10 Ways to Make Middle School Awesome

Middle school is one of life's great forks in the road. For some students, it's the time they begin to find their voice, their social identity, their sense of self in a bigger world. For most, unfortunately, it's the opposite of that - the time when students lose engagement in school, forgot their authentic sense of self for the "false self" of whatever passes for cool in school, and begin orienting themselves to do whatever it takes to win social status. I've spent a good part of my career so far wondering about this puzzle and trying to access what I know is the greater potential of this age. Here are 10 lessons so far.

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Teaching Kids How to Relate to Their Fears

I stood halfway down the steps into the bunker, feeling the cold underground air at my back meet the sunny, warm air in front of me. The difference was amazing - a beautiful coastal California hillside in front, and the dark, spooky World War II bunker underneath it, built for an attack that never came. On the steps in front of me was a line of brave but nervous looking students who had volunteered to explore the bunker. I knew this experience could be powerful for them and was trying to figure out how to prime them for it. 

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The Magic of Kids and Horses

"Horses reflect back to us what we're putting out there" - and we can see it because they're so much bigger, and because their responses don't have the subtle shadings of language. If you ask them to do something without really meaning it, asking it while your body language says something else, they'll ignore the words and follow the body language. Yet when you learn how to be a safe and clear collaborator to a horse and suddenly they are willing to follow your lead without coercion, this huge animal which has far more physical power than you, the confidence and clarity it offers can be life-changing.

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The Forest Kindergarten

I've been captivated by the idea of the Forest Kindergarten since I first learned about it while visiting schools in Germany. It's always intriguing when an educational idea graduates to "movement" status in one country, yet remains unheard-of here. Such is the case with the Forest Kindergarten. Called a waldkita in German, the forest kindergarten is essentially a preschool that takes place outdoors. By outdoors, I don't mean a little yard next to the real preschool building. Forest preschools are often outside all day, every day (in all but the worst weather), and not in a yard but in an actual forest.

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Helping Adolescents Manage Their Power

There is something about adolescence that asks to be met by greater power. I'm not quite sure how else to say it. Teens sense their growing power. They can make fun of an adult, in a way that might even cut deep. They are physically powerful. They can procreate. They 'get' jokes. It feels to them like adulthood is increasingly easy to imagine (and often, lame). And so they swell up in power and wait for something to meet them. I have the sense that in our time and place, it is the lack of meeting any greater power that creates the most psychological distress in teenagers. I've seen two ways in which teens finally get to face these greater powers, with profound results.

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