Multiple award-winning social studies teacher Jennifer Ingold details her middle school’s civic awareness campaign. Peers teach and learn from peers as they turn advocacy into action.
By Jennifer Ingold
“Why is what you know so important?” I asked our first group of 6th grade student guests. Any child of 80’s or 90’s television would know.
Our school’s Kids Creating Community project is a tribute to the popular The More You Know campaign – a series of public service announcements with one iconic slogan and a celebrity cast providing advice on an array of modern society topics, issues and challenges – that spanned three decades.
The last-century PSA campaign featured ideas that we all can relate to but need to learn more about to fully understand what is going on around us. “The more you know, the better,” concluded PSA anchor Tom Brokaw during each broadcast.
Back in my 2022 classroom, my slogan expanded on Brokaw’s: The more you know,” I told our visitors from sixth grade, “the more likely you are to take action when your time comes.”
With that admonition in mind, my 8th grade students launched into their second Kids Creating Community (KCC) campaign. Our focus this year was to heighten awareness around the value of knowing as much as possible about the things that matter in our own community and the world.
Each of my students was about to share “What I Wish I Knew… As A 6th Grader” with our younger guests – in hopes of providing the blueprint for how every student, with just a few small steps, could collectively make a big difference.
Answering the Call of Duty:
The Seal of Civic Readiness
According to the New York State education website:
“The New York State Board of Regents is committed to civic education that empowers all students to make informed decisions for the public good as members of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world. Civic education facilitates the development of civic competencies, which are needed for a democratic society to flourish. … ” (Source)
Civic Responsibility begins with what’s in the heart. Government could not function without the collective actions of its citizens. “If you feel confident about taking action here within our school community, just imagine what you can do out there,” I said to the class as I pointed to the world outside.
Peer-to-peer teaching, especially across grades and levels, is not a new idea, but it’s a practice that has gained greater momentum in recent years. Our KCC Project’s effectiveness grows out of its presentations, which are created “by kids for kids.” Its essential purpose is to introduce all students to civic responsibility, and its valuable foundations are built on the criteria for The New York State Seal of Civic Readiness.
This year all our 8th grade students achieved maximum impact with their presentations following a very simple process which began with reflecting on their own experiences as middle schoolers over the past 3 years (which have obviously been more than conventional!). Here is the assignment we gave them:
The 8th graders then collaborated on how to introduce themselves and their topic to a random group of 6th grade students, while keeping in mind that this required them to “think like the student, while being the teacher.”
Finally, they were tasked with creating a catchy slogan and preparing a 3-5 minute presentation on their issue/topic’s history within our school, why increasing awareness about it is important, and how our school community can benefit overall from making the changes they propose.
The diversity of the topics selected served them well. Each group conducted additional outside research and student/staff interviews and utilized the wealth of their own experiences to develop presentations that were both informative and inspirational.
A primary goal was for the 8th grade students to leave their middle school a better place than they found it – attempting to begin a legacy of traditions where students take not just pride in – but ownership of – their school community. Another goal was to enhance the quality of student social interactions by gaining valuable presentation skills and experiencing constructive peer feedback.
Learning effective interpersonal communication is an essential life skill, especially in a post-COVID world, where there has been a significant social development gap created by lack of quality and consistent adolescent social interaction. Projects that provide greater opportunity for constructive use of student voice will also be necessary for every student’s future personal growth.
The presentations this year were also designed to include tangible “take-aways” for every 6th grade student that could serve as valuable reminders of every presentation’s bigger message. Each visual souvenir was meant to be a reminder that they, too, could be a part of something bigger than themselves, be a part of serving a greater purpose. They, too, could be agents of change.
Mission KCC Part 2:
The “What I Wish I Knew” Campaign
“Something I wish I knew in 6th grade is that I am worthy of help and my issues are NOT invalid. No matter how much the media or people undermine the issue. That’s all they are, just ISSUES. But when those necessities go unanswered, they become needs.” (Lilly, age 13, Bay Shore Student)
The KCC project’s mission was for the 8th grade students to collectively identify as members of one of a number of New School Improvement Teams. The teams focused on on issues like Rumors, Time Management, Developing Good Self-esteem, Social Media & Your Self Image, Stress, Procrastination, Embracing Cultural and Gender Differences, How to Develop Healthy Student-Teacher Respect, Personal Space and even learning how to “Just Breathe.”
The 8th graders passionately took on the challenge of addressing the larger concern of how to create a more welcoming, diverse and inclusive learning community now and in the future for all Bay Shore Middle School students.
Emma, Ella, and Mikayla’s expertise came from their three years of “anything but conventional” stress. They now better understood the importance good mental health along with managing stress – in school and in life. They were eager to share their anxiety management techniques for middle schoolers in “Just Breathe.”
Using their own experiences, interviews with fellow students and additional research, the trio delivered a passionate presentation targeting various types of anxiety, while emphasizing the effects social and emotional stress can have on teens. They included helpful tips and highlighted resource links that all students could benefit from.
Their souvenirs consisted of white fabric mesh “Just Breathe” Goodie Bags with their signature blue ties, each containing tangible stress management techniques and a colorful stress ball!
“ OH NO! … We procrastinated! ” Diana and Martina’s skit aimed to cleverly introduce the myths and true meaning behind good time management. They are two honors students who have very demanding schedules. Between being star students, National Junior Honor Society school leaders, leading roles in this year’s drama production and even high level competitive danceRS outside of school, their lives are extremely busy, but not decidedly different than that of many middle schoolers. It is life’s delicate balancing act, but just at age 13!
The 6th grade students all watched and listened intently, learning more about how the intrepid pair’s fool proof plan helps them stay committed and remain goal orientated, while helping them to maintain focus as they successfully navigate their active, complex middle school lives .
While their presentation “It’s Time to Manage Our Time” discussed the challenges of balancing their grades with other personal activities, it also emphasized the importance that extra-curricular activities play in molding a healthy, more well-rounded student.
Diana and Martina encouraged all 6th graders to get more involved in their school with the two years they had left. The message got across. “I really learned how to use my time wisely,” said 6th grade student Mason G. “I have no suggestions (for improvement),” he commented on their Time Management strategies.
Their souvenir was a “quick reference” time management guide, a small planner of big reminders on how to remain in the drivers seat, especially when presented with making some of life’s most difficult decisions.
Nelson, Linwood, JoAnne and Tommy all discussed different versions of respect. Learning how to give respect was necessary if one wished to receive respect from others. And a big part of learning about respect was being aware of someone else’s personal space.
Many 6th grade students had never heard of the term “personal space” so they never realized how simple it was to actually give to another person. Nelson and Linwood modeled this fact cleverly by giving each 6th grader a “Foot Long” fruit rollup, a clever reminder designed to give all students “a taste” of exactly what personal space looks like!
While Nelson and Linwood’s presentation rolled out how easy it was for everyone to respect another’s personal space, JoAnne and Tommy were about to model how respect looks in the real world. JoAnne was an honors level student. Tommy was a special education student with an IEP in addition to a 1:1 paraprofessional.
Tommy had always experienced social emotional anxiety coupled with extreme shyness. He’d never been comfortable talking to people, let alone being in front of a large audience. This was his first presentation.
Together, JoAnne and Tommy devised a plan for ensuring Tommy’s success. He would read the underlined sentences while she would read the rest. To the audience, the underlined terms were simply points of emphasis, but to Tommy they were the blueprint for a confidence that he had been seeking since the 6th grade.
Together on presentation day they were equals, natural leaders whose presentation emboldened how mutual respect among two very different students really works. At the conclusion of the presentation, they were ready to share their journey with the audience along with providing bookmark souvenirs. The colorful “Treat others the way you want to be treated” bookmarks will serve as reminders of the beauty that comes from simple acts of kindness, mutual respect and admiration.
Student Advocacy in Action:
The Impact of Being an Agent of Change
“My students related to the presentation on anxiety. A lot of the students related with the examples of Social Anxiety, especially after COVID. One of my students made a good point that sometimes working on a project together in class fosters friendships and allows you to connect with people you wouldn’t have otherwise connected with.” (Michelle Heubish, 6th Grade Teacher)
The KCC Project’s platform introduced the value of civic education while closely examining its relevance in our everyday lives. But one thing all students gained was even more powerful.
“I liked the way the presenters explained rumors and how they could potentially make other people feel. It was very relatable.” commented one Mrs. Heubish’s 6th grade students.
”It’s important to understand yourself and the people around you. You should respect boundaries, even pronouns learning how people feel, as long as it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else!” commented another 6th grade student.
With student mental health concerns presently at an all-time high, this activity allowed 8th grade students to lead the way on the importance of embracing having difficult, even sometimes uncomfortable, conversations. They were ready to be vulnerable to a younger audience – reevaluating their own experiences in an effort to model the right examples, even if it meant showing what “ not to do.”
The 6th graders learned that they, too, are capable of making a change. They have two more years of tremendous growth opportunities ahead where they can take ownership of their school by not just making a change, but being the change.
The various relatable perspectives – especially on how to not just attain but nurture good mental health – that were embedded in the 8th grade presentations made them both unique and highly inspirational. These were messages that were not only about kids, but also from kids.
In turn, the KCC project created a more organic learning environment with better, more authentic social interactions among all students. There is great power in building confidence through creative collaboration, while displaying the true effective nature of better, more constructive communication.
When every student feels more capable, confident, welcomed and valued, the resonance that results is life changing. “How will you be remembered?” I routinely ask my students. We all share the same history, but it is our unique ability to make a difference that will ultimately wind up defining who we are.
Jennifer Ingold (@msjingold) was chosen as both the NCSS and NYSCSS Middle School Teacher of the Year in 2019 and has received the Cohen-Jordan Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year Award from the Middle States Council for the Social Studies. In April 2022 the Organization of American Historians (OAH) named Jennifer the OAH’s 2022 Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau Teacher of the Year.
Jennifer currently teaches eighth grade social studies at Bay Shore Middle School in Bay Shore, New York. She has been a speaker at local, state, regional and national conferences, is a lead blogger for C3Teachers.org, and has had her work featured in major publications such as Social Education, Middle Level Learning, and AMLE Magazine. And, of course, MiddleWeb.