As students begin middle school, they enter the most important developmental window of their lives for social identity formation. They are keenly interested in how they are seen by peers and how to form healthy relationships. And when drama happens in this area, they are often thrown profoundly off balance. If they feel that a friend has betrayed them, or that they're being made fun of, everything else pales in comparison. Or, from their own insecurity or in imitation of a peer, they may become the one making fun of others. In either case, when peer drama strikes, it has the power to completely distract middle schoolers, removing their ability to focus on what may be more important to them, like their studies, other relationships, or family.
In developing the learning model for Millennium School, we searched for practices that would give students insight into social relationships - how to handle conflict, how to relate with acceptance of self and others (rather than from the insecurity which leads to bullying, for example), how to form healthy friendships. While some of these insights can be learned verbally, primarily they're learned through experience. So, what experiences can we offer students that give them a centered, insightful, aware perspective on peer relationships? There are many that intrigue us, several of which have become part of our advisory or outdoor expeditionary program. Of these, one practice in particular has become central for our physical education program: aikido.
Aikido is a modern Japanese martial art, developed in the 1920s, and it stands in a unique position - a martial art with no offense, whose goal is to move through conflict to restore harmony. For example, a key principle for an aikido practitioner is to protect their attacker from injury. Aikido practitioners learn to "step off the line" of an attack - if someone appears to be attacking you, instead of countering a strike with a block, adding to the conflict, you learn to see where the attacker is going, step out of their way, and use their own momentum to lower them safely to the ground. To do this requires being exceptionally centered, relaxed, and able to see an attack not as a personal strike, but as an expression of the attacker being out of balance - and your role is to help restore that balance.
As may be evident already, this approach offers powerful lessons around social relationships. If you feel a peer is insulting you, how do you step "off the line," learning to respond without insulting them back and escalating the conflict? If they are indeed seeking to rile you up, can you see that it is not personal, but an expression of that person being insecure or fearful in some way, out of balance with themselves? These are among the most useful lessons a middle schooler (or an adult, for that matter) can learn, enabling healthier friendships, and deeper learning in school as well, with less of the distraction that comes from peer drama.
Importantly, aikido offers a way to access these lessons that is not overly "heady," not a dry conversation with adults attempting to impress something upon a student. It is learned experientially, in practice sessions, beginning with physical experience and then becoming understood mentally later, a far more durable route for memory and the formation of new "habits of mind." We're building explorations of aikido into our physical education program, led by SueAnn McKean, who brings more than 25 years of aikido teaching experience. We'll describe more of these practices as we proceed into the first school year, and look forward greatly to sharing them with the Millennium School community.