Ultimate Frisbee, Scaffolded Independence, and Democratic Civic Engagement 

We’re about fifteen minutes outside of Montpelier heading north on interstate 89. I glance back in the rearview mirror as I hear one of the team’s captains read the lines for today. Today’s games are a little bit different than our typical hard fought games against JV high school teams in southern Vermont. This is the first time since ultimate frisbee came to Flood Brook school in 2019 that they’ve had the opportunity to play against other middle school teams. The athletes are excited. It shows on their faces as they cheer for the lineups. We’re about to go against experienced teams of ultimate players from around northern VT-most of which have been playing for years, many on teams that have existed longer than the Taconic and Green School District has even been an idea in our corner of the state. Our team of 23, now split into team 1 and team 2, will be short on substitutes today. But the players don’t mind. This gives them more time in the game as they battle other middle level teams in the 70 degree heat of a sunny spring weekend.

Flood Brook emerges from pool play undefeated. Team 1 and Team 2, playfully renamed Team “Splish” and “Splash” after the water trodden tiger painted on our basketball court at home, play hard but spirited games against athletes from two teams coming from Montpelier’s Main Street Middle School and two teams from Burlington’s Vermont Commons School. Yet the real victory is in how Flood Brook organized itself today. Democratically elected captains sat side by side on the bus ride up and poured over the roster. They weighed receivers vs. handlers (the name for position that advances the disc up the field, think like a quarterback in football), they weighed first year athletes vs. seasoned players, they weighed ability level and sportsmanship*. The captains had a robust conversation about how best to split up the team to balance the two teams. There was no yelling, no disparaging words, there was no real “argument.” It was a calm and insightful back and forth. After reaching a consensus, one captain raised the roster above their head and announced, “Alright, we’ve got the teams. We did our best to make sure each team had a balance of throwers and receivers. We tried to make sure there are experienced players on each team. We’re going to pass the list around now. Please let us know if you are okay with the teams and come and talk to us if you have questions.” The team erupted in cheers again and the list circulated.

It seems unusual, but at a time when so many like to lament about the “kids these days,” I’ve got to agree with tiktok personality, now retired science teacher on the team where I student taught, John Wolf, “the kids are great.” It’s true, childhood has changed… a lot… but young adolescence presents most of the same problems today as it always has. Students want to be challenged. They want to learn (not necessarily in school, but they do want to learn). Students want autonomy and a chance to step up and show you what they’re made of. That’s why ultimate frisbee is such a great sport to me. Competitive play, no refs, no umpires, and seemingly endless possibilities on the field. Student athletes are forced to step up, learn the rules, and make good calls about their own infractions. 

So it should come as no surprise that as the 8th graders began to plan the middle school’s spring retreat, we wanted to provide a similar opportunity for kids to step up, and make good calls. Our mission was to pass on to the students of next year the culture of positivity that some of our students have worked so hard to cultivate. Sitting down with myself and Sarena from the Taconic and Green Success program,  the 8th graders got right to work. It wasn’t always easy. In fact, at times it was downright chaotic.  Sarena and I worked tirelessly to provide these young leaders with an authentic leadership opportunity. Again, students need autonomy. They want to be successful. They like to be challenged. 

Which is why after one particularly challenging planning session, the team did not abandon ship. We did not “take away” any privileges or opportunities. We doubled down.  We set clear expectations and provided the group with the freedom and support to work towards the goal of passing on positive culture at Flood Brook to the next generation of middle schoolers. There were no teacher assigned groups, no specific requirements for reporting out ideas and strategies. There was MUCH adult to student interaction, and lots of probing questions: We asked students “what parts of the fall retreat do you think are important to building community?” and “what role will you have in making sure these activities, ideas, and events are part of this spring retreat?” The results were impressive. Given fewer restrictions and clear constraints for planning time and resources, 8th graders were able to prioritize which whole group activities they felt built middle school unity, which opportunities encouraged student empowerment and autonomy, and what the schedule of the retreat would ideally look like. While adults circulated to assist students in small groups, extent student leadership became visible. One precocious student even pointed out that some of the 8th graders had not been to the mountain campus and proposed a site orientation prior to the retreat. They found a date, assisted in completing the field trip request form, and rallied their fellow classmates to make a list of things they would need to verify on site. Our next step? Engage the sixth and seventh graders in planning for a celebration of the 8th graders as they pass the baton at our spring retreat. We don’t know what it will look like yet, but like those student athletes on the bus to their first ever middle level tournament, we’re enthusiastic and optimistic about what the future holds.

Thanks for reading. Reach out if you want to help out or if you have any questions about school, leadership opportunities, or ultimate frisbee.

-Cliff (7/8 social studies, ultimate coach… and all that other stuff)

Works Cited

“( ̄ ̄;).” YouTube, 23 February 2022, https://www.tiktok.com/@wolf_science/video/7107730410255273258?lang%3Den&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1683642721058987&usg=AOvVaw17XDDBQiH-EncJqDoRaxA6. Accessed 9 May 2023.

“The News Project – Success Program Expanding – GNAT.” GNAT-TV, 18 August 2021, https://gnat-tv.org/the-news-project-success-program-expanding/. Accessed 9 May 2023.

Lewis, Samantha. “Mixed gender teams, democratic rules, no referees — is Ultimate Frisbee the future of sport?” ABC, 17 January 2023, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-01-18/ultimate-frisbee-utopian-sport-future/101244622. Accessed 9 May 2023.

Novak, Alison. “South Burlington Science Teacher Goes Viral With TikTok Lessons.” Seven Days, 24 May 2022, https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/south-burlington-science-teacher-goes-viral-with-tiktok-lessons/Content?oid=35641627. Accessed 9 May 2023.

Stephens, Edward. “The Ultimate Frisbee Glossary – Features.” Ultiworld, https://ultiworld.com/feature/ultimate-frisbee-glossary/#h. Accessed 9 May 2023.