforts, and new skills? What might be the benefits to allowing the middle school student five minutes of quiet, stillness, and reflection at the end of a class session? Most likely, over time, students would get into the habit of self-evaluating their progress each class, each day, each week. It may seem peculiar at first, but mindfulness and awareness of one's progress would seem natural and beneficial to students if they ended class with an academic Savasana. They would also enter the hallway to their next classes with calm and peace, instead of hurry and anxiety.


In yoga classes, following Savasana, students are slowly brought back to focus with the teacher asking students to come back to a seated position on the floor. "Thank you, my wonderful friends, for coming today and for meeting me here to practice. The light in me honors the light in you. Namaste." At the end of class, the teacher may wish to thank the students for coming, remind them of how much they enjoy their company on the academic journey, and tell them they are proud of the progress each student has made today. The students can then leave class knowing that the adult in charge of them, their teacher, enjoys them and awaits their return another day.

Yoga sensibilities and approaches might have much to offer our middle school students. These five approaches—warm individual greetings, intention-setting by the students, recognition of individual differences, quiet reflection on progress made, and encouragement toward the next step of the school day journey—might just be the antidote for the hurried, anxious atmosphere some students carry on the inside to class. Why not give them a try?

Namaste! Have a wonderful day!


National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

Molly Mee, Ed.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Secondary and Middle School Education in the College of Education at Towson University, Baltimore, MD.

Walter Mills is an adjunct instructor with the Department of Secondary and Middle School Education in the College of Education at Towson University, Baltimore, MD.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2019.
Author: Molly Mee, Walter Mills
Number of views (2138)/Comments (1)/
Topics: Teaching
Microaggressions in the Classroom

Microaggressions in the Classroom

Discussion and disruption to reduce and end harmful language and behaviors

As a white, privileged, cisgender, heterosexual male, I can walk into most situations with people of my own race, or with mixed race, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status groups, and not have to be on my guard. I do not have to worry if others think I legitimately belong there because of course I do. Nobody wonders how I got my job, and my input is most often given credibility. I do not spend excess energy in the form of stress hormones, which affect the body and emotions in a myriad of negative ways, worrying about any of that, nor do I have to deflect little, perpetrator-unaware "digs" at me based on skin color, culture, socio-economic status, or sexual orientation. I can go through life fairly oblivious, assuming others experience interactions, privileges, freedoms, and status as I do.

This leads to deeply hurtful things, of course, dismissed or furthered by me and my kind, including a very real "blindness" to what others suffer through every day and sometimes hourly. And here I claim to be a conscientious educator. Hmm.

Becoming keenly aware of the microaggressions students and colleagues suffer daily, and committing ourselves to reducing and ending them, is a good use of conversation and extended action. It is not political correctness run amok, though most claims of such are the lament of those who don't realize that society is maturing and trying to be more respectful of others for our collective good. For whites, males, and heterosexuals, try driving, shopping, banking, jogging, investing, renting, managing, traveling, dating, or practicing religious faith while Black, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, a woman, homosexual, transgender, or any other kind of perceived other: It's sobering.

Defining Microaggression

Let's explore what we mean by the term, microaggression:

  • We demonstrate surprise when a boy has good handwriting or prefers theater to sports, or when a girl is good at calculus and engineering.
  • We express confusion when a group of students of Asian descent aren't good at math.
  • We tell obese students that they lack self-discipline or don't care enough to make better meal choices.
  • We scoff at an overwhelmed new teacher in the first week of school who has not yet read the classic novels she will be teaching this year.
  • We assign a project that requires the purchase of supplies, though some families do not have the money to spend.
  • We fake-smile (it doesn't reach our eyes) in the company of a student, but our body language says we'd rather be somewhere else.
  • We don't try to pronounce a student's name correctly as it is from a culture with which we are not familiar. Instead, we decide to call him, "Sam," because it's just easier to remember.
  • We use a derogatory term for Native Americans for the name of a sports team, or revere statues of military leaders who led the fight to oppress a race of people. (Okay, some of these aren't so micro.)
  • We schedule debates and field trips on days that are major holidays for some students.
  • We require students to complete online modules after school hours, assuming all students have access to the Internet at home.
  • Our required reading list for each grade level is made of books focusing only on white protagonists or is devoid of authors of color.
  • Our classrooms, school publications, and teacher trainings use pictures of students from one race, and none show children with varying disabilities and genders.
  • We use an incorrect pronoun to refer to a transgender or gender-fluid student, even after being told by which pronoun he/she/they identify.
  • We vent in the teacher's lounge about how hard it is to discern between students' cultures, declaring, "Muslim, Hindu – They're all the same."
  • We state that a students' parents can't volunteer because they don't speak English very well.
  • In a room full of students only half of which practice a Christian faith, an administrator leads a non-denominational prayer before a celebration, but ends with, "We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior."

The University of Denver Center for Multicultural Excellence provided further examples in their publication, Microaggressions in the Classroom (

  • Setting low expectations for students from particular groups or neighborhoods.
  • Calling on and engaging one gender, class, or race of students while ignoring other students.
  • Anticipating students' emotional responses based on gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity.
  • Using inappropriate humor in class that degrades students from different groups.
  • Using the term "illegals" to reference undocumented students.
  • Denying the experiences of students by questioning the credibility and validity of their stories.
  • Using sexist language.

Though we claim to be non-racist and unbiased, we can perpetuate diminishing, hurtful microaggressions and outright bias with and without meaning it. Here are a few I've heard from teachers and colleagues while in the teaching field:

"They may be a little late to our meeting – They are on Mexican time, if you know what I mean."

"Would you please get your kind of people to join in more?" (said by a white American administrator referring to Korean colleagues)

"Well, Jews are good with money, you know."

"They're just having babies to get on welfare and not have to work."

"He plays for the other team, if you know what I mean." (accompanied by knowing smirk)

"He's a gamer, no social skills there."

"This gender switching thing is just a phase."

"Speak English. This is America."

"I wasn't being racist. That's just how they interpreted it. I can't help that."

"So, it was off-color a bit. Learn to take a joke."

"So many of our students are white, I don't think an African American principal would understand our needs and do very well here."

According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University who popularized the awareness of microaggressions,

"Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership … [T]hese hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment … microaggressions are active manifestations … of our worldviews of inclusion/exclusion, superiority/inferiority, normality/abnormality, and desirability/undesirability.

Consider that last line again, that microaggressions express our unspoken, maybe unaware, views of who and what are preferred or normal and who and what are not. Remember the deeply offensive, slightly pink crayon in the crayon box identified as "flesh"? It's as if we're saying, "Your food/church/culture/hairstyle/clothing/customs/skin color are not my own, and mine is the dominant culture, so yours are not normal or worthy of my full respect. You don't belong." It reminds me of the oft-said line by comedian, Larry, the Cable Guy, "I don't care who you are, that there is funny." Sometimes, it's not.

Dr. Sue claims that the most troublesome element of microaggressions is that we are unaware we are making them;

The most detrimental forms of microaggressions are usually delivered by well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they have engaged in harmful conduct toward a socially devalued group … [N]one of us are immune from inheriting the racial, gender, and sexual orientation biases of our society. We have been socialized into racist, sexist and heterosexist attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Much of this is outside the level of conscious awareness, thus we engage in actions that unintentionally oppress and discriminate against others.

On February 28, 2018, USAToday ran a piece by Alia E. Dastagir describing microaggressions occurring in our communities daily ( Among other examples, Dastagir included such actions as "complimenting" a gay person by saying, "but you're not gay gay"; mistaking a female physician for a nurse; a Conservative Political Action Conference speaker, "declaring that Michael Steele only became Republican National Committee chairman in 2009, 'because he was a black guy,'" and, "a New York Times editor tweeting, 'Immigrants: they get the job done,' with a video of Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu, who was born in California."

In the same article, Dastagir connects the dots for us educators cogently:

A lot of people hear "microaggressions" and they think, "Oh, it's just the little things that hurt people's feelings," said Roberto Montenegro, a chief fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Seattle Children's Hospital. He studies the biological effects of discrimination. "It isn't about having your feelings hurt. It's about how being repeatedly dismissed and alienated and insulted and invalidated reinforces the differences in power and privilege, and how this perpetuates racism and discrimination."

In her highly recommended book, So You Want to Talk about Race (Seal Press, 2018), Ijeoma Oluo, makes these aggressions real and jarring:

[B]eing a person of color in white dominated society is like being in an abusive relationship with the world. Every day is a new little hurt, a new little dehumanization. We walk around flinching, still in pain from the last hurt and dreading the next. But when we say, "this is hurting us," a spotlight is shown on the freshest hurt, the bruise just forming. "Look at how small it is … Why are you making such a big deal about it? Everyone gets hurt from time to time" – while the world ignores that the rest of our bodies are covered in scars … [R]acial oppression is even harder to see than the abuse of a loved one, because the abuser is not one person, the abuser is the world around you, and the person inflicting pain in an individual instance may themselves have the best of intentions…

Imagine if you were walking down the street and every few minutes someone would punch you in the arm. You don't know who will be punching you, and you don't know why. You are hurt and wary and weary. You are trying to protect yourself, but you can't get off this street. Then imagine somebody walks by, maybe gesticulating wildly in interesting conversation, and they punch you in the arm on accident. Now imagine this is the last straw, that this is where you scream. That person may not have meant to punch you in the arm, but the issue for you still is the fact that people keep punching you in the arm.

Regardless of why that last person punched you, there's a pattern that needs to be addressed, and your sore arm is testimony to that. But what often happens instead is that people demand that you prove that each person who punched you in the arm in the past meant to punch you in the arm before they'll acknowledge that too many people are punching you in the arm.—(Oluo, p. 19)

In The Culture Code (Bantam, 2018), Daniel Coyle reminds us of the 1965, "Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition" research by Harvard psychologist, Robert Rosenthal in which researchers identified the names of students who were special; they, " … possessed 'unusual potential for intellectual growth.' (Students were not informed of the test results.)" (p. 164) These students did much better academically, were tenacious in their learning, and were enjoyed by their teachers to a higher degree. The test was bogus, of course, and the students were randomly assigned categories of special versus not-special, yet why did the students identified as special do better in almost all elements?

Coyle says the success was due to, "tiny behaviors over the school year," clarifying,

Each time the student did something ambiguous, the teacher gave the student the benefit of the doubt ... Each time the student made a mistake, the teacher presumed that the student needed better feedback … Together, they created a virtuous spiral that helped the student thrive in ways that exceeded their so-called limits.—(Coyle, p. 185-186)

It's the little, interpersonal, systemic actions and words filtered through the lens through which the teacher sees the world that build up over time that harm or, in the bogus Harvard Test case, develop students and colleagues, not so much one overt, traumatic act. It's death by a thousand cuts.

The American Psychological Association has several articles on microaggressions, including "Unmasking 'racial micro aggressions'" by Tori DeAngelis ( She opens the piece with a real example of a white flight attendant asking two passengers at the front of the plane—one Asian-American and one African American—to move to the rear of the plane for weight and balance measures before take-off. There are several white men sitting in front of these two passengers, but she asks them to be the ones to move to the back of the plane. The two passengers are offended by the request to, "move to the back of the bus," seeing it as racist, and they complain.

Researcher Dr. Sue, who was mentioned earlier, was the actual Asian-American in this incident. DeAngelis summarizes his insights:

[T]he onus falls on the flight attendant. In his view, she was guilty of a "racial microaggression"—one of the "everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them," in Sue's definition. In other words, she was acting with bias—she just didn't know it, he says.

It's a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it's scary to them," he contends. "It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color … Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don't allow us to see that our actions and attitudes may be discriminatory."

What Can Educators Do

Over time, serial microaggressions become macro-hostilities, and they drain everyone. They are education pathogens, so tiny that we become aware of them only after they have colonized and begun cumulative effect, and our ego-driven "immune" systems are ill-equipped to deal with them without powerful interventions. So, what can we do in schools?

First, get up to speed. Put it on the radar, reading multiple pieces on microaggressions, implicit bias, equity challenges, racism, sexism, classism, and similar material. Not only will we become more aware, we also develop the vocabulary to talk about microaggressions more effectively with one another, and thereby, affect change. Microaggressions in Everyday Life (2010) by Derald Wing Sue is a good place to start, as are these videos on YouTube:

Second, remaining attentive to microaggressions means looking for it in our instructional practice with students and in relationships with colleagues and students' parents. So, let's actively audit our daily practices and interactions, looking for, and even logging, incidents perceived as microaggressions, either identified by us or identified in us by others. If we feel comfortable, we can invite students and colleagues to share anything they perceive as a microaggression from us. Even better, we can conduct ourselves in such a manner as to be not just open to, but inviting of, correction. This way, we become aware of the limited nature of our self-perceptions, and we learn to express gratitude when others care enough to help us become the people we want to be.

Third, let's develop as much empathy as we can for those not in our identified groups. If we're a seasoned education veteran, for example, we spend time remembering what it was like to be a first-year teacher (and we care for them accordingly). If we're a supporter of one particular political party, we spend time in discussion with individuals from other political parties. If we're white and that is the predominant group with most perceived power in the community, we actively seek what it's like to be non-white. If we're heterosexual, we spend time and energy trying to understand what it's like to keep secret something so basic to our nature and to receive daily messages that this thing we find natural and an important part of our identity makes us targets in society and unworthy of some basic rights as citizens.

Fourth, let's purposefully suspend our defensive stance when confronted with a personal or categorical slight we committed. If someone indicates that we have offended them or expressed a microaggression or hurtful bias toward another, we stop and listen, giving it real thought. We accept such statements and the hurt we've caused as legitimate, regardless of what we intended, and we make amends.

Finally, let's be a worthy ally to those suffering microaggressions daily. It's hard to summon professionalism, friendliness, creativity, and hope, let alone keep up the fiction that all is well, when we bear by ourselves the burden of others' complicit silence in the presence of clear evidence of a hurtful worldview that we don't belong. In addition to comforting those experiencing the ceaseless "cuts" from unaware individuals, we speak up about microaggressions, even when it is not politically expedient. And yes, we, too, may have a rocky time of it when we do, alienating friends and colleagues for a period of time, but the alternative, letting such things continue, is not acceptable: It diminishes our humanity and undermines our whole enterprise: education for all.

Our whole effort in teaching is to help others cultivate meaningful lives, and each one of those lives is legitimate and valuable, even those for whom our own life experience has not found familiar. We can't help anyone, however, if we ceaselessly communicate that students and colleagues are somehow, "less than." In opening ourselves to others and reining in the unintentional afflictions we create, we become bigger than our egos, and communities evolve. The positive changes that come for all students and colleagues, not just those in our particular groups, are worth it.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from His new book, Fair Isn't Always Equal (second edition) (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in 2018, and his other new book, Summarization in any Subject: 60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student Learning, (second edition) (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra Stafford, was just released.

Published in AMLE Magazine, Octobe 2019.
Author: Rick Wormeli
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