Would you talk to my middle school students about ageism?

That’s the inquiry I received from the Denver Green School sixth-grade teacher Becca Allen in late January. Middle school students were interested in ageism.

And since what I do is present and teach about ageism, of course I said yes immediately. And then, of course, I thought what now? I chatted with Becca Allen about her class, and I reached out to our Change AGEnts.

Nancy Fingerhood, who among her many talents, is also a substitute teacher in middle school, pulled some lesson plans, a simple quiz, etc. I crowdsourced ideas at a local gathering of advocates for older adults about how to talk to middle school students about ageism.

Becca sent me a list of questions that the students had developed. I realized that we weren’t dealing with just any middle school class. The students were already aware of racism, sexism, and had done some readings related to age and ageism.

middle school students ageism questionsSo, we decided to do what we always do in our conversations about ageism. We start with a video, conduct an activity, answer some questions and conclude with a call to action. Students in small groups were asked to enter some of their own questions. Laurie Brock, Nancy and I answered questions about age discrimination, ageist words and language, and to what extent ageism is prevalent in other countries. We concluded—as we conclude every presentation or workshop—with a call to action:

What will you do to help fight ageism?

In the end, it was their responses—written down on a Post-it notes all over the classroom—that blew us away. Middle school students had great ideas about ageism. Here are just some of them:

  • “I will notice when my friends use ageist language and be an up-stander to fight against them using those words.”
  • “I will help my community to fight ageism because I have a lot of friends in my community that are over 40 years old.”
  • “I will not make fun of or assume things about people who are older than me because it is unfair and you should treat others how you want to be treated.”
  • “I will start spreading the word to fight ageism and stop the ‘ok boomer’ thing. I will also stop using it myself to my sister because it is not ok.”
  • “I am going to stand up for older people if I see them being treated unfairly.”
  • “I will tell people to stop stereotyping people because of their age to help fight ageism because people should meet each other before deciding what they are like.”
  • “I won’t judge people about their age and how old they look. I will get to know them first.”
  • “I want to include older people in activities at school so we have a better balance of young and old.”
  • “I will stop saying senior citizen and instead use older person.”
  • “I want to find groups that fight ageism so that I can maybe join them and learn more about them.”
  • “I am going to look for the young in everyone and smile at older people more often.”
  • “I want to make sure there is technology provided at nursing homes to fight the stereotype that older people don’t know how to use technology, we have to teach them and provide them with the opportunity.”
  • “I want to teach people that age does not matter because that will help people and make sure it is not a problem for future people.”
  • “I want to be more supportive of people experiencing ageism by talking to them and hearing what they have to say, rather than making or agreeing with stereotypes.”
  • “I want to help my grandma more and hang out with her.”

My takeaways from this experience?

Written by middle school students, all of this is great advice for all of us at any age who want to end ageism.
What the world needs are more teachers like Becca Allen, in environments where their talents and gifts can thrive. Maybe middle schools are exactly the right venue for advancing the fight against ageism.

Would you like a presentation on ageism? You can request one here.

Janine Vanderburg is the Director of Changing the Narrative in Colorado, a partnership of NextFifty Initiative and Rose Community Foundation.