Bullying is a widespread and serious problem across our nation. It's what happens when someone repeatedly hurts or threatens another person on purpose. Bullying comes in many forms: name calling, leaving people out, spreading rumors or physically hurting someone. And, it can happen in person, in writing, online, on cell phones, in school, on the bus, at home, or anywhere. It is not a normal rite of passage, it has serious consequences and it is NOT acceptable anywhere - especially at school.
Remember how we imagined teaching would be? Students, projects, stacks of grading to complete- those were the things we knew to expect. Yet we were probably unaware of the sense of isolation educators sometimes feel. Teaching can be such a solitary profession. Although we may be part of an interdisciplinary team or the member of a department, the better part of our day is spent as the only adult in a roomful of students. Whom do we turn to for help or guidance? How do we form connections with a larger community of educators? What is the fabric that connects us to one another?
In the past few years, the impact of bullying on our children and in our schools has become a significant part of the national conversation about youth and education. And, with good reason.
Facing History and Ourselves hosted a conference for partnership schools in our international Innovative Schools Network October 19-21, 2013 in Washington DC. Rather than just tell you about the conference, though, we wanted some of the teachers who attended to share their thoughts directly. We heard from:
For 15 years I taught a Cultural Diversity class at Crossroads School. It was part of the 12th grade history elective requirement under the category of "History, Society, and Ethics" and it was for all intents and purposes, my "Facing History Classroom." Students selected this elective to delve deeply into the history and present-day state of multiculturalism, equity and inclusion in the U.S. With so many other elective offerings, however, my class was often small- some years only 12 students were in enrolled. I always began with a student-created "code of conduct" for the class and two-weeks worth of identity activities which laid the foundation for a classroom dynamic built on trust, respect, and open communication.
Two years ago, my 12th grade students were so inspired by the richness and depth of the discussions they had in class, they often remarked, "It's too bad there's so few of us in here! Other kids should be talking about the topics we discuss. More people need to be in on this conversation!" After hearing that refrain so often from the kids, I suggested we brainstorm how to widen the conversation in a way that wouldn't require that person's physical presence in our class.
What my creative students eventually came up with was this- a low tech, no tech "old school" blog. "Big Paper" if you will, for the entire campus. A student in my class who was also in technical theater constructed a large chalk board by stretching canvas over a wooden frame and painting it with several coats of chalkboard paint. Using nothing more than a paper cup and duct tape, we made a holder on the board for accompanying sticks of colorful sidewalk chalk. Once the board was complete, project "chalk talk" began!
Each day in class, which conveniently met first period, the students devised a new "question" and wrote it at the top of the board. Approximately 10 minutes into class, when the coast was clear, the students transported the board to a different location on campus every day. The buzz was immediate. Where had the chalk board come from? Was it some kind of prank? Could they really write on it? Who was asking the questions?
The Cultural Diversity class and I agreed that the student body would have to warm up to using the chalk board and that we couldn't engage them with thought-provoking questions right away. On the first two days, the question was simply, "Who are you?' This was the perfect opening hook, after all, what kid wouldn't want to write their name on a big public board in colorful chalk? The idea, of course, was to get people used to the idea of searching out the chalk board (moving it's location daily kept things "fresh") and interacting with it. A few of my colleagues were skeptical at first ("Aren't you just promoting graffiti? Aren't you going to be replacing stolen chalk every day?") but by the end of the week, things changed. Our follow-up question to "Who are you?" was "What are you?" Responses such as, "Handsome" "Bored" and "Confused by this chalk board!" shared space with truly thought-provoking answers such as "Asian and PROUD of it!" "The ONLY black kid in my grade" and "Adopted." After that, the Cultural Diversity class knew they could generate conversations with project Chalk Talk.
Despite concerns that other adults raised at the outset of my student's project, the chalk board was never vandalized, covered with inappropriate responses, or stolen. Chalk didn't even disappear in large quantities. Somehow, the public nature of the board kept things in check. The responses, though written in public, were oddly private as no one ever signed their name. Students gave authentic answers because they were hungry to talk about things no one ever asked them about, such as
- What does inequality look like?
- We REALLY need to start talking about...
- This school didn't teach me...
- In a perfect world...
- I'm afraid that...
- I wish people would stop saying...
- What is your stereotype?
Because the chalk board was completely student generated it had a level of credibility and respect that no teacher-manufactured project would have earned. The fact that students created and transported it daily with their own hands and wrote the questions from their hearts meant something to the student body and they treated it with respect.
When did I know the board was a success?
...When I heard students in my other classes talking about it.
...When I saw kids crowded around the board to write their answers and read what others had written.
...When students began to write arrows and comments to respond to things other students had posted.
...When my administrator actually came to me and said, "Where's this chalk board I keep hearing about?"
...When teachers began asking me, "Can we write on it too?" and "What if the teachers started their own chalkboard in the lounge, could we do that?"
As the weeks went on it became clear to my class that they had done more than construct a chalkboard, they'd built a bridge. Although the chalk board had the physical properties of a "transportable wall," in reality, it served as a window into other people's thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears. The chalkboard started conversations and connected people who might not otherwise communicate with each other. Although others had doubted the success of such a project at first, in reality people deeply desire to be asked thoughtful questions and want to be heard. The chalkboard gave the student's unheard voices both a space and a place.
How do you start meaningful conversations on your campus? What opportunities can we provide for both students and adults to connect on a deeper level? When did you know you had created an environment for safe and authentic communication?
This weekend, we had the immense privilege of hosting students, parents, teachers, and administrators from fifteen schools in Facing History's Los Angeles Partnership Schools Network for our second annual high school summit, "Every Voice Matters." The wordle above is what they shared of their "takeaways" from the day.
We put this day on for our partnership schools, but I always leave the day as energized as they do!
Imagine if you will...
- Parents having their voices heard, solicited, and valued as a school thinks about its entire community,
- Administrators participating as learners side-by-side with their students and faculty,
- Teachers having "given up their Saturday" to connect with other teachers, guide their students' efforts, and reflect on their own role in shaping classroom and school culture.
- Every school with students who are thinking about how to bring this back to their own campuses, stepping up to lead change in their school's culture--all this and waking up early on a Saturday to spend the day with their teachers and parents!
We had partnered with POV and StoryCorps for a special screening of "Listening is an Act of Love." The first-ever animated special from StoryCorps celebrates the transformative power of listening. Listening Is an Act of Love features six stories from 10 years of the innovative oral history project. Each story reflects universal themes of identity, family, choices and positive participation, and is a wonderful springboard to our daylong summit's exploration of ways each of us has a voice and can contribute to making our school campuses and communities more civil and compassionate. "Listening is an Act of Love" will premiere as part of the POV series on most PBS stations November 28, 2013. Click here for more information.
Listening is an act of love. One of our participants commented on the huge need we have for people to know us. Another asked, "what happens when people see and hear a different story?" Stories have the power to create a new norm, to reshape our identities and aspirations. I treasure the stories I heard even in this one day, and look forward to the storytelling and listening sure to take place at our schools!
If you'd like to listen to another's story, StoryCorps will be at the California African American Museum October 23rd to November 16th. Once open, reservations will be taken online (click here).
If you were at this summit day, we invite you to share your thoughts from the day!
At Facing History in Los Angeles, we're getting ready to bring 20-25 high schools* together to explore building stronger communities, so we're thinking a lot about this idea. Since its inception, Facing History and Ourselves has valued and taught how to create safe and reflective classrooms. As the educational partner for the film "Bully" over the past year and a half, we've worked with many schools who want to confront bullying school-wide. Last year, we brought together 25 schools to view the film and come together as school cohorts and student/parent/faculty stakeholders to more deeply explore this issue. But, preventing bullying is just a baseline. Don't we all want more than just a lack of bullying?
At Facing History, we spend a lot of time thinking about the questions, actions, and choices people worldwide made in the aftermath of violent events throughout history – events ranging from the Armenian Genocide to the Holocaust to the American civil rights movement. This exploration of historical events allows us to both investigate the complexity of the events as well as reflect upon connections to ourselves and today with a grounding of historical understanding.
Violence is too prevalent in many of our urban neighborhoods, and although school is frequently the safest place for a young person to be, disruptive implications can spill over into classrooms and hallways. Gunshot wounds are one of the leading causes of death among high school students in the United States, and 15% of all students report the presence of gangs in their schools. Moreover, 44% of all teachers report that student misconduct interferes substantially with their teaching. While the situation in some schools and neighborhoods is more serious than in others, creating a safe, disciplined learning environment is a challenge and a priority for all.
In his Inaugural Address, Obama called on us to get involved in civic discussions about the challenging and often divisive issues facing our nation. Considering that while hearing the news stories about these very issues (for example, how to address violence after the recent school shooting), I've been thinking about how many times as teachers we have the opportunity to facilitate deep and meaningful conversations. Opportunity? Some times it may seem hugely intimidating. We may even take that deep breath when it comes up organically in a classroom and think, "Am I really going to go THERE, NOW?"