Adults have few reasons to remember their middle school years — some may even actively choose to forget them. So when Megan Kaplan, founder of the nonprofit The Wildling, asked a roomful of adults at a late 2019 Story Jam to close their eyes and picture themselves as adolescents, it was met with nervous laughter.
“I want you to think about that person at that age,” she said. “Maybe you were feeling a little uncomfortable in your own skin. Maybe things were tumultuous. Maybe you weren’t sure where to turn and who to turn to.”
Kaplan then asked everyone to imagine a different type of middle school experience.
“Imagine a pair of hands at your back holding you there,” she continued. “Feel that. Feel that in this room. This is what we’ve taught these Wildlings, to have each other’s backs no matter what.”
The mood in the room shifted from nervous to surprised, perhaps because feeling like someone has your back is not a common middle school experience. That, according to Kaplan, is why she started The Wildling, a nonprofit organization that facilitates storytelling workshops for middle schoolers.
During the pandemic, the group has moved its curriculum to Google Classroom, but the mission is the same. To Kaplan, who started the The Wildling out of her Linden Hills home in 2018, it is a lifeline she wishes she had as a middle schooler.
“I was inspired to bring the live storytelling experience to middle schoolers because this is an age when they stop speaking. They fear rejection, yet they long to be heard,” she said.
In normal times, each workshop contained get-to-know-you activities, writing prompts, graphic story organizers and mini-lessons on topics like how to hook your audience at the start of a story. Workshops would culminate in a live performance, called the Story Jam, where participants (called Wildlings) shared a story they focused on during workshop sessions. Families and friends were invited to attend.
Things have shifted during the pandemic to an online curriculum. The kids still join together to tell their stories, but now it’s done virtually through the Wildling’s YouTube and Instagram channels. A remote-learning program, which they call Distance Jam, will hopefully be launched this fall at local middle schools.
But whether in person or online, what makes The Wildling special hasn’t changed: Unlike in a classroom or a writing workshop, the focus isn’t on the end result — critiquing a performance or an essay — but on the process of finding your story, having the courage to tell it and then listening to others do the same.
“Our curriculum encourages kids to explore their own personal narrative and ‘point of view stories,’ investigate why it is valuable to tell them and explore ways to communicate and listen to one another intentionally and effectively,” explained Mekea Duffy, co-director of The Wildling.
The only rules for what stories can be told are simply that they are true and they are valuable to the speaker. There is no grading, no critical feedback and no competition. At The Wilding, everyone is there to listen.
Listening and feeling heard is especially profound for this age group because many are facing an issue the American Psychological Association (APA) has termed “middle school malaise.”
Middle school malaise is the insecurity, fear and self-consciousness that intensifies as students transition from elementary school to middle school. Everything about life starts to change, and change can bring anxiety and depression.
Middle school malaise is becoming more common, and depression and anxiety are rising among middle schoolers and teens. In fact, suicide is the second-highest cause of death in children ages 12-18. In the face of such a serious issue, storytelling may seem like a naive solution. It isn’t.
The APA believes a supportive peer environment, often maintained with adult help, is the most important factor. The Wilding creates such an environment.
In addition to mini-lessons, every session includes activities that give participants a chance to voice their opinions and practice listening to each other. For participants like Oliver, they were the highlight of each session. “My favorite was ‘pass the mic,’ where we got to hear everyone else’s perspectives on things,” he said.
Having a variety of perspectives in each session is something The Wildling focuses on. “We intentionally gather kids from different neighborhoods, backgrounds and schools to encourage a celebration of what makes us unique AND what we have in common,” Duffy explained. Scholarships are available to make sure cost isn’t a prohibitor.
Every workshop session ends with a mini-story jam that’s just for the participants. Each person has the opportunity to share and be heard, and every story is met with applause and congratulations.
Feedback from participants and their families shows The Wildling is having a positive impact.
Marice, a Wildling participant, is happy with his experience. “It was a great opportunity,” he reflected. “I’m more talkative and open, not as shy.”
Another Wildling participant, Graham, agreed. “I thought that it was a good expression of everyone’s identities. It brought out the potential in us,” he said.
And to Wildling participant Ava, the environment was special. “The Wildling is an amazing place where everyone is welcome and feels safe to speak their mind and not be judged,” she said, confirming that The Wildling is creating the kind of environment the APA recommends for combating middle school malaise.
At the start of one pre-pandemic Story Jam, the adults in the room were asked to imagine what middle school might have been like if someone had their back. A few moments later, as each middle schooler told their story, they saw it in action.
The stories they told ranged from humorous — finding out you have lice at summer camp — to serious, addressing racial prejudice and gender identity issues. But whether the stories were about paintball or the death of a grandparent, a universal truth was in each one: We all want to know we’re not alone.
Middle school may still be stressful, but where the Wildlings are there is truth. There is trust. There is hope that our future generations will know how to listen to each other.