Middle school is hard. And for many educators, middle school kids are even harder. When I tell people I teach middle school they always give me “that look.” What many don’t count on is the energy and attitude often associated with teaching middle school age kids can be channeled and shaped and used to create some of the most passionate environmentally literate students.
Want to know the secret? Put them in charge. It’s scary. I know. But it works.
Recently, in a search for 4-H service projects, our 4-H coordinator introduced the 6th grade class to the Pepsico Recycle Rally program. The students reluctantly agreed, with rolling eyes, that yes, everyone knows recycling is important. Then I said, “You know we don’t recycle here at our school at all, right?.” They looked a little shocked. They asked some more questions, started a discussion, and I could see them getting a little fired up so I simply said, “So what are you going to do about it?” And just like that I handed it over to them.
From there I stopped talking and started listening. I answered questions when asked, but tried as much as possible to use the “guide on the side” methodology.
The first task was taking an audit of how many trash cans and recycling bins we had in our school. After practicing how they would approach classroom doors, the students counted and came back furious because so many classes were using blue recycling trash cans as (gasp) REGULAR TRASH CANS! They were hooked and ready to take action! They created a plan and got the entire school, including administration and the cafeteria to start recycling cans and plastic. There were militant about it! On a field trip when they saw cans in the trash they dug them out and shoved them in their backpacks to recycle back on campus. I had parents calling and saying that their students were making everyone at home recycle more carefully too.
As always happens though, two weeks in a row our recycling collection shrank in size. As middle schoolers will do, the students started to freak out. How could they keep it going? Once again, I let their knowledge of their own community and school climate lead them. A competition! They made flyers and announced it in the cafeteria. And boy were they right!
The entire community came together to help with this recycling competition! We had grannies dumpster diving and moms lugging in bags from home, and every kid in the school keeping a close watch. In just one week, the students collected 3137 pieces of plastic and 864 cans! It took two teachers with pickup trucks stacked high to take it all to the Cherokee Recycling Center. When we showed up, and explained where it all came from the workers gave us a tour of the entire recycling facility. A perfect way to wrap up the project for the school year.
So, yes, middle school is hard. Middle school kids are a tough audience. So take them out of the audience. Trust your kids. Know that when given the opportunity, when given the chance to lead, they can and will do amazing things for our communities and our world.
Special thanks to Sally Dixon of Cherokee Tribal Cooperative Extension 4-H, Pepsico Recycle Rally, and all the students and families of New Kituwah Academy. .