The middle-school years, in the collective consciousness of American adults at least, are a ceaseless stream of unrequited crushes and messy rooms. Hormone-addled, boundary-testing youth seem obsessed with themselves and maintaining their place in the pecking order.

That's why so many adults tend to treat the preteen years as simply a phase to be survived. We hold our collective breath, roll our eyes and wait for them to mature.

But ignoring this age cohort can be a big problem, said Kari Smalkoski, a University of Minnesota researcher in the College of Liberal Arts who has focused extensively on middle-schoolers. So many tweens, especially those living in high-poverty areas, face very grown-up issues — racism, abuse, deportation — with little support from adults or their peers.

When Smalkoski did her dissertation research, which focused on Minneapolis youth, she found that many students were unable to name a single person in their school who they felt they could talk to about their problems. "There was really nobody in their life who understood what was happening to them," she said.

"There were no outlets for them in school, no outlets with their family. They really didn't feel like they could talk to their teachers and, in many ways, they didn't even feel like they could talk to each other."

So, four years ago, Smalkoski and her co-collaborator Jigna Desai, a U professor in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, launched the Minnesota Youth Story Squad (MYSS). The program brings students from a wide range of majors into Twin Cities schools to help the younger kids express their feelings and forge better relationships.

The MYSS team uses group discussions, skits, writing and art to teach subjects such as identity, micro-aggressions and social inequality. Often, Smalkoski said, adults try to shield middle-schoolers from tough topics. But they're already thinking about big issues, from school shootings to the border wall, or personally dealing with the distress of everything from inappropriate solicitations online to physical assault.

Instead of shying away from tough topics, Smalkoski noted, MYSS gives students tools to work through them, including helping them create multimedia slide shows that use personal narratives to confront larger social issues.

Sharing without judgment

On a Friday morning in March, three undergrads made their weekly trip to Northeast Middle School in Minneapolis to share their MYSS curriculum with Sean Baldwin's first-period English class. The eighth-graders reflected the school's diverse student body, wearing jeans and T-shirts, hoodies and hijabs. A project stapled to the wall read, "A perfect society is possible by us designing one."

The lesson began with viewing an audio slide show created by a girl who participated in MYSS last year. The young Latina narrated a short digital story about body image, including the cultural expectations she felt about her appearance and receiving hurtful comments about her weight.

After the lights came back on, one of the undergrads asked the group: "Can anyone relate?"

A long, awkward silence ensued until Baldwin broke it: "It's heavy stuff at 9:30 in the morning," he said. He then shared how, growing up, he hated being the second-shortest guy in his class. "I didn't feel macho," he explained.

Typically, such a personal admission might stifle a room full of teens into silence. But one boy spoke up.

He admitted that his peers towered over him as well, and that made him feel uncomfortable when he stood next to them in a group. "You look like a 6-year-old and they look like grown men," he said.

The MYSS team has observed the program help students open up about sensitive topics and rein in their tendency to ridicule. During a recent session, one boy started tearing up as he delivered a poem he'd written. Instead of mocking him, the boy's peers shouted encouragement, which MYSS intern Zach Machacek, a U junior, said he couldn't have imagined at that age.

"When I was in 8th grade, you didn't even talk about life outside school," he said.

Northeast eighth-grader Yasmine Harbin admitted her hands were shaking when she read her MYSS poem for her peers. But she appreciated the opportunity to express herself, which rarely happens during typical school days. "School is like, 'work, work, work,' " she said. "It's a safer environment for everyone and you can say whatever you want and it stays in the group."

Her peer, Kennedy Rance, said she also valued MYSS' focus on social-emotional learning. "Kids have talents that aren't academic, and you don't have an outlet for it. You can share and be vulnerable without being judged."

Digital stories get personal

The capstone of MYSS is a six-week project where each Northeast eighth-grader will create a digital story that connects personal experience with a larger social issue.

Smalkoski and Desai chose the format — fast-paced collages of sound, graphics, and text — because it's how the internet generation communicates.

The video and audio collages look almost like memes, the native language of kids so rarely without a cellphone in their hands.

The irony of social media is how little of our "sharing" reflects our authentic selves. But the students' digital stories go far deeper than lolcats' (funny cat) humor, the hip-jerking floss dance, or whatever other nonsense an oldster encounters by googling "What is a meme?"

Some of the most powerful MYSS stories describe students' raw, honest reactions to heart-wrenching cruelty they've experienced based on stereotypes about race, sex, religion or disability.

An Ojibwe girl was called "a redskin savage," asked if she lives in a teepee and told her jingle-dancing dress would make a great Halloween costume.

A football-playing girl was told she's weak and slow.

A stranger shouted "[Expletive] terrorists" to a group of friends wearing hijabs.

Michael English participated in MYSS two years ago and focused his project on his struggles with stuttering. With the R&B song "Stutter" playing in the background, English narrated his story, sharing some of the cruel things people have said about him:

"This dude sounds like a motor boat." And, "He sounds like a broken car engine."

And, "He can't talk for [expletive]."

English explained how stuttering has made him feel nervous and ashamed.

Even though he was initially terrified to share his work with his peers, English said he felt a sense of relief after his presentation.

Kids who had previously judged him came away with a better understanding of what he was going through and asked questions instead of making mean remarks. His confidence increased.

"I felt like I could be part of the group now that they know how much I struggled with this," English said.

English's speech therapist asked if she could share his video with other students and he readily agreed in the hopes that it would help other young people who stutter realize they are not alone.

MYSS takes middle-schoolers' inherent naval-gazing and turns it into a powerful tool, Smalkoski explained.

"Kids have been able to take 'me me me me me' and focus it on something outside of themselves that they can share."

A young fisherman's concern about global warming was driven by its impact on his hobby, for example.

Gay slurs surrounding a lesbian student spurred her to confront homophobia.

At the end of the school year, the Northeast students attend a promotion ceremony at the U, where several digital stories are presented on Northrop auditorium's big screen.

After last year's event, Smalkoski said a parent told her how astonished she was by the effort and care that had gone into helping middle-school kids create such thoughtful, detailed and time-intensive projects.

"She said, 'I cannot remember a time either in my middle-school experience or in my daughter's or son's middle-school experience, where this much attention was paid to students.' "

Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569