How to Make Middle School a Smoother Ride


This story is part of a short series on innovative ways teachers are rethinking the traditional lesson plan. What’s one that resonated with you or the student in your life? Tell us about it: hello@theatlantic.com.

When I tell people I teach the 7th and 8th grades, their initial response is usually the same: “What a terrible age!” or something to that effect. Then: “How can you stand it?”

While it bothers me to hear strangers make these assumptions, I try to remember: This isn’t about my students; it’s about them.

People tend to recoil at the thought of middle school because of their own experiences. It can be hard for them to push aside the trauma or awkwardness they remember to understand why I love working with middle-school aged students.

That said, the preteenage years can be a fraught phase in life. As adolescence takes over, things become less black and white. Relationships evolve. Bodies change. Students become more conscious of their outward appearance and how that sometimes conflicts with what they feel inside.

On a far more essential level, racial and gender identity start to solidify as students begin to see how they fit into the larger world. As a teacher of literature, my role in that process might not be immediately apparent. But I’ve seen what exposing students to relatable works can do. I try to be mindful of the precarious path they walk during this time of transition, using the literature I teach and the lessons I plan as steadying tools to guide them.

Five years ago, I was lucky enough to join the small English department of Marin Country Day School, an independent school that takes diversity, social justice, and inclusion seriously. We draw students of diverse backgrounds from San Francisco, Marin, and the East Bay; the number of students of color at our school has consistently grown over the last ten years, now approaching 33 percent of the student body. We have openly gay and gender-fluid students, and a multiplicity of family structures at play among parents. My colleagues and I saw an opportunity for the English department to help students through these potentially turbulent years using the very building blocks of our curriculum.

When I started at Marin Country Day, the department’s syllabus already touched on aspects of identity—a few personal narrative essay assignments and poetry included. Given free rein by our school’s administration, and taking advantage of the fact that we were one of the rare English teams in our area that had more teachers of color than white teachers, we decided to make identity the central focus of our curriculum.

I remember walking into my classroom for the first time, bare walls and all, and spending hours poring over the existing curriculum with my new team. I remember a smile spreading across my coworker’s face as I pushed Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese to become one of our new texts. This was the kind of material we wanted students to know about early on.

We’ve continued to add more texts to each year’s plan that better reflect the myriad identities that file into our classrooms every September.

We choose writing from all over the world, stories that speak about gender and sexual orientation, and texts that touch on race and socioeconomic status. We can’t always cover every cultural identifier during the semester, but we try our best. And we make it a point to include our students in that process.

At the end of the year, students rate the three major texts and various short pieces they’ve read on a scale from one to five; when our department meets at the end of a semester, we try to change at least one text for the next year. Though we’ve consistently kept American Born Chinese on our syllabus, no text is sacred to us, regardless of prestige. Two years ago, we chopped To Kill a Mockingbird from our reading list in response to negative feedback from students of color.  

During the annual survey, we also ask students for books they’ve enjoyed reading in their free time. As a result, we’ve added things like Every Day by David Levithan to our syllabus. The goal is for students to understand reading as an opportunity for enjoyment, not merely an obligation.

That enjoyment—seeing themselves and becoming familiar with identities deemed Other—is more than an escape. Students of color live in an especially reactionary world, one that is frequently unreceptive to their attempts to push back against injustice. Students who are gender-fluid or non-conforming still have to gel with a cissexist society. For an hour and 20 minutes a day, my fellow teachers and I have a chance to help them sort through the static and find a sense of place.

In a typical year, eighth-graders read several pieces about identity, both fiction and nonfiction. For the past two years, the fall curriculum has started with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, moved to excerpts from Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, and lands on a short personal essay by Alice Walker titled “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self.”

Then we take a deep dive into what we call the “identity unit.”

On Day 1, students answer two questions in a writing exercise: When someone meets you, what is the first thing that you think they notice about you? What are some things you wish someone knew about you when they first met you? The students break into pairs, sharing some or all of the bullet-point lists they’ve created with each other.

Next, I have students read a modified version of anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s article, “Iceberg Theory of Culture.” In 1976, Hall theorized we all have two significant layers: how we present to others—racial and gender presentation, etc.— and what’s “below the surface”—learning differences, morals, ethics, etc.

Students are asked to process these topics in different ways, sometimes physically. I’ll pose statements like “I think about my race on a daily basis,” or “I have been judged based on perceived socio-economic status,” and students will then move around the room to show where they fall on a spectrum,  “agree” on one end, “disagree” on the other. We’ll usually have some class discussion afterward, and I’ll ask them to free-write a paragraph based on the topic.

I recently reached out to one of my former students, Darcy, who now attends Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. She told me by email she still remembered the activity, a full three years later.

“Discussing our identities for the first time felt foreign, strange, and perhaps awkward,” she wrote to me. “However, the conversation about identity became more fluid with each new discussion. I appreciate that the iceberg concept was introduced to me at a young age because the activity forced me to communicate with myself in-depth, something that I know is hard even for adults.”

Once the class has discussed the iceberg and various identifiers, the students turn the lens inward. They spend some time brainstorming all the aspects of their identities, mulling over how much these elements contribute to their self-perception and how the rest of the world sees them.

To drive home these concepts, I have them visually create their own interpretation of the iceberg to depict their identity. In the last few years, I’ve seen students create models to speak for them—an advent calendar, for example, that featured “white” under a box labeled “race,” revealing “multiracial” once a tab was lifted. The student sought to show how important his multiracial Asian ethnicity was to his sense of self, though everyone else perceived him as white. Another student drew a cross-section of an apple, listing her presentational identifiers on the outside and her morals and ethics in deeper layers inside.     

Most of the work we do around identity is geared toward beginning the long process of understanding these shifting concepts in society. These are issues my students will grapple with for as long as they live around other people. But already, I can see the impact of this work as students move on from my class.  Again, I turned to Darcy to get a read on whether this material resonates.

“In middle school, I think many aspects of what I thought my identity to be were subconsciously influenced by my family. I wouldn’t say that pieces of my identity are necessarily easier to process now, but as I’ve matured I can identify independently,” she wrote. “I understand and appreciate that there is much more to a person’s character than what appears at the tip of the iceberg—a lesson produced by the discussions in my middle school English classroom.”


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