How We Can Help the “Forgotten Middle” Reach Their Full Potential: Danielle R. Moss

Dr. Danielle R. Moss is a teacher, a speaker, a writer, and a social justice champion. Here is the full text of her talk titled “How We Can Help the “Forgotten Middle” Reach Their Full Potential.”

Dr. Danielle R. Moss – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

So, I want to talk to you about the forgotten middle.

To me, they are the students, coworkers and plain old regular folks who are often overlooked because they’re seen as neither exceptional nor problematic.

They’re the kids we think we can ignore because their needs for support don’t seem particularly urgent. They’re the coworkers who actually keep the engines of our organizations running, but who aren’t seen as the innovators who drive excellence.

In many ways, we overlook the folks in the middle because they don’t keep us up awake at night wondering what crazy thing they’re going to come up with next. And the truth is that we’ve come to rely on their complacency and sense of disconnection because it makes our work easier.

You see, I know a little bit about the forgotten middle.

As a junior high school student, I hung out in the middle. For a long time, I had been a good student. But seventh grade was a game changer. I spent my days gossiping, passing notes, generally goofing off with my friends. I spent my homework time on the phone, reviewing each day’s events.

And in many ways, although I was a typical 12-year-old girl, my ambivalence about my education led to pretty average grades. Luckily for me, my mother understood something important, and that was that my location was not my destination.

As a former research librarian and an educator, my mother knew that I was capable of accomplishing a lot more. But she also understood that because I was a young black woman in America, I might not have opportunities out of the middle if she wasn’t intentional about creating them. So she moved me to a different school.

She signed me up for leadership activities in my neighborhood. And she began to talk to me more seriously about college and career options I could aspire to.

My mother’s formula for getting me out of the middle was pretty simple. She started with high expectations. She made it her business to figure out how to set me up for success.

She held me accountable and, along the way, she convinced me that I had the power to create my own story. That formula didn’t just help me get out of my seventh grade slump — I used it later on in New York City, when I was working with kids who had a lot of potential, but not a lot of opportunities to go to and complete college.

You see, high-performing students tend to have access to additional resources, like summer enrichment activities, internships and an expansive curriculum that takes them out of the classroom and into the world in ways that look great on college applications.

But we’re not providing those kinds of opportunities for everyone. And the result isn’t just that some kids miss out. I think we, as a society, miss out too.

You see, I’ve got a crazy theory about the folks in the middle. I think there are some unclaimed winning lottery tickets in the middle. I think the cure for cancer and the path to world peace might very well reside there.

Now, as a former middle school teacher, I’m not saying that magically everyone is suddenly going to become an A student.

But I also believe that most folks in the middle are capable of a lot more. And I think people stay in the middle because that’s where we relegated them to and, sometimes, that’s just where they’re kind of chilling while they figure things out.

All of our journeys are made up of a series of rest stops, accelerations, losses and wins. We have a responsibility to make sure that one’s racial, gender, cultural and socioeconomic identity is never the reason you didn’t have access out of the middle.

So, just as my mother did with me, I began with high expectations with my young people. And I started with a question. I stopped asking kids, “Hey, do you want to go to college?” I started asking them, “What college would you like to attend?”

You see, the first question —

The first question leaves a lot of vague possibilities open. But the second question says something about what I thought my young people were capable of. On a basic level, it assumes that they’re going to graduate from high school successfully. It also assumed that they would have the kinds of academic records that could get them college and university admissions.

And I’m proud to say that the high expectations worked. While Black and Latinx students nationally tend to graduate from college in six years or less, at a percent of 38, we were recognized by the College Board for our ability not to just get kids into college but to get them through college.

But I also understand that high expectations are great, but it takes a little bit more than that. You wouldn’t ask a pastry chef to bake a cake without an oven. And we should not be asking the folks in the middle to make the leap without providing them with the tools, strategies and support they deserve to make progress in their lives.

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