Moving into Action: Middle Level Learners as Change Agents

Robust learning happens when students have choice and voice in curriculum.

“Students in the middle grades … have the ability to perceive deep truths and are making decisions that will affect the way they live the rest of their lives. This transitional time between childhood and adulthood is the prime time to introduce students to important concepts, such as the need to seek social justice.”
(Gerstung, 2013)

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

  • A sixth grader passionate about animal causes gave back to the community by organizing and leading a year-long fundraising campaign for the local Humane Society.
  • Sixth and seventh graders planned and led professional development on racism, sexism, and LGBT issues to university students and faculty.
  • Two seventh graders designed, created, and sold duct tape wallets sending proceeds to support education equity initiatives in Mali, Africa.
  • Concerned over comments made by politicians, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders tackled metaphorical walls built up in society via the creation of their own social justice wall.

Why Do Projects Matter?

LDI students after sharing their social justice wall with members of the community.

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

Student Voice

“I have a million ideas for projects that it makes it hard to choose where to start. I love that there is choice, and it’s mine. I get to study and do projects on what I am interested in, while I’m still in school. I don’t study some historical event just to study it. I figure out how it relates to me, to my life today.”
Tami, 7th grade

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

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

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

Student as Change Agent

Layla developed a business to sell duct tape wallets. All proceeds support educational equity efforts in Mali, Africa.

“The Humane Society has helped us with our animals when they have gotten lost. I wanted to give back. Many people give to others, and their gifts are not always appreciated. I wanted to let the Humane Society know that I DID appreciate their help.”
Erin, 6th grade

Students innately want to make a difference in society. As Eric Gutstein says in his 2006 book Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics, becoming a change agent is “a developmental process of beginning to see oneself capable of making change.” Change agency is a belief that grows gradually; it is not like a light bulb that is suddenly turned on. Many social justice educators who desire to assist their students in change agency draw from the work of Paulo Freire (1970) who discusses the consciousness-raising needed for students to critically analyze societal inequities. This analysis often begins in the form of critical questioning.

The advisors at LDI guide their students toward enacting change by helping them recognize their agency through questioning society. This mentality is fostered at the onset of the school year as students are asked to identify a need in society and develop an action plan to address this need. After ample research followed by critical questioning of potential barriers to change (e.g., societal structures, finances, or policy) students identify a means by which they can contribute. As the students delve into projects centered on their interests, tangible outcomes begin to surface in the form of letter-writing to organizations or government officials, public speaking to bring awareness, volunteerism for an organization, or donations garnered by students through their projects.

For example, questioning the equity of education around the world, Layla (seventh grade) found an organization called Save the Children, which supports the education, health, and safety of children around the world. As a project, Layla focused her efforts on learning about the work of Save the Children in Mali, Africa, with the intent to raise money for the organization. By developing a small business, Layla fashioned and sold duct tape wallets, and donated her profits to her chosen organization. This example highlights how Layla’s voice and choice in her project led her toward change agency at a global level while simultaneously meeting content standards in math, social studies, English language arts, technology, and art.

The Importance of School Culture

Darion contributes to the social justice wall at LDI. His contribution focuses on breaking down the walls associated with racism.

“In an era of standards-based accountability, affording students the opportunity to have voice into their curriculum and explore controversial issues can be scary for both teachers and principals. However, students can address state standards and meet proficiency measures on statewide assessments while engaged in a curriculum grounded in both their interests and social justice.”
Dr. Reedy, LDI Principal

The advisors at LDI, along with administration, regard their work with middle level learners to be one of privilege. They recognize they must work with their students to develop curriculum that addresses their interests and supports their desire to impact the world. This critical work grounded in social justice flourishes due to the supportive school culture established, in large part, by the collaborative efforts of teachers and administration.

The school culture at LDI supports middle level learners as change agents with a collective expectation that all members of the LDI community embrace creativity, innovation, and iteration of failure. This belief system frees both students and teachers to seek out personalized learning opportunities, which often come in the form of what is most meaningful to middle level learners—social justice issues.

Steeped in the work of Deal and Peterson (1999) from their book Shaping School Culture, administrators at LDI recognize the role they play as the cultural leaders of the school. Because of this they continually communicate the importance of centering the curriculum around student voice and agency.

Further, the students at LDI appreciate the culture of risk-taking and having control over their learning. Dave (eighth grade) shared the following, “My principal and teachers support me to take risks and ask questions. This makes me want to keep learning.” Roquelle (seventh grade) added, “Learning isn’t passive at LDI. We decide what we learn and have to justify how our projects meet curriculum standards. Having this much control can be stressful, but we are encouraged to take risks and not penalized for false starts.”

Concluding Thoughts

Anna contributes to the social justice wall at LDI. Her area of focus is that of bullying.

The work of the advisors and principal at LDI is a testament to how students can meet curriculum standards and demonstrate proficiency in state accountability measures while simultaneously having voice into a curriculum grounded in issues of social significance. As Darion (eighth grade) sums up, “I want to make a difference in the world. Why should I wait to be an adult to make this difference? Why can’t I start making a difference now? Shouldn’t school and my teachers help me learn how to do this? Shouldn’t we learn in school what will help us be better people and citizens? This is what I’m practicing at LDI.”