Upstanders: a Look Into a Middle School Classroom

Posted by Guest Blogger on November 7, 2014

Guest Blogger 2


On the first day of school, as each group of kids arrives for class, I meet them outside the door. I introduce myself and talk to them about how we enter the room ready to learn. I give them some guidelines: sit anywhere you want, share the space, everyone has to be included, don’t split up by genders. When we come in, we have to get in “the Zone” right away. That means our bodies and minds are focused and ready to take on the day. The same way we get ready before a big game or a performance, our actions show we are ready to be our best selves. The kids know what to do: they walk in; make sure their volume is at a level that isn’t disruptive to others; check for a note on the board; turn in any work that is due; kick off their shoes (literally and figuratively); grab a novel/magazine/map/nonfiction book; and find a cozy, safe place to curl up in and read for five to ten minutes while our minds settle in.

On that first day, it’s not exactly serene. They do come rushing in, scour the nonfiction shelves, magazine racks, and library, and eventually nestle into their respective spaces. Gradually, they relax into the reading—a few on a couch, others on beanbags, some on the rug. In stocking feet, minds deep into reading, a few moments of solace in a very hurried day."

Upstanders bookWelcome to the classroom of Sara Ahmed. Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry is a new book from Sara and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels. Sara is also a member of our Los Angeles area Teacher Leadership Team for Facing History and Ourselves and has been nominated for a 2014 Teacher Recognition Award. (Vote here.) In this special guest blog post, get a sneak preview of the book, which is available until November 12 at a special pre-publication discount from Heineman. (Click here for the book.)

Before we can really dig into our course curriculum, we need to help kids build the necessary skills to be collaborative, metacognitive, and responsible for their roles in our community.

Every one of our middle schoolers is constantly—consciously or unconsciously—“building a brand” for themselves. That emerging image can change day to day, or even minute to minute, depending on whether the kid’s cortex or amygdala happens to be in charge. We have to guide them through this, and let them make their own choices, but also help them predict potential outcomes and build the very difficult skill of foresight. What will happen if I release the words that are bubbling into my mouth right now? How will all the different receivers be affected if I just push Send or Publish? Who will I hurt? What does this really say about me and the brand I am building for myself?

Step into any middle school in America, and you’re likely to hear kids exclaim, “I was just playing around!” as they try to defend saying something they should not have said. And would not have said if they had been thinking about their thinking and pausing purposefully in their interactions with others."

Upstanders reveals how Sara shapes her classroom for safe and critical inquiry, and then uses that inquiry to turn required curricular topics into questions so fascinating that young adolescents can’t resist investigating them.

Sara & Smokey


Sara K. Ahmed is the co-author (with Smokey Daniels) of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. Sara teaches middle school literacy and social studies using the inquiry model at The Bishop's School in La Jolla, California.

Sara's advice if you’re wondering about when to start doing this work:

The best day to start working on identity and empathy with your kids is the day you wake up thinking: things have got to change—I need to know my kids more, we have to become closer as a community."

In addition to creative engagement of new technological tools, here are a few of the Facing History strategies and resources Sara uses:

Read more about how Sara uses these strategies and others in her classroom and how her students respond in Upstanders.

Topics: A View from the Classroom

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This blog helps Southern California teachers connect directly with each other, share ideas, and learn about new resources and opportunities for those interested in or already implementing Facing History.

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