Friday, March 25, 2016

What is the Opposite of Bullying?

I've had the opportunity to connect with Spring Lake teacher David Theune and his student Elise McGannon at a number of conferences around Michigan recently. When I saw that David was presenting with students at December's ECET2 Conference on Michigan State's campus, I knew it was a session that I didn't want to miss.  It was at this session that I was introduced to the Share Chair, a regular podcast David and Elise produce to introduce their learning community to the diversity of voices in their midst. In February, I was happy to see the pair presenting and podcasting a conversation live at NovaNow. And again last week at MACUL, the pair presented their work, introducing their project with a simple question:
"What is the opposite of bullying?"
Especially at the secondary level, teachers and administrators tend to focus more energy on addressing the negative consequences of bullying. However by focusing only on the negative, we leave a vacuum for the positive message. What are the values of our learning community? Rather than focus a majority of our energy on punishing the negative behavior, what are we doing to promote a positive culture in our learning community? Punishment is a reaction. What are we doing to create a community that it is not built on the shaky and destructive foundation of punitive reactions?

Prior to yesterday's professional development day, I posed many of these questions to my high school students. It began months earlier with our study of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. Our guiding essential question for this unit was "Who are the witches today?" and I asked my students to consider who were the groups in our community that might feel ostracized and isolated. Our class discussed ways in which society isolates the elderly, refugees and immigrants, the homeless and poor. Many students identified the victims of bullying in our school community as being treated as witches, as outsiders. But our conversation didn't end there. Students wanted to find ways to help those in our community that felt isolated and had been victims of bullying.

Initially, our conversations revolved around how to best help the victims, but in allowing space for discussions and sometimes disagreements, the group of students also started to discuss our school culture and community. What were we doing to promote a culture of support, of kindness? What started as a unit project for our study of The Crucible became something much more.

Our unit has long since ended. Some of the students that were initially in my class, switched to other classes when the new semester began but continue to stop by my classroom regularly. Students brought friends into our discussions. This wasn't about a grade or a class project. Because the group was bringing together students from all grade-levels and a variety of classes, students started a Facebook group as a way to communicate with each other and with our larger community. They meet weekly in my classroom to spend time discussing and planning ways to promote kindness in our community. Based on an activity we did earlier in the year, the students have recently sought permission to paint a Kindness Wall near our cafeteria, a visual reminder of the values of our community. They have spoken with the assistant principal and high school principal about their vision and values. And then there was yesterday.

Yesterday was a professional development day for teachers in our district. Students had the day off. However instead of sleeping in, the core members of the Anti-Bullying group rose early in order to be at school by 7:30. Why? Because yesterday they taught the teachers.

The group has been working hard the past few weeks, researching, planning, and practicing a 30-minute presentation for our entire teaching staff on the topic of what bullying looks like in our classrooms. Initially, they started with a 12-slide PowerPoint.  However, after a bit of discussion about what they like to see happen in their own classes, they ditched the PowerPoint in favor of hands-on activities.  So at 8 am on Thursday morning, my students lead us through a quick round of warm-up jumping jacks before we emptied tubes of toothpaste and tried to unsuccessfully smash the paste back into the tube. We then created a Wrinkled Wanda and reflected on what happens when we don't address name-calling in our classrooms. The students also shared with the teachers that they had designed and would be selling anti-bullying t-shirts prior to their April presentation to our student body. Yes, the group not only presented to teachers, but they are also working on a 60-minute presentation for our student body. As the presentation wound to a close, something truly magical happened.

The assistant principal announced that he would be speaking with school administration in the coming days in order to seek funding to send these students to a leadership camp this summer. And that's when you felt the energy in the room build. These are our students, all of ours. How might we support them, their efforts, help them expand their ideas to others in our community?  A fellow English teacher volunteered the idea of having a dress down day for teachers. "I would pay to wear jeans, especially if the money helped to purchase the t-shirts for the students and would send them to leadership camp." This idea was quickly seconded. And then another teacher jumped up, literally jumped up, "Next week is the week before spring break; let's have a jeans week. If we all paid $15 we could buy the t-shirts for the students and send them all to camp." You could feel the excitement. Nods and affirmations flooded the room. I had goosebumps, which I quickly showed the student sitting next to me. She whispered back, "Wow, I didn't expect this!"   

At our mid-morning break, teachers came up to the students to share congratulations, share ideas, and share support.  When students came back to my classroom to reflect on the morning's activities, they were bubbling with energy and ideas.  They were excited to be heading to the leadership camp, but also had ideas for what they would like to do in the future. They want to run their own summer camp next year, a camp to help other schools replicate what they've started: a conversation about what's the opposite of bullying.

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