Dharma Rain - Dharma School Manual
Description of Sunday Program
Middle School Group
Middle school kids are entering or well into puberty and at a developmental
stage that is beginning to involve more abstract thinking. Boys and girls
still present very different styles and energies, but we bring the genders
together again in middle school because they enjoy and benefit from each
others’ presence. Their issues and abilities are clearly different
from the grade school group. They need more choices in deciding what the
content of their activities and discussion will be. The peer group is
of primary importance at this age, so teachers try to get them learning
from each other as much as possible and let the “teacher” role
fade into the background whenever the kids demonstrate responsibility
and participation. At the same time, the kids will frequently revert to
behavior typical of much younger kids: they will act out, resist direction,
or refuse to engage (depending largely on their mood, current life situation,
or even the weather). Therefore, the greatest asset for a middle school
group teacher is probably flexibility, and the second may be patience.
Experience and sympathy with this age group is very helpful.
The intention in working with the middle school group is to provide a safe
space where kids feel accepted by adults and peers who will try to meet
them wherever they are. Youth of this age need to discuss their issues,
and they need teachers who will process with them without pushing for conclusions.
Discussions tend to be more personal than in the grade school group, and
frequently deal with concrete examples from the kids’ actual lives.
Teachers need to be sensitive to the deeper issues that might be lying under
a kid’s apparently non sequitur story or random behavior, and find
ways to tease those issues out without making him or her feel inadequate.
It is easy to approach this group with an intention to discuss some abstract
concept like “compassion,” and subtly communicate impatience
with the unusual and sometimes apparently “surface” responses
from the kids. This kind of impatience or thinly veiled set of expectations
can cause middle schoolers to “turn off” or “tune out” in
an instant. It is useful to develop a faith that there is much more going
on than meets the eye (or ear), and that the kids are absorbing much more
than they let on or even realize.
On a typical dharma school day, after singing songs with the rest of the
dharma school, the middle schoolers begin each class with five minutes of
silent sitting. Then each student has the opportunity to check-in. Check-in
might be an open-ended question like, “How are you today?” Or,
it might be related to a specific theme such as, “Name one person
you trust.” After check-in the group engages in an experiential activity
connected to a Buddhist teaching and/or a personal development theme such
as communication, trust, dealing with name calling, responsibility, respect,
self-awareness, grieving and loss, etc. A debrief discussion of the activity
follows. The adult facilitators provide safety and guidance while allowing
the kids to lead the direction and level of vulnerability in the discussion.
The space allows kids to receive empathy, see that they are not alone in
the issues they encounter, and learn from each other.
Much of the emphasis is on how people relate to each other, and thus learning
to function as a group is a large part of the teaching. In this respect,
the middle school group is at least as much about doing the teachings as
it is about talking about the teachings. The group works with right speech,
showing respect, attentive listening, finding commonalities, and learning
how to be close to one another even if the kids might not be friends in
other contexts. Teachers model these behaviors, and provide gentle but clear
guidance to the kids before, during and after classes and other events.
Middle school group on a very wet Oregon camp-out.
An important element of our middle school program has been monthly overnights,
which give the kids an opportunity to spend a significant length of time
together and with their teachers. By middle
school most of our kids have also come to our annual week-long summer dharma
camp. At camp the kids forge much deeper bonds with each other and the teachers
(who often serve as camp counselors), and develop a conviction that they
belong to the sangha and are seen and accepted. After their kids have attended
camp, teachers of the middle school group tend to have much more real authority
and connection with the kids.