Dr. Dena Simmons highlights 2021 Middle Grades Conference

The 2021 Middle Grades Conference was a powerful experience for middle level educators from across Vermont, the nation and internationally. The online one-day conference last Saturday illustrated that despite the many challenges of educating students during a pandemic and through political crises, educators are confronting inequality and racism, empowering students, and supporting their families and communities

Dr. Dena Simmons, activist, educator, former Assistant Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and founder of LiberatED, “a social and emotional learning approach to racial justice and healing” @LiberatED_SEL kicked off the conference with an impassioned and inspiring keynote address. Simmons discussed the importance of teacher self-care, healing, and how teachers who effectively monitor their emotional well-being are more potent agents in the equity and racial justice movements. Dr. Simmons provided a number of thought provoking concepts, additional resources for teacher support, and protocols designed to help educators move from acknowledgement to healing to action. As one participant noted, “Dr. Simmons’s talk was very powerful; she was so open and vulnerable and her call to action to me as a privileged white person to be a co-conspirator was profound. Time for me to step up and step out!” It was a stirring start to the conference and had a powerful impact on attendees.

The keynote address was followed by almost 40 presentations from middle level educators who detailed the action research and innovation they have been implementing in their classrooms and schools to address inequity, promote racial justice, and teach engaging curriculum in the face of incredibly trying circumstances. The level of commitment demonstrated by presenters, coupled with the participation and engagement from nearly 200 attendees was remarkable. In their closing reflection, a Vermont educator touched on many of the conference’s themes, “I have been inspired to think more deeply about how to create brave spaces for kids to talk about complex topics and become better advocates for justice. Emphasizing individual identities while also balancing with contextual oppression is going to help middle-school students understand themselves and others and fight for equity and antiracism.”

Collectively, the 2021 Middle Grades Conference was an outstanding culmination of the hard work, thoughtful practice, and reflective practice of educators confronting monumental challenges. The shared sense of purpose and community created from this event was a bright and enduring testament to the power of connecting, collaborating, and committing to a just and equitable future.