Engaging Middle School Students in Global Issues

It was my first year of taking over the middle school Global Issues Network (GIN) club and only my second year at the school.  I still hadn’t worked out the librarians name or how to order new board markers but I did know where to find the unit planners for my subject and I’d learnt how to use a google doc.  Things were looking up.

The latest concert put on by middle schoolers for middle schoolers to raise money for the Green Gecko Project in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Then after the first few initial GIN meetings, a posse (that is the most apt word to describe this particular group of students) of 7th graders approached me with an idea.  They wanted to put on a large scale concert to raise awareness of the issues they were pursuing and raise funds for the NGO’s they were supporting.

“This is a big undertaking”, I told them.  “There are lots of things to think about here.”  And we proceeded to brainstorm all the things that they would need to be do to get such a project underway.  The meeting ended and I went to my next class, safe in the knowledge that I had totally put them off the idea by outlining how much work it would mean for them.

At the following week’s meeting, I was stunned to discover that these tenacious 7th graders had gone and spoken with the head of secondary to secure permission for the event, consulted with various staff members to arrange performances by different groups, picked and okayed a date and venue along with a host of other logistics that were needed to be put in place.

There was nothing I could do now, so I rolled with it and six weeks later, the students put on a concert for the middle school and raised a not insignificant amount of money.  There were a number of issues that needed to be worked out about the organisation but they were so happy with their success that they wanted to repeat it the following semester.  And so they did.

The students are now veterans of concert management after putting on four of these events entirely on their own with each one getting slicker and slicker as they progressed.  Myself and fellow MS GIN coordinator @AdamClark71 have been thoroughly impressed by them.  But while they have learnt a lot from the experience and grown as leaders, communicators, organisers and problem solvers, each successive event has been less about the global issues they wanted to highlight and more about the event itself.

So here is the problem.  How do we focus that amazing middle school drive, enthusiasm and tenaciousness and steer it in the right direction to produce more critical global citizens?

What do I mean by a critical global citizen?  Vanessa Andreotti has written a lot about this subject.  In the article “Soft Versus Critical Global Citizenship Education”, she gives an outline about the differences between the two.  To summarise, a lot of the time, students don’t critically engage with the issues they are exploring.  Instead, they may raise awareness of a particular issue through posters, blogging or organising events or raise money to give to various NGO’s that work in that particular field.  And there is certainly a place for this type of activity and it is important.

What I want my students to do though, is go to the next step.  I want them to look at the issue and understand how it is perpetuated today.  And here is the real kicker.  I want them to understand the role they themselves play in creating and even exasperating the issue.

Let me give an example.  One of the groups in the GIN club was looking at the ocean environment.  This group did some research on problems caused by pollution.  They put up posters around the school to raise awareness and organised a beach clean-up locally.  All of this was valuable activity from the middle school students involved.

However, they never reflected critically on their own contribution to the problem.  They were still blasé about their attitudes towards recycling their own plastic waste from lunch, with items often disposed in the wrong bins after GIN meetings.  There was no indication that they were making decisions to buy items with less packaging or encouraging others close to them to do so.   In short, their own behaviours on a day to day basis didn’t change indicating a lack of real engagement with the problem.

In August when school starts up again, we will have largely a new set of students to work with.  In addition, we will have a new set of goals to introduce as the Millennium Development Goals are concluded and the finalised Sustainable Development Goals are released in September.

The plan to get greater critical engagement with the issues amongst our middle school students in GIN next year is to try a few different strategies.  These include:

  • Making meetings more efficient
    Have greater structure to the meetings with a student run agenda so that meetings become more useful and productive.
  • Various activities to introduce the Sustainable Development Goals
    Familiarise students with the new goals before they choose the area they want to focus on.
    Insist that their problem must relate to one of the above goals.
  • Accountability
    Require evidence of learning and activity to be published through structured reflection tools.

At the recent Middle School Conference in Tokyo, a group of us got together to discuss this problem.  The following Google doc with ideas and strategies were produced but I would love to get more.  If anyone has other ideas that could be useful, please feel free to comment on this post.


Image Credit

2015 Red and White-18 by @AdamClark71 published on SmugMug

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