Responding to Tragedy: Middle School Students and Activism

Posted by Kavan Yee on 3/23/18 5:09 PM

The world in which we live is a complicated place, filled with contradictions. I am distraught about the school shooting in Florida, as I know many are. I worry about the long-term effects these school shootings have on us—that they take away our sense of safety in places of learning.

Clearly, solving the problem of school shootings goes beyond our own community and necessitates collective wisdom, discussion, and action. As the National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS) says in its Statement on Student and School Safety we must “get started and refuse to let the complexities paralyze us.” But while we tackle the larger problem, we must also keep our students safe today.

What are we doing to keep kids safe at school?

Like all schools, we take safety seriously. We have plans and protocols for a variety of scenarios, including fires, earthquakes, armed intruders, and evacuations. These plans are regularly reviewed by the fire and police departments. We practice each plan to be ready to act in a moment’s notice. At the same time, we want our students to continue to take part in field trips, off-campus service projects, environmental explorations in nearby Rock Creek Park, outdoor recess, and after school athletics. We are always looking for ways to improve the security of our campus while balancing our desire to have students interact with the world.

Knowing our middle school students is another way we help keep them safe. I believe we must foster both respectful and critical relationships in order to encourage empathy, communication, and collaboration across our diverse school community. Our school mission reminds us to honor the individuals in our community every day. Our class sizes are small, and teachers create trusting, respectful relationships by actively listening to their students and empowering them to use their voices to advocate for themselves and others.

Whatever is going on in the world, we are living it the next day in the Middle School. In our advisory program, DeltaU, students meet in small groups with a faculty coach every day. Conversations are open, and coaches invite students to share not only what they know, but also what they don’t know. Students have an opportunity to discuss and hear different perspectives on topics ranging from current events and the latest YouTube phenomenon to study skills and friendships. The Middle School Counselor oversees our DeltaU program and is an additional resource for teachers and students.

How do we help middle school students learn more about the social, political, and economic issues that impact them every day?

As a progressive school we believe it is important to prepare students for lives of informed, active citizenship, and middle schoolers are eager to engage in the world beyond family and school.


Our curriculum offers students a grounding in many issues of equity and justice that are part of our history and contemporary life. In addition to core academic courses, we offer classes on current events, service learning, and activism. Asking essential questions to promote critical thinking and providing experiential learning opportunities are central to our educational approach.

To develop our students’ agency, we also focus on practical skills they will need to turn their learning into action. To that end we:

  • teach research skills;
  • promote active listening;
  • ask students to consider their truth as well as the truth of others; and
  • provide tools for solving problems and devising plans for action

How do we support middle schoolers in taking action as concerned citizens?

We are a school that listens closely to the voices of our students. We embrace students’ ideas for improving society and encourage their participation because we believe in the power of learning by doing.

And so, when our students wanted to stand in solidarity with the students of Parkland and promote school safety, we heard them. We felt it was an ideal opportunity to model what it takes to organize a demonstration.


Here’s how we supported our students in planning the demonstration:

  • Teachers, administrators and the Middle School Ally Group worked together to organize an event that would be appropriate for our community. Already activist leaders within our community, the student Ally Group became the driving force behind the planning of the event. Guided by their faculty advisor, they tackled event organization and student communication. Teachers and administrators offered expertise and additional support.
  • Safety was a top priority for all. We consulted resources for guidance on student demonstrations from NAIS and Women’s March Youth, which was organizing the National School Walkout. The Ally Group made sure students understood that participation in the demonstration was voluntary. Teachers were assigned to accompany the students to a nearby location for the demonstration and others to stay behind with students who did not want to join in. I contacted parents ahead of time to let them know how we would be supporting our students on the day of the demonstration.
  • We embraced teachable moments. The students wanted posters, so we talked to them about the impact that words and images can have. The students wanted to chant, so we asked them to consider which chants would be most meaningful to the cause. The students wanted to honor those who were lost, so we urged them to think about what would feel most respectful.

At 10:00 am on Wednesday, March 14, we stood together as a community on nearby 16thStreet to express concern about gun violence in schools. The majority of our students chose to take part. They held up hand-made signs and dedicated 17 minutes of silence to those who died in Parkland. I could not have been more proud of our students whose passion and commitment inspired both our school and local communities that day.


Why support student activism?

One student at the demonstration remarked, “No one should be scared at school.” As educators, we not only need to keep our students safe, but also empower them to move through feelings of fear, grief, anger, and helplessness. They need to be able to continue to learn and also help create the world they want to live in.

Education must amplify students’ voice, agency, conscience, and intellect to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world.


The issue of gun violence in schools is gaining some momentum with the March for Our Lives on March 24 and the National Day of Action Against Gun Violence in Schools on April 20. You might be interested in these additional resources.

Resources on Talking to Children After a School Shooting

Resources on Civic Engagement and Activism

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Teaching & Learning

Kavan Yee

Written by Kavan Yee

Kavan earned his BS in biology from North Park College and his MEd in educational leadership from the National College of Education at National-Louis University. Before coming to Lowell in 2010, he taught at the Carleton W. Washburne School in Winnetka, IL and the John G. Shedd Aquarium, in Chicago. At Lowell, he has served in a variety of roles, including Middle School science teacher, science curriculum coordinator, and director of Middle School student life. In 2013, he was selected by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Education to blog on his observations of the Finnish school system. Kavan is a board member of the Progressive Educators Network. He became director of Lowell's middle school in 2015.