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Want to Transform Middle School Education? Teach Girls (and Boys) Empowerment Self Defense

If we could do anything of great importance in education in the United States it would be to completely rewrite the script on what we call Middle School education. Our elementary schools are actually, across the board, quite strong in terms of educational attainment and our high schools, while more varied in terms of results, provide many opportunities for our students to learn and grow.

But middle schools are the real black hole of American education. Neither adequately an extension of elementary school education nor real preparation for high school, much of the most challenging behavioral issues and learning challenges occur in educational settings for ten to fourteen year olds. Middle school teachers also have an incredible mix of personal and professional skills, but they are often given contradictory messages (or none at all) concerning what we are trying to accomplish with students in this age group or developmental trajectory. Students at this age are so ready to learn; they are developing the cognitive and conceptual frameworks to do more than just capture reading skills or sequence simple math processes. Their minds are ready to explode with possibilities.

The challenge is that their middle school minds are not the only aspect of them that is ready to explode. As integrated selves, their cognitive processes are fully enmeshed with their social and emotional understanding and awareness. Identity issues (communal, ethnic, racial, gender…) are all coalescing and converging but we continue to see these aspects of self as separate and distinct arenas of development. Middle schools are a perfect opportunity to teach students how to grapple with these converging and sometimes scary feelings, thoughts, and sensations as a primary goal of their education.

Students at this age are so ready to learn; they are developing the cognitive and conceptual frameworks to do more than just capture reading skills or sequence simple math processes. Their minds are ready to explode with possibilities.

I have many ideas and thoughts about what this brave new world would look like and feel like for students. One area which concerns me the most is teaching students how to be strong protectors and advocates for their communities, to ultimately support a reduction of violence both inside and outside of schools. And a large piece of this has to do with how most students grapple with gender development.

Are there many of us who have deep, fond memories of middle school physical education classes? I’m waiting. The combination of physical awkwardness, developing pubescent bodies, and social anxiety find a lovely and unrelenting home for shame and embarrassment in this environment. One of the main goals for achieving systemic change around the middle school years would be to go beyond the PE model to develop an entire “community and self” curriculum which would incorporate empowerment self defense classes for all students.

Are there many of us who have deep, fond memories of middle school physical education classes? I’m waiting.

I have written about this before in terms of a curriculum I was invited to help develop with a talented group of people from a diverse background: educators, counselors, mixed martial arts experts and self defense trainers. Breaking Through: ESD Global and the Audacity to Change the World. Empowerment self defense training is not new. For over 50 years in the United States classes for young women on how to defend themselves, mainly from the threats of male violence, have existed. Women learn to use their voices, physical posturing and body positioning to protect and defend themselves and others from the threat of physical harm. Situational awareness and assertiveness training help women to understand how to deter and end the possibility of violence. But the truth is, coupled with lessons regarding physical wellness, sexuality and consent, young girls need to have these conversations at a much earlier age than college or even high school. And guess what? Boys need it too.

Many boys do not want to be the perpetrators of physical violence or abuse. Many become its victims. While multiple studies point out that about 90% of the violent crime in the US is enacted by men, what is not mentioned is that most of that violence is targeted at other men. Boys in schools can be the victims of violent bullying or left without the tools or understanding of how to end violence once it has started. While the main goal of this training for young girls would be to protect themselves and create proper boundaries around engagement, for boys the goals would be different.

...coupled with lessons regarding physical wellness, sexuality and consent, young girls need to have these conversations at a much earlier age than college or even high school. And guess what? Boys need it too.

For young boys it would be to create a community of first responders, upstanders, a collective of individuals who are committed to making their school community free from the threat of violence. Boys would also need to learn about the rules of consent, about respecting boundaries, but they would primarily learn that they can act powerfully and in unity to de-escalate the potential for violence before it even begins. Gender and the way that young people are socialized toward gender demands that these conversations look differently for boys and girls. This is one area where I think education for middle school students should be mostly separate with times that everyone is together to do work that reflects what their lives will look like in the future, mostly gender mixed.

Now, some may say that by giving boys these tools of defense aren’t you actually giving them an invitation to be violent. My answer is that what you do not talk about openly gains its own life inside the created vacuum of a very violent and hyper masculinized culture which young people experience in the United States inside and outside of school. Middle schools are an excellent place to talk and engage openly about questions of violence. This approach is also a critical step in transforming middle school education. Our students are waiting for us to show them the type of community schools should be and ultimately what our society can look like as well.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy