What Happens When You Give Middle Schoolers a Voice?


One school in Chicago, guided by UVA youth development researchers, put a new model for approaching challenges in middle schools to the test.

The Chicago Academy, a preK-8 public school in Chicago, had a problem: during class changes, the hallways were too loud. Students slammed lockers shut and consistently broke the “no talking” rule, resulting in regular disciplinary referrals and a contentious environment. 

It was frustrating for everyone. 

Until the school’s leadership reframed the problem, focusing on the students through the lens of developmental science: Why, they asked themselves, were students having so much trouble with the hallway rule? Ultimately, the leadership team realized that class changes were one of the only opportunities students had to socialize – a critical developmental need for adolescents.  

So they did away with the quiet hallways rule. Instead, the school focused on the environment, and chose to invest in new, full-size lockers that closed easily (and more quietly). It was a simple change – but it represented a significant shift in mindset about how to approach problem-solving in middle schools. 

Research to Action

In 2019, researchers at Youth-Nex, the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, launched a multi-year initiative to remake and reimagine middle school.  

One of the latest projects to emerge from the initiative is the Remaking Middle School Design Lab – a year-long design experience for school leaders, including teachers, counselors, and administrators, to deepen their knowledge of adolescent development, then apply that knowledge to design and implement projects that support youth.  

“We see this as an opportunity to be working closely and partnering with schools and school systems,” said Abby Gillespie, director of strategy and engagement for Youth-Nex. “The Design Lab is very hands-on, in that it takes the learning, knowledge, and resource generation around the developmental science, and applies that to practice within schools.” 

Last summer, teams from four schools in Chicago, including The Chicago Academy (TCA), participated in a two-day summer intensive called the Design Lab Accelerator. Then, they engaged in monthly learning workshops with the full cohort of schools and bi-weekly individual school coaching sessions that continued throughout the 2021-22 school year. 

The goal of the program was about translating research to practice: helping school leaders not just understand the latest science of youth development but put it into action. 

“Early adolescence is an exciting time from a developmental perspective. There are lots of changes happening in a middle school student’s body, brain, and social world,” said Nancy Deutsch, Linda K. Bunker Professor of Education and the director of Youth-Nex. “Young adolescents’ intense focus on figuring out who they are and where they fit in and need to flex their autonomy and test their independence can be challenging for the adults who spend time with them. But when we lean into those developmental needs, instead of trying to suppress them, we can really help youth flourish.” 

The Design Lab all took place, of course, amid an ongoing pandemic. And while the Remaking Middle School team never planned it that way, as it turns out, that environment made it even easier to break down preconceived notions about what middle school is supposed to be.  

“We're trying to leverage the use of a design process when we're in this historic opportunity to reinvent schools,” said Shereen El Mallah, a research assistant professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development. “With all the education upheaval that's happening, whether it's due to the pandemic, or racial reckoning or economic insecurity, all of these things are priming schools to think about, if you start from scratch, what would that look like?” 

Equity-Centered Design 

Members of the team from TCA discussed their experience in the Design Lab on a recent episode of the Remaking Middle School podcast, “Lessons in Adolescence.” 

Early in the process, the team chose to focus on the issue with disciplinary referrals, which were disproportionately concentrated among older boys. According to principal Joyce Pae, in one class, 80 percent of disciplinary referrals and disciplinary consequences were given to eighth grade boys. 

The question they asked themselves, Pae said, was “Is this something that's wrong with eighth grade boys? Or is this something wrong with our system?” 

The Design Lab employed an approach called liberatory design, which addresses equity challenges and change efforts in complex systems. The Remaking Middle School team closely partnered with liberatory design experts from the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), who helped facilitate and lead schools through the process. 

“If you don’t peel back the layers around what’s happening within the system, you can unintentionally continue to perpetuate inequities,” explained Shelby Hildreth, director of program design on the LiberatED Way team at AUSL. 

Instead of traditional problem-solving, which tends to focus on the issue, the liberatory design process led the team from TCA to focus on the outcome they hoped to see.  

“Liberatory design really made us question, is this the actual outcome that we want? How are students experiencing this? And is this perpetuating an inequitable system? And those crucial questions have completely flipped what we're trying to accomplish,” Pae said. “Once we started to do that, there were some really small, easy wins that we knew we could implement right away.” 

Guided by the idea of increasing student voice, the TCA team chose to change their goal from student compliance to student experience and equity. They began asking students for input, and genuinely listening to the responses. 

“The funny thing is, we thought they'd be like, ‘We want movies every day,’” Pae said. “And it wasn't. It was like, ‘Can we get some new soccer balls?’ They were such reasonable requests.” 

Constant Iteration  

At first glance, buying new lockers or soccer balls may not sound like reimagining middle school. But, by participating in the Design Lab, the team from TCA can see a new path forward. 

A core element of liberatory design, according to Hildreth, is the “continuous improvement cycle” of prototyping, testing and feedback. She emphasized that for the process to be successful, school leaders must understand that it doesn’t have a true end point. 

While research is ongoing, Remaking Middle School researchers pointed to two key elements of the design lab that participants have responded to: the opportunity for open conversations with peers, and the ability for participants to design strategies specifically for their unique school. 

At the center of it all – the Design Lab and the Remaking Middle School initiative as a whole – is a strong foundation in developmental science. That means meeting kids where they are and putting their needs first. 

“Now what we need to do is build the skills that we actually want them to have as good citizens,” Pae said. “And that means knowing how to use their voice, knowing how to make change, and working towards changes for their whole school community.” 

The Remaking Middle School team is hopeful that, in time, this perspective will shape middle schools across the country. 

“What we have seen across all four schools is this move in some way to honor student’s voices more in the school space, or to provide opportunities for leadership,” said Ashlee Lester Sjogren, a postdoctoral researcher with Remaking Middle School. “We would love if that caught hold and manifested throughout our middle schools, where we were able to able to better meet their developmental needs for autonomy and for voice.” 

As Oscar Newman, a science and math teacher at TCA, explained on the podcast, designing schools to be supportive places of transition is critical. “Students pass through our physical and social spaces on their way to other destinations,” he said. “And we can design schools that nurture kids and prepare them for their intellectual and social journey, or we can design schools that give new form and expression to alienation and inequity.” 

To listen to the podcast, click here or find “Lessons in Adolescence” wherever podcasts are available. 

To learn more about the Remaking Middle School initiative, visit their website here