Middle grades students talk about conflict and respect

Middle school students often hold a different perspective about what’s fair than their teacher does. What does it look like when a student shows respect for another student? When a teacher shows respect for a student? When a student shows respect for a teacher? What makes it feel safe to speak up when you disagree? When you don’t know the answer? When you do?

“Teachers let that favored student do more, even if it’s just like a little thing like moving up in the room, or leaving when you want to. As much as students say, “I don’t care,” they know deep inside that they care.” —Heather

“My teacher will get us interested in a topic and we’ll all be raising our hands and wanting to say something about it. But he only picks on two people to say something, and then he goes into a different thing. I usually call out, because I’m dying to get this comment out, and then the teacher’s like, “You’re supposed to raise your hand.” How am I supposed to raise my hand if you’re not picking me at all? I feel like he doesn’t really care what we have to say.  He just wants to get over with the day.” —Genesis

When it comes to behavior in the middle grades, make kids part of the conversation!

In 2006, WKCD asked Kathleen Cushman and Laura Rogers, Ed.D. to make sense of the complicated and often turbulent world of middle school students. That work, made possible by MetLife Foundation, appears in Fires in the Middle School Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from Middle Schoolers (New Press, 2008), in which many of the following passages appear.



Many issues of fairness require balancing the rights of the individual with the rights of the group. Here, middle grades students point out certain key areas in which this particularly matters to them:

Punishing everybody for what one person does.

Most middle school kids hate it when the whole class gets blamed for what only some of them have done—no matter how clearly you may try to justify such an approach. On the other hand, they may not know exactly what’s fair when a teacher doesn’t know who is responsible for the unacceptable behavior.

"They’re trying to say, 'The whole class has to take the punishment, because we’re all in this together.' Well, for me it’s not fair." —Genesis

“I guess obviously then we all gonna have detention or something like that. But they should ask, or people should tell them, or something. Don’t punish the whole class. But if you have to, I guess you’re gonna have to do what you gotta do.” —Thea

Cleaning up after other people.

In the world of young children, people only have to clean up their own mess. Many middle schoolers may not yet see a shared responsibility to maintain the space their group uses for learning. As you create opportunities for kids to collaborate in the classroom, they will learn the value of teamwork. Eventually, a social role that supports the group’s interests will start to matter more to them, and this will extend to how they see themselves in the larger school community.

“If we made the mess or we didn’t, my Spanish teacher makes us pick up papers before we leave his class. He makes you clean the spot that you are sitting at. So if someone threw a paper next to your desk, or if anyone threw a paper at your desk, you’ll end up cleaning up. I don’t think that’s fair. We didn’t put it there.” —Amelia

“I think that the teacher should make kids clean after every period. It’s their mess that they made. Nobody else should be responsible for cleaning it up. If you come into that classroom and you share that seat, the teacher might think that you made the mess.” —Denue

Coming to class on time.

Tardiness also challenges teachers to help kids see themselves as members of a group in which their presence matters. Conventional consequences like detention can have some effect, but they reinforce students’ perceptions that being late is a personal issue, not a group one. Motivating students to show up on time for what’s going to happen in class tends to work much better in preventing tardiness.

“I’m not saying you have to threaten kids for them to show up on time for school. But my teacher gave me a detention because I was late three times. And that showed me.  I didn’t want another detention. I just showed up on time every day.” —Javier

“I think they should give us more time to get to class. Sometimes kids have to use the bathroom, and they don’t get out by the time they’re supposed to be there. And most teachers don’t take excuses. You’re trying to explain to them and they’re like: ‘I don’t care. You’re late for my class, you get a detention.’” —Genesis

“Teachers should do something good at the beginning of class to make kids want to come early. My teacher does the boring stuff first, and then he gives kids time to relax. So most kids don’t really care when they come late, and when you give them detention, they don’t really care either. [In another class], at the beginning of class, we did this game to warm us up, like if you answer some question, you get a prize. So kids came, because you wouldn’t want to miss the beginning of class.”  —Amelia

Ironically, some teachers find that humor works well. Javier and Amelia describe an effective song-and-dance ritual used at their summer program, whenever someone arrives late to the morning meeting.

“They just stop the whole lesson and start singing: ‘Pop, pop, fizz, fizz, pop, pop, fizz, fizz. Check him out, check-check him out. Check him out, check-check him out.’ And then—say I was late—I would have to say, ‘My name is Alex.’ And then they would say, ‘And that’s no lie, check.’ And I would go, ‘Pop, pop, fizz, fizz,’ and they say, ‘Mm-mmm, how sweet it is.’ It works—you don’t want to show up late, because people are going to make you do that dance. Because it is a little embarrassing to shake your booty or something. It doesn’t feel really bad, it’s better than that, but it’s something that you don’t want to get. And it’s good, because the teachers get it too, if they’re late. It happens a lot.” —Javier

“It’s like they’re laughing with you, but they’re laughing at you, too. And some people don’t want to do it, so they just come early so they don’t have to do the dance.” —Amelia

Amelia and Javier’s teachers have established this playful embarrassment as a norm of classroom life, which helps students consciously experience a kind of physical metaphor for the disruption they cause to the group when they show up late. Other activities might bring them along to a point where they identify even more with the group’s needs and priorities, turning problems like tardiness into something that the whole class can discuss and work on together.

“We were separated into groups of, like, sixteen, called ‘families.’ We didn’t do things individually, we did it together as a family, and the families got into competition, like chair-building. When we get into stuff together and we compete, even if you don’t like a person, you have to cheer them on because they’re in the family.  And if they lose, that means your family loses.” —Amelia

“I think [talking about the problem] is better with the whole class. It can get chaotic, but if you really want this to happen then it will work out. Because we realized how bad we’ve been and we found the problem, and so we really try to work to become a better class.” —Carmela


What’s Fair from a Student’s Standpoint? An Exercise for Teachers »

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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator