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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

“Guardians of Dignity”: Three Ways We Help Middle Schoolers Connect Deeply

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Dr. Donna Hicks, whose work on the concept of dignity has changed my mindset about this fundamental principle. Last summer, the entire faculty read her first book, Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflicts, and then worked with her to explore how this research could animate Rivers’s vision of “excellence with humanity.”

According to Hicks, dignity is not synonymous with respect. Respect is earned, but dignity is our inherent worth as human beings. We are born with it, and it cannot be stripped from us (even though it sometimes feels as though it can). And if we can learn to see the dignity in others, the effect on our communities is transformational.

On my commute to work this week, I listened to a new Curious Minds podcast featuring Hicks, highlighting her recent book Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture that Brings Out the Best in People.

Hicks shared that during a workshop she was teaching, a doctoral student raised her hand. “I think dignity is much bigger than you think it is,” she said to Hicks. “You have told us that it is our inherent value and worth. That’s fine, but I think dignity is given to all of us as a sacred trust. It is our job to take care of and protect it, because, as you said, our dignity is vulnerable. We need to think of ourselves as guardians of dignity, but not just our own. We need to protect it in all its manifestations, in ourselves, others, and the world around us.”

This was an aha moment for Hicks, who now adds this new sentence to her discussion of dignity: “It is about connection, connection, connection.”

  • First, it is about being connected to our own dignity—knowing that we have worth.

  • Second, it is about being connected to the dignity of others.

  • Third, it is about feeling connected to something larger than ourselves, “a connection to a purpose that contributes to the greater good—something that gives meaning to our lives.”

Hicks said that when she visits organizations, she looks for all three types of connections. Do employees understand their own worth and the worth of those they work with? Do the mission and actions of the organization help them feel connected to a larger purpose?

That’s when I had my own aha moment: This is a wonderful framework for schools, too, as we examine our programs and choices. What are we doing to connect students to 1) their own dignity, 2) the dignity of their classmates, and 3) a purpose greater than themselves?

Here’s what came to mind on my drive to school:

How do we connect students to their own dignity? I instantly thought about all the time we devote to student portfolios and student-led conferences, including our commitment to teaching students about growth mindset and metacognition. I thought about the incredible written and verbal feedback that our teachers offer to students—feedback that communicates that they are seen and known. I thought about curriculum that embraces adolescents’ identity development—such as their self-portrait project, their Moth Radio Hour-style storytelling evening, and their eighth-grade speeches—all of which ask them to dig deep and find their own distinctive voice. I thought about our new diversity, equity, and inclusion statement that reaffirms that we “encourage every individual to be their authentic self.”

How do we help students connect with the dignity of their classmates? I thought about our multi-age advisory groups, where sixth graders sit with seventh and eighth graders, and every student’s voice is valued. I thought about our community norms, which reflect our shared understanding of how we can interact in a way that promotes equity, inclusion, and safety. I thought about Leadership Lab and how we take time in September, before classes begin, to build our community. And I thought about our weekly division meetings and the way we listen to and celebrate one another’s strengths.

How do we connect students with the dignity of the greater good? I thought about our commitment to helping students see how social justice intersects with every subject they study—from Sustainability Night projects to their study of apartheid to their work on the freight farm to their service learning to the annual water walk to … well, in ways far too numerous to begin to list here. We know that middle school students are filled with empathy and a desire to make a difference in the world, and we are constantly looking for ways to tap into that energy.

When I think about that provocative phrase “guardians of dignity,” I think about this simple message we share with our students early in the year: We are all on the same team. We can make space at the table, in our classrooms, and in our hearts for each of us in our beautiful diversity. We can leave each person we meet better for having spent time with us. We can be leaders who stand up for justice, kindness, and the dignity of others.

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