As anyone who has taught it, gone through it, or is currently in it knows, middle school can be a rough time for those perceived as "different." That's what makes reinforcing concepts like acceptance, empathy, and kindness during these challenging, formative years so crucial.

That idea is what drove Annie Granger and Annette Ehly, middle-school educators in the rural Upper Adams School District, to create the Upper Adams Diversity Club five years ago.

"It started out as an observation of students making comments that were not positive toward each other," said Ehly, a middle school paraprofessional in the Adams County district. "And we just kept saying, 'You know, there's something we could be doing to change this.'"

"I was hearing a lot of conversation in my classroom around the issue of misunderstanding of different cultures. And that was concerning to me," said Granger, a language arts teacher at Upper Adams. "We're such a small community. We're so close. So why can't we work together to build stronger relationships?"

Why not a club?

Granger and Ehly brainstormed ideas for combating the problem, something that could teach kids how to be more inclusive while also empowering them to lead. They landed on a diversity club and gathered a small group of carefully selected eighth-graders, which has since grown to 19 students.

"We watch our seventh-graders through the year, and we look for those leadership qualities," said Granger. "Being comfortable with themselves, being OK standing up for things that are important to them, and supporting other students."

The student-selection process then passes through a committee that includes the school principal and various teachers and school counselors. They meet to discuss the prospective students, who are then invited to join the club. All of them, so far, have accepted.

The members meet every Friday throughout the school year for about 40 minutes. They plan schoolwide activities, discuss issues of equity and kindness, and learn how to become amplifiers of positive messages for their peers, teachers, and the community at large.

How it works

The club members spend a lot of time unpacking their thinking around bias, stereotypes, and challenges to inclusiveness, according to Granger. They examine everything from broader societal themes to issues closer to home, like lunchroom cliques.

Some of the meetings involve planning for schoolwide events, including "Mix-It-Up Day,'' which is a nationwide event held in October that their club runs.

"The whole premise is you're mixing up all the students in the cafeteria so they are sitting with different students for lunch," Ehly said. "I tell the kids, 'It's like medicine. It doesn't taste good but it's good for you.'"

Another event that the club plans is a lotería, or Spanish bingo, in the cafeteria, where the kids are exposed to Latin culture and can practice speaking Spanish.

They also create a "Message of the Month," where the kids creatively rework famous phrases or come up with their own, then present them in a form that can be displayed throughout the school.

"It helps with public speaking, getting your message across,'' Ehly said. "They get to do some fun artwork and computer skills. So you get to pull in a lot of hidden talent when they're doing this."

Club members also occasionally invite members of the community in as guest speakers. One was a Holocaust survivor who came with her son to share her story of survival. Other speakers included a married couple who shared their experience as members of the Islamic community, something Granger said was very impactful given the strong biases some of her students had shown against it.

"Our school is rural and small," Ehly said. "Our students don't have the opportunity for enrichment travel, and so I think part of our goal is to bring the world to them."

Validation for their efforts

The response from staff and students to all these outreach efforts has been wonderful. Faculty have been eager to help whenever they've been asked, and the school board recently invited the kids to give a PowerPoint presentation on the club.

"They were very interested in what we were doing and wanted to know more," Ehly said. "I feel like we are getting a lot of positive support, which is nice."

Some of that support has even been monetary. Thanks to a couple of grants from Teaching Tolerance, the magazine of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the club was able to host "Project Elevate" in May. This two-day event was a schoolwide showcase for the club's work that involved keynote speakers, workshops, and other efforts geared toward empowerment, identity, and exposure to new ideas.

"Getting the first grant was just, I think, affirmation that what we were doing was important for our school community," Granger said. "And it was empowering for us because we felt like, OK, somebody is recognizing this is a need for our population, for our students. That kind of gave us more momentum."

At the end of the day, both Granger and Ehly believe the club is having a real impact.

"One thing that I hope students take away from the club is kindness and empathy," Granger said. "The ability to look at another human, be open to who they are, and get to know them by approaching those situations without judgement and bias."

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