Last spring when teachers, administrators, students, and their families had to abruptly leave our brick and mortar classrooms and shift to COVID-19 schooling (Hughes & Jones, 2020), no one knew what we would endure for the next five months or when we’d be back in classrooms again. The effects of COVID-19 reached far and wide and continue to affect us all. Beyond the physical, mental, and emotional trauma caused by the pandemic, it spotlighted existing and ever-widening social class and racial inequities in the US and exacerbated educational disparities that have existed for generations. As schools shut their doors and moved to online platforms, some youth had multiple technology devices and ample time to complete online assignments and participate in daily or weekly virtual school meetings. Others had no devices, were sharing a device with multiple family members, or had limited or no access to WiFi. COVID-19 revealed these social class disparities at a rapid pace, while it also took (and is still taking) Black lives at disproportionate rates. Even with these glaring racial and social class disparities staring us in the face, some of us did not have to acknowledge them if we chose not to.
And then George Floyd was murdered, and no one could look the other way. Eyes that had never chosen to see what was happening opened; discussions that had never taken place in some homes began taking place. All Americans were forced to see, over and over, what Black Americans live every single day—racism, violence, and injustice—and a racial reckoning came into being, an uprising where Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and White people came together in the streets to demand justice for Black lives. This moment was not only about George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery or Rayshard Brooks. It was not only about Tamir Rice or Oscar Grant or Kathryn Johnson, or the thousands of other Black lives that have been taken. Rather, it was, and still is, a 400 year compilation of the terror Black people have endured since they were first forced into this country; and even more, an attempt for Black Americans to declare their own humanity (Lester, 2020).
This is a moment that cannot be ignored, brushed over, or misrepresented in our middle schools and classrooms; everything that has taken place over the past five months will indeed impact our students’ perceptions, lived experiences, and social-emotional well-being this coming year and for years to come. Thus, we invite all middle school educators—whether you work in predominantly white schools, schools with more racial/ethnic diversity, public schools, or private schools—to consider the following as you plan for this academic year so all young adolescents can be immersed in more equitable, justice-oriented spaces when they return.
Dismantling Inequitable Policies and Practices in Middle Level Education
This unique moment calls on all of us to reexamine what we value in middle level education. It asks schools to come together and delve into larger theoretical questions such as, how might we redefine success in our school so it looks and feels more equitable and just for all students, rather than a select few? How might we holistically examine our school policies to identify and dismantle inequitable practices that further marginalize BIPOC and LGBTQ students, as well as students from wage-poor families? As a school, how can we utilize existing data to examine disproportionate disciplinary actions, such as subjective infractions (i.e., who is not behaving the “right” way; who is receiving in-school and out-of-school suspensions and why)? And how might we critically examine our individual responsibility in these practices? Also, knowing that some students seldom (or never) see themselves represented in our school’s existing structures, how might we change these structures so the rich diversity of our students’ race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, dis/ability, religious identity, etc. is included and reflected in our curriculum and instruction, our daily school practices, and our in-school and after-school programs?
Questions such as these are difficult but imperative. They ask us to question why we have done things the way we have for so long and to unlearn what we thought we knew about the purposes of middle level education. This time, this moment, has provided an opening for us to dig in and critically examine how our middle schools can become safer, more equitable spaces for all young adolescents, and especially those who have been historically marginalized.
As schools resume this fall, whether it be in-person, through a hybrid format, or fully online, educators and administrators can thoughtfully attend to cultivating a strong, inclusive community for returning students. While the societal narrative might pressure educators to jump into academics because students are “so behind” due to COVID-19, we can instead channel that urgent energy into designing multiple ways of cultivating community and creating more socially and academically just learning experiences for students to feel safer in our classrooms and ready to learn. When doing this work, it will be important to remember that some students will return having experienced more trauma than others these last five months. There will be students who have lost family members and/or friends to COVID-19; those who continue to watch people who look like them be killed, over and over, because of their race; and others who are relatively new to the critical conversations taking place in our country about the history of racism and police brutality. Even more, we can provide ourselves and our colleagues grace and support because myriad teachers and administrators have also experienced these very same things.
While it might be difficult to acknowledge, there will also be students returning to school who, during COVID-19 schooling, felt safer at home than they do at school every day. Students who spent several months living bully-free due to their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious identity, etc., will be returning to schools that will cause them anxiety and/or trauma. It is of the utmost importance, then, that middle schools be responsive to the individual social-emotional needs of our students. Leading whole group discussions about COVID-19 and the social uprising, for example, might be traumatic and triggering for some students because teachers may not be equipped to lead those discussions in anti-racist, class-sensitive ways, and because sensitive conversations require acquired trust in a community space, something we know as middle school educators takes time to cultivate. With that said, not being prepared to attend to diverse reactions and experiences when they arise could be detrimental to students who might need school as a space to process all that has been happening. Choosing not to take up the difficult work of creating safer spaces and/or learning experiences for students to process, reflect, and inquire into these historical events will cause some students to feel more marginalized and devalued than they already do. We cannot be fully prepared for every scenario that will come our way this coming year, but we can keep in mind that during the span of five short months, each of us experienced a global pandemic and a massive racial reckoning in this country, and we experienced these events in very different ways. It is our ethical responsibility, then, to approach our decisions and interactions in nuanced and responsive ways, rather than through a “one size fits all” model.
Schools might attend to students’ social-emotional needs through an anti-racist lens, for example, and design teaching and learning experiences that allow students to examine the history of racism and classism across the curriculum. Advisory time might be used to engage students in inquiry projects about the history of police brutality, capitalism’s effects on the top 1%, the history of red-lining, the US prison system, and other social issues that are important to students. While individual teachers have the power to create these experiences in their classrooms, this kind of anti-racist social-emotional learning (Weaver, 2020) is more effective when nested within the practices of the entire school. Administrators providing the time, space, and support for teachers to enact these practices will thus be vital to this work.
Our Personal Work (and Responsibility) as More Equitable Middle School Educators
This moment has provided an opportunity to re-envision a more equitable and just middle level education, but we cannot change existing systems and support all students until we begin doing work on ourselves first. In other words, if we can only see some students (i.e., White, middle class) as capable and successful, due to our unchecked implicit or explicit biases and lack of historical knowledge about racism and classism in this country, it will continue to be impossible to break down existing structures in our schools that were designed to only allow some students to succeed.
Again, this is difficult but imperative work, and all of our students can benefit if we begin by examining how our own ideologies and beliefs influence our daily interactions and perceptions. We can ask ourselves questions like, how does my upbringing influence how I interact with students and colleagues who do not look like me, pray like me, live like me, think like me, etc.? What can I do to learn more about communities that are different than my own in asset-oriented ways, rather than deficit-oriented ways? How can I learn more about my students’ assets and bring those assets into my curriculum and instruction? Also, in relation to the grace we ourselves need during this time, we can ask how we are taking care of ourselves during these trying times.
Change Can Happen in Middle Level Education
The past five months have brought some of the most drastic educational changes and racial injustice activism the 21st century has seen. Schools transitioned to virtual learning spaces at the same time mass protests against racism and police brutality took place across the nation and globally. We saw how education can still thrive without the pressures of standardized testing, while we simultaneously reckoned with our history as confederate monuments were brought down. Within a reasonably short time span, we saw swift changes taking place regarding practices that were deeply embedded in our education system and society at large. These changes are a reminder that transformation can and is happening. One such change for the Association for Middle Level Education is the upcoming position paper, The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, which centers on equitable middle school practices and consequently, informed this article. As this school year begins, we invite all middle grades educators to engage with the ideas in the position paper with a sense of renewed hope and agency. The middle school model is perfectly positioned for this kind of work, and this is our time to lean in and enact change so all students can experience a more equitable, just education.
Hughes, H. & Jones, S. (2020, April 1). This is not homeschooling, distance learning, or online schooling. The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Retrieved from https://www.ajc.com/blog/get-schooled/opinion-this-not-home-schooling-distance-learning-online-schooling/b9rNnK77eyVLhsRMhaqZwL/
Lester, N.A. (2020, June 16). “No, I am not OK.” Thanks for asking. Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/no-i-am-not-ok-thanks-for-asking
Weaver, T. (2020, June 16). Antiracism in social-emotional learning: Why it’s not enough to talk the talk. EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-06-16-antiracism-in-social-emotionallearning- why-it-s-not-enough-to-talk-the-talk
Hilary E. Hughes, Ph.D. is associate professor and graduate coordinator in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice, at the University of Georgia, Athens.
Lisa M. Harrison, Ph.D. is associate professor and Middle Childhood Education program coordinator at Ohio University, co-editor of Middle School Journal, and member of the AMLE Board of Trustees.
Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.