Critical Thinking at Hess Academy: Middle School

This is an ongoing series of blog posts about critical thinking and cultivating honesty and integrity within students across the grade levels. Check out the posts about lower elementary/KindergartenPreschool and upper elementary for a peek into their approaches to this mission.

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For my descriptive review of a school project for Grad School, I decided to investigate what it looks like across the grades to “cultivate critical thinking” and foster a “strong supple core of honesty and integrity” (quoted from school website). I wondered how this mission is interpreted across the age groups, and how classroom communities respond when students inevitably wander into gray areas as they cultivate their own big questions. Today we will look into the Middle School classroom. 

To begin with, Middle School emphasizes critical thinking by inviting students to recognize multiple perspectives and critically question the ideas and texts put before them. This is done through critical literacy, where students are taught to question the information or points of view presented and even their own perspectives in the process. An example of this exercise is presented in the photo above, where students discuss two texts with opposing points of view, pulling out the arguments and supporting evidence, then finding their own voices in the dialogue. Our middle school teachers are passionate about instilling a habit of critical questioning and curiosity in these students. Yet in this developmental stage, when considering “honesty and integrity” and encouraging kids to wonder, students naturally test boundaries and it becomes necessary for teachers to navigate tricky gray areas of what’s appropriate for school and what conversations are better held in another setting. No one can articulate this better than our very gifted middle school teacher, Ricci, who demonstrates so much grace, wisdom, and compassion when it comes to working with this age group. Her words are shared in the interview below:

What does it look like to foster critical thinking and “a supple core of integrity and honesty” in our classroom?

I truly believe that educators have no influence over a child’s thoughts regarding integrity until they’ve built a strong relationship with him/her. Once a student understands that they can express themselves around me without judgement, we can actually enter into critical thought surrounding those subjects. Generally, I try to use characters in the texts we explore to raise important questions about “being one’s best self.” It’s easier to discuss such topics when the “other” is the subject; eventually, students begin to ask the same questions of themselves. 
 
Do students ever wander into gray areas when encouraged to critically question?
Our students definitely wander into gray areas on a regular basis. As middle schoolers, they’re constantly testing boundaries and attempting to gain answers to questions or topics they deem important. If a topic is raised that “steps over the line” in some way, I try to follow some semblance of the following: 1) Acknowledge the comment/thought/question in a way that doesn’t make the student feel bad about their attempt at exploration 2) Voice why the comment is inappropriate 3) If it makes sense, point them in the right direction for answers to the question or the appropriate setting for the conversation. 
 
How do you draw the line of acceptable topics in middle school discussions?
I guess part of my answer above also answers this question. To me, the difficultly lies in identifying what’s inappropriate; something I think may be okay to discuss may be unacceptable to another educator. Regardless, I have to remind the students that, while I care deeply about their well-being, I am not a parent or best friend. Some subjects fall into the realm of those relationships. 

The conclusions I have drawn from investigating critical thinking and developing honesty and integrity from preschool to middle school have been subtle and fascinating. Above all, what I find is that to navigate these often murky waters, teachers need to be trusted and supported to use their best judgment. That’s one thing that makes Hess Academy such a great place for teachers to develop themselves professionally and hone their craft, as we are given the space to do our own critical thinking and exercise our own supple cores of honesty and integrity. As professionals, we are trusted to make decisions rooted in knowledge of theory, best practices, and our own personal judgment calls. The answers to the big questions I asked our staff are as different as the individual teachers themselves, which to me is part of the beauty of a school like ours. I hope you enjoyed this tour through the critically thinking classrooms of Hess Academy, and that you were able to learn something from our amazing teachers and kids in the process!

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