Financial Slavery

Friday, December 30, 2011

School Year Resolutions

With the New Year rapidly approaching, I am readying myself to gear up to go back to work and back to the business of preparing our new Self-Esteem piece, teching our Shakespeare show, and continuing our year-long Year of Respect curriculum with the general student population.  I always ask the students in my class at the beginning of the school year to create "School Year Resolutions" - something they can do personally to make our school a better community.  In addition, I ask them to practice random acts of kindness - one per week - an act for someone they don't know in our school community.  Our theory being that if we all practice random acts of kindness, perhaps over time, kindness will spread.  We know negativity spreads - often quickly and virally - kindness just takes longer and grows slower. 

This year, I upped the ante.  I've been working with the 500+ freshmen students since the fall on anti-bullying and empathy curriculum.  I've been doing workshops with these young people, listening to their voices, their opinions and asking them to create scenarios and solutions to bullying they see and hear.  They have been wonderfully creative in this task.  They're starting to figure out that there is strength in numbers - that if more than one person stands up - they have a better chance of creating change.  They've figured out that humor is a wonderful distraction - and can be a safe alternative to confrontation.  They've learned that sometimes reaching out to the victim is an incredibly powerful step that has no risk to themselves - especially when they work in tandem.  One group split their efforts, several worked to distract the bullies while another group led the victim away to safety and support.  They are somewhat astonished with themselves.  They can't believe they came up with these ideas.  And although they are still not one hundred percent sold that this will work in real life, when we wrap up the workshops I often see lightbulbs in many eyes, as they contemplate their own power.  It is wonderful.

As part of the latest workshop, I challenged the freshmen to two resolutions - one to take the anti-bullying pledge with us.  And the other, a School Year Resolution - one act or daily decision they can do to make our high school a better place.  This vision the students could see -- if ALL of them tried one thing (just one) that the school would be better by all of us.

So, I enter 2012 tired but hopeful; pulled in too many directions but ready to go on; still behind on work but willing to continue the fight.  And my students -- well, they didn't even take the winter break off.  They've been emailing me and texting me additional information all week for our new Self-Esteem piece.  Gotta love the students.  They continue to be the reason I get up in the morning, ignore the media blitz telling me what horrible people teachers are, fight stubborn and scared administrators and enter 2012 with a sense of purpose and joy.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

New Jersey Anti-Bullying Law and the Reality of Implementation...i.e. What WERE They Thinking?

This past week I have spoken with the Deputy Speaker from the NJ Assembly, multiple members of NJ School Boards, our own District HIB Specialist and close to five hundred fourteen year olds about bullying and the new New Jersey Law. At the end of it all, I have to wonder...WHAT were they thinking?

Yes, New Jersey has the "toughest" law in the country? Does that make it the best? Although the legislature was in the process prior to Tyler Clemente’s suicide, his death prompted an emotional and hasty reworking of the bill which meant that districts didn’t have time to fully create a comprehensive, educationally sound plan of action, nonetheless to try and implement the same. Districts scrambled to do what so often students are accused of – doing the minimum amount of effort to “get the passing grade.”However, in this case, no district is sure how the grading system will work. Will districts be penalized for reporting incidents by being given a poor grade? In which case, will that not drive the issue further underground?

In addition, the districts had to quickly implement some sort of professional development for their staff, administration and community with no time to properly research and fund such development. The legal community made a financial windfall by offering bullying workshops focusing on the legal ramifications of the law and districts grabbed what they could. In the past few months, everyone has become a bully “expert” resulting in massive amounts of companies selling their “solution” to bullying. Again, the lack of time to do proper due diligence on what is effective is hurting the districts’ ability to make smart decisions.

And let's talk about the language of the bill... again WHAT were they thinking? Let's not get into the freedom of speech aspect... oh wait, let's...As Adam Cohen, from Yale Law mentions,

"The law will also, necessarily, thrust school officials into the tricky area of policing student expression, including statements made off campus. This puts schools in a bit of a bind: in several recent rulings, federal courts have reminded schools that they must respect the free-speech rights of their students, even when that speech is harsh or provocative. New Jersey’s law pushes schools in the opposite direction, requiring them to monitor and police certain kinds of speech.”

So now schools are in the unenviable positions of trying to monitor behavior off campus. Most of us are aware that students don't always "hang" with kids from their own district after hours, which begs the question -- when students interact from multiple districts – who is responsible for what? I was told of one incident involving students from multiple districts, off campus and which was reported to multiple administrations. Following up and documenting the incident, as well as deciding what actions to take, how to best handle the situation and who had the ultimate responsibility is something the law fails to take into account.

And let's take a moment to figure out how New Jersey defines bullying ... or doesn't. Again, what WERE they thinking? The Supreme Court clearly defined harassment and intimidation in two separate cases previously earlier in the decade. 

"In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education(1999), the Supreme Court defined peer-on-peer harassment in the educational context as conduct that is "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims' educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution's resources and opportunities. With regard to intimidation, in Virginia v. Black(2003), the Court defined intimidation as a "type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death."

New Jersey Law vaguely states all student speech that "is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic" and that "a reasonable person should know" will "have the effect of ... emotionally harming a student" or "placing a student in reasonable fear of ... emotional harm," is bullying. THEREFORE, New Jersey is mandating that students appraise the sensibilities and frailties of their fellow students before speaking.

HOW does this make sense? Why not stick to the preciseness of language previously developed? Please, don't misunderstand me. I am an advocate of the victim. I am a HUGE advocate of culture change and of education for our young people to work on PREVENTING bullying from starting in the first place through empathy and awareness. However, this bill is reactive in nature (punishing the bully after the fact); provides no funding for training or development; and is impossibly vague. The intention is good but the bill is poorly written and developed. It desperately needs a clarification and a proper timeline to encourage districts to implement real educational change by promoting awareness, safety, culture change, attitudinal change and student dialogue. Like the civil rights movement -- real change comes through education not through a penal system.

Just my two cents worth. I'm sure many will disagree. But as one of my students so aptly said... This bill is a house of cards, but with no foundation and no money to pay the mortgage.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Week Two in Our Year of Respect

Week Two has commenced with the anti-bullying project and our Year of Respect.  It has been interesting to see what the students have retained so far and to see what stereotypes they hold.  We started with a simple discussion of what they've noticed in their community since we last spoke.  I asked them what, if anything, they noticed about bullying in our school, on the busses, in the community.  Many mentioned an ongoing story that we have airing on WANT TV (our school announcement and news television program).  The story is called "Freshman Frenzy" and concerns a freshman who can't find his classroom (our school is very large).  Along the way to trying to find his room, he meets a variety of characters, one of whom bullies him.  The students mentioned the fact that this young character was being bullied on WANT TV.  (The story hasn't yet been resolved.) 

They noticed some posters in the halls.  And many spoke of a fight that had broken out in the cafeteria earlier in the week.  That was a big topic of discussion.  When I brought up the fact that by the end of the year, I was hoping they would be more aware of what was occurring around them; they would be more aware of words coming out of their mouths; they would be more cognizant of their community as a whole because they were going to be in this community for the next FOUR years -- they seemed stunned by the realization.  Four years!  That's forever.  I don't think it had occurred to them.

We then moved on to the human barometer game which provoked a lot of lively discussion and some out and out contention.  Especially when it came to issues like are men more likely to bully than women and whether poor are more prone to violent acts than people with money.  They were very passionate about their views.  Interestingly, the girls felt they were far more viscious than the boys.  The boys persisted with a view that girls were "sensitive" and more "delicate," while boys were more prone to physical altercations.  Girls brought up the fact that many physical fights are girl on girl and include hair pulling, scratching and slapping.  They also mentioned that girls are viscious with their verbal attacks while boys are more likely to let it roll off their backs.  It was interesting to see the positions from each side and to see them try to articulate why they perceived one gender as more aggressive than another.  There was one group that stood out as being different than the rest of the students.  Our ESL students (primarily Hispanic but some African) were also divided by gender but in what we would consider in a more traditional sense.  The girls spoke of how boys considered all things possessions, including their girlfriends, and that through a sense of bravado they would sometimes use physical force to impose their rules or opinions.  The boys spoke of how girls were delicate and boys weren't "allowed" to hit them but girls were allowed to hit each other and boys.  Plus girls were "more prone to drama" than boys.  Their gender divide was the most pronounced of all groups.

When we spoke of the economic divide, the debate grew heated and intense.  Some students were very committed and intense in their belief that money and power corrupts...absolutely.  That the more money people get, the more they want and they'll do ANYTHING to do get what they want.  Since they have money and power, they believe they can buy their way out of the situation.  Others felt that although people with money may be corrupt, they wouldn't resort to violence, but rather theft and extortion (i.e. ponsy schemes) to achieve their goals.  Violence wasn't necessary in their world.  Students were incensed by the thought that this didn't qualify as "violence," which necessitated a discussion about how to define the word.  Some felt it was any act that induced pain and suffering, where others felt there must be physical aggression involved.  The students who felt the poor were more likely to commit acts of violence felt that desperate times called for desperate measures... ergo, since poor people needed things -- food, money, shelter -- they would resort to anything to achieve their means.  This was a hotly debated argument.  One student asked me, "which answer is right?"  I think he was a bit frustrated to discover...that I wouldn't give him statistics to back one opinion.  The point of the discussion was to explore where the student stood and to listen to opposing views.  It is always fascinating for me to hear how students justify their beliefs.  I heard that "rich people lie better," "poor people are maladjusted and rich people are insecure."

We moved onto a bullying quiz, which exposed many stereotypes young people held.  For example, most felt that bullies were misunderstood, unhappy, insecure individuals who were just "lashing out."  When they heard that statistically, most bullies were confident, secure with a core group of friends, it puzzled and I think frustrated them.  We need to feel there is a reason behind people's actions.  But this quote from a young man who has participated in bullying gives a lot of justification:

"As the bully, it's different.  It's's power.  It's the greatest high you can feel.  Sure you feel bad after, but the rush.  It's enough to drive anyone to any lengths.  The high it gives you just transforms you.  It becomes the only drive you need to get through.  It's a twisted and disturbed high, but nothing can beat those moments."
We continued to tackle the stereotypes and the students had some really wonderful moments as they argued, debated, discussed and pondered the issues.  They questioned me; they questioned each other; and they questioned themselves.  This is the groundwork I think we need to lay in order to go forward and start to create more empathy for victims and a safer environment to stand up and say, "it's not cool to hassle that kid...back off."  We shall see.  The questions always remain... will this have an impact?  The fact they remember our last discussion and were ready to go further this week, to me, is a positive sign.  It is making them evaluate their beliefs.  Now, let's see if we can get them to change their actions...
For those of you interested, the following is the lesson plan I introduced this week to the freshmen here at our school:

·        The teacher will then lead a Human Barometer Game – where the students will have an opportunity to discuss and evaluate their perceptions about bullying.  There will three zones – Strongly Agree, Strongly Disagree, Not Sure.  The teacher will read a list of statements – students need to choose a zone based on whether they personally agree, disagree with the statements.  If they’re not sure how they feel, they choose “not sure.”  After choosing their zone, groups in each zone discuss why they chose that zone and choosing one speaker (a different speaker for each time we have a statement), they must find a way to say in one sentence why their group is standing there.  After all three groups present their arguments, an opportunity is given for students to move to a different group, (to reassess if you will).
o       In today’s world, bullying is expected and often rewarded.
o       Sometimes violence is a necessary solution.
o       Teasing and rough play is not that serious.
o       Bullying and harassment are the same thing.
o       Cyber bullying can easily be prevented.
o       Poor people commit more acts of violence than people with money.
o       Men are more likely to be bullies than women.
o       The family is where we first learn to bully.
o       We can someday live in a non-violent world.
·        Students will take a piece of paper and crumple it up, stamp on it and really mess it up but NOT rip it.  Then the teacher will have them unfold the paper, smooth it out and look at how scarred and dirty it is.
o       Teacher will then have the students apologize to the paper.  Even though the students say “they’re sorry,” and try to straighten out the paper, the teacher will point out all the scars left behind.  Those scars will never go away, no matter how hard they try to fix it.
o       The teacher will point out that is what happens when we use words like “ho,” “fag,” “loser,” “stupid,” “retard,” and “fat.”  They may say they’re sorry but the damage is done.  I discovered that this activity wasn't effective with some of the students -- especially those who were more vocal in their beliefs that victims bring bullying on themselves.  For that group, I ended switching things up a bit and brought in's/ quiz on bullying.  It created some great discussions about stereotypes about bullies and victims.
·        After the human barometer game and discussion, students will be split into groups of four to five students in a group.  They will be given a large piece of paper to share.  They’ll be instructed to brainstorm on the following:
o       A Public Service Announcement idea for WANT TV.  Explain that a PSA must inform, educate and inspire change.  The PSA should be short, can contain dialogue (but doesn't have to), and must contain some important message or action the students want the viewer to know or take. 
o       Students will create their idea for a PSA for consideration for WANT TV.  The winning 3 or 4 concepts will be produced and aired on WANT TV.
o       Give students about ten to fifteen minutes to brainstorm and discuss, write up their concept (with dialogue if appropriate) and hand in. Collect the PSA ideas at the end of the period.

·        Wrap up with a brief discussion about whether any perceptions changed during the human barometer game.  Did anything surprise the groups about the brainstorming session?  Any observations or discussions come out that they didn’t expect?  (For example, my students got into an active debate about “intent” and the definition of bullying.)

Content/Concepts/Skills students will be learning
Students will start to redefine and analyze their perceptions on violence and bullying, its roots and its future.  Students will work on their own observations, sharing stories and start to look at the school community.

Student Assessment
Students will be assessed on written PSA idea (handed in).  Students are assessed on participation in the human barometer game, verbal responses to the questions from the brainstorming session.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Real Education is Human... and Empowering... and Uplifting

So I'm joining in the voice of IDEA this week in celebrating the values of real education.  Those being that Real education is ... Human. ... Powerful.   ... Relevant and ... Transformative.  They are spending the week promoting blogs that help illuminate this message. 

Since I am a huge fan of using theatre to help students empathize and humanize the world around them, I thought I'd lend my voice to the process.  This year is a challenging one for me in many ways.  Our anti-bullying piece is getting more and more requests from other school districts.  The message contained in it resonates with young people and adults.  And yet, my own administration is somehow frightened of the power of the voices of the young people.  We say we want to hear what they have to say, and even when they speak within culturally acceptable standards, we are afraid.  Of what, I wonder...  Meanwhile, I move forward with the anti-bullying year long campaign here at the high school.  And the students' perceptions of what makes a bully, what makes a victim, how do we help (or is there any solution to this issue) continues to perplex me.  Even in my own classroom, where I struggle to keep the young people from treating each other and themselves poorly.  What messages are we as adults teaching them that their immediate response is to denigrate one another?

And then there is our self-esteem piece.  I have close to 500 surveys sitting on my desk these days.  I have to read them in small chunks.
"I feel like after I lose weight I'll be 100% confident all of the time."
"Sometimes when I look in the mirror all I see is disgust.  I see all my flaws immediately."
"How I feel depends on if I have my mask on or not.  (My make-up.)  I mean I love myself but I don't feel pretty.  I would change my body.  My self-esteem really took a hit when I went to a store and no clothes fit...  The perfect person?  Skinny.  A size 0 because that's what size the models are."
We use theatre to remind the young people that we are all human.  Flaws and all, we are all unique and special.  Theatre is especially forgiving to those students who struggle in other classes.  You don't have to be good in math or science or even in reading to do well in theatre.  There are ways to make it work.  If you are willing to try.  If you are willing to work with others and try to find ensemble moments.  If you are willing to take a risk...   Ah, there's the rub, right?  Taking a risk.  I constantly battle to create a safe environment for my students.  A place where they can fail and still get up and try it again.  We talk about my failures (and goodness knows I have had many) and my successes in my career.  But if I hadn't tried, I never would've succeeded or failed.  I just would've "been."  My students (I hope) feel safe to try crazy things onstage, knowing that they might fail ... but they just might be brilliant.  Unless they are willing to try, how can they know?

The fact that they have won theatre competitions empowers them.  They fact they wrote an award-winning, published play... empowers them.  The fact that their voice gets heard through their art - through theatre and music and dance and video... makes them feel like they have something to say.  And when they feel that someone is listening, they become more passionate, more involved, more committed to all aspects of the educational experience.  Too often we plop students down, gravestone style, in perfect little rows and talk at them.  In the dynamic classrooms I work to emulate, the students are moving, they are talking with the teacher and with each other, their ideas are up and presented everywhere for everyone to see.  They use technology to further their education.  Our literary club will soon have its own blog.  Our video students create, write and produce their own television show.  The theatre students write, direct and perform their own one act plays.  Their voices are being heard.  In our year of respect, the social studies students are putting together a plan of action for the school.  Their voices are being heard.

At the end of the day, that is what makes us human.  The need to connect.  The need to have our voices heard.  The need to listen and communicate and share with each other.  Real education MUST be human.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Getting Ready for Week Two of Our Year of Respect

Well, I've received some of the student reflections from the first week of the anti-bullying workshops I led in the US 1 History classes I led in the beginning of October.  I think we have a lot of work to do.  How do we create empathy in our young people when so little of it is demonstrated and modeled in the real world?  I was particularly struck by one young man:
"Bullying for me was a social-structuralizing activity that helped me grow as a person.  It taught me about morals and compassion.  There will always be bad in this world.  But that's part of growing up.  It teaches you to stop being such a close-minded pansy and work things out for yourself.  It prepares you for the real world.  But if it's a situation that you ABSOLUTELY can't do anything about, then obviously tell an adult.  (i.e. can't get out of the house, hospitalized many times, things are stolen.)"
So, for this young man, things have to escalate to MULTIPLE hospitalizations to be deemed serious enough to warrant outside intervention.  How do we reach young people who believe it is a sign of weakness to ask for assistance?  Or that it is "being a snitch" to let people know what is going on in others' lives?  Many students feel (and adults I've discovered) that we really need to "mind our own business" and the world will be a better place.  I ponder this concept.  Should the world have minded its own business during Bosnia?  During Rwanda? (Oh, wait, we did.)  How about World War II and the Holocaust?  At what level does the human cost become high enough to warrant our attention?  Is it only upon death?  Or is the despair, loneliness, unhappiness of children enough to catch our eye?  Perhaps I am a hopeless optimist who still believes that one individual can make a difference.  But I wonder...  are we starting to ingrain in our young people such a "me" mentality that they can no longer see anyone's pain but their own?

Not all reflections were this down heartening, please don't misunderstand.  A couple more uplifting ones included:
"The best part of the workshop was the video.  The video contained students from the high school and their words were very powerful.  It really touched my heart and the video was just great.  We students got to understand the teacher perspective on bullying.  Students and teachers got to connect about the bullying.  I learned about bullying that it can start online and in texts."
"It seems like there are never nice words said in our high school.  I learned a lot, especially after the video rap.  People really get hurt from mean words."
So, clearly the workshop connected with many of them.  Most students wrote about the workshops being valuable and meaningful.  So, why do I find myself obsessing about the ones I didn't reach?  I know going in I won't reach them all.  But I find it disheartening to see such cynicism in fourteen year olds.  I can't understand where it finds its roots and growth.  Again, that hopeless idealist in me still wants to believe that young people can find hope and change the future.  I continue to think about how to push them further during the next session, to get them to dig deeper and take the next steps.  I know I have a year for this and I must take one plateau at a time.  But it is an interesting journey when you see these young people once a month and that's all.  So different from my regular students who I see every day, all year long.  There the relationship builds and solidifies and takes roots on trust and respect.  It is a bigger challenge with this program.

I find myself both apprehensive and excited to go back in two weeks to do session two with these students.  Where will we be come May?  Will some of their actions reflect their words?  Will we see a meaningful difference in our school? 

If anyone has ideas and suggestions for additional activities going forward, please feel free to comment.  I look forward to connecting with people. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Start to a New Device Drama - Tackling Self Esteem

Last year we worked on a device drama about bullying.  We developed a survey, interviewed people, looked at national stories and most importantly, examined our own beliefs and stereotypes.  It was an emotional and exhillarating journey that culminated in the award-winning (hopefully soon to be published) piece, "Shadows," now shown to well over 3000 people over the course of a year. 

Well, a new year has begun and so has a new journey.

This year, we decided to tackle self esteem.  This seems to me to be a much more complex journey in many ways.  Self esteem is such a personal issue.  How willing would any of us be to open up honestly about this?  Would our words contradict our self affirmations?  Would the vulnerability be too much, especially for the teenagers?  We started out the first week with creating our survey -- thirteen questions that probed people's sense of self - including their personal appearance, their place in a diverse community, their intelligence/strengths/weaknesses, and an interesting question -- if they were someone else, would they be friends with themselves?  Those surveys hit the general school population next week via the English teachers.  I don't know if we'll get the same kind of honesty and response we did last year with the bullying questions.  I think it is much harder to look deeply at yourself and try to ascertain how you view "you" versus how someone else views "you" and who impacts your self esteem the most.

The second week, we looked at our own impressions.  This proved to be tougher from the start than the journey last year.  We started by creating adjectives to describe our colleagues.  Words like "creative," "diverse," "talented," "funny," intelligent," "determined" and "unique" all came out in this discussion.  Then we moved to words to describe ourselves.  The words were similar but markedly different.  "Unique" became "weird," "diverse" became "crazy," "short" appeared, along with "musically inclined" (instead of talented).  The students then chose one word for themselves and another for a colleague.  They stuck post-its on themselves and each other's backs.  And then we talked.  And talked.  Some students who were labeled "talented" by others didn't feel talented in comparison with their siblings or colleagues.  One beautifully articulate young woman stated that she shouldn't have "intelligent" as a label (someone else gave her that).  She then went on to talk about how she wasn't influenced by others in her life as to her dreams or her self esteem.  She was her own driving force.  She was going to go into the airforce and be an artist.  It didn't matter that she wasn't smart or a genius like her mother.  She wasn't going to be a teacher and follow in her mom's footsteps.  We were all struck by how this intelligent, beautiful, articulate young woman didn't think she was smart.  So we questioned that assumption.  She said she knew she wasn't smart because her test scores showed her so.  So I asked the students, "How many of you believe that test scores are an intelligence indicator?"  No one raised their hand.  But I was struck at how impacted we all were at these outside assessors in our lives... and how much they impact our self worth - whether it be tests or evaluations or critic's reviews or peer's perceptions of our work.

As the students departed for the day, they reflected on the difficulty of the journey we had chosen.  I, too, was struck by how emotional the session had become.  I wonder as we go forward; how do I keep these young people safe and still explore this issue in a deep and meaningful way?  Can we take this journey and not make it personal?  And I think, most importantly, how can we use this as an opportunity to lift and affirm these young people's self view?

It is going to be a precarious year.

Friday, October 7, 2011

First Week in Our Year of Respect

I've spent the last week going from freshmen US History class to freshmen US History class.  I think I have now led discussions with close to five hundred freshmen here in our school about bullying and how we define it, how we as a community try to combat it and what the new laws in New Jersey mean.  It has been a fascinating journey to date.  Many of the honors classes have played devils advocate - challenging the belief that the bystanders hold any responsibility to try and make things better.  As one student stated, "bullying has always been around and nothing we do will change things."  Several others expressed the thought, "if it has nothing to do with me, I shouldn't get involved."  And then the ever famous, "I'm not a snitch.  I'm not going to snitch my boys out."  One class took the stand that "bullying actually strengthens us."  The victims should be strong enough to stand up against bullying and if they aren't when it starts, they will be by the time it finishes. 

Other classes were movingly compassionate... talking about how the victim cannot prevent the abuse, that there is a fear factor involved in reporting it or standing up to the bullying.  One student talked about how if they even "block" a bully from texting them, the bully might escalate into more extreme physical abuse.  Others talked about trying to reach the victims, reaching out with comfort or inclusion and support.  And the ESL students empathize the most.  Clearly, these were students who had experienced much of what was being discussed.  They stated clear examples of exclusion (no seat on the bus) and being made fun of because of lack of English skills or what country they came from.  The other group that showed great compassion was the students with "IEP's" or students who had been "classified" in some manner or another.  These were often the kids who were labeled by adults to be problems, difficult, non-communicative, impossible to teach, hoodlums, punks and other condemnations.  These same "at risk" students talked eloquently and passionately about cyberbullying in particular and how isolation and exclusion had such a devestating impact on the victim.  Clearly, there was personal experience involved.

Every class challenged me in new ways.  Some were challenging in that it saddened me to see that they really believed that unless it personally impacted them (or a friend), it didn't (and shouldn't) matter to them.  It wasn't any of their business.  The bigger "human picture" didn't occur to them.  Some touched me with how clearly they understood the impact and hurt bullying had on people.  Some of them made me smile as they struggled and debated amongst themselves about how to define bullying, what EXACTLY did it look like, how did you know when it was just "joking around" versus "real harassment" and what were the different players' responsibilities?  For them to see that they couldn't reach a consensus was enlightening for them.  And I would watch as they struggled with issues that adults can't wrap their heads around.  It was empowering to listen to them go back and forth and discuss and debate and think and deliberate and try to find a path. 

I find myself wondering... what will they retain?  As they walk through the halls, will any of these discussions linger?  When I return in Nov., will we be able to move forward or will we have to review everything again?  Are the teachers listening?  Because, honestly, some of the teachers' reactions were enlightening as well.  One particularly telling moment was after a class that I had been warned about all day.  "These kids are terrible, they don't listen, they're marginal, we'll have to do crowd control the whole time, etc, etc."  The kids were incredibly engaged that period - they talked, they listened, they debated, they were focused and passionate.  Afterwards, I mentioned to the teachers how great the students had been.  They said, "yeah, too bad you can't teach them anything."  I replied, "they were taught something today."  And the response was, "Yeah, but they can't learn the real stuff..."  Afterwards, I followed up with one of the teachers because a student had mentioned a story about a victim.  I wanted to get the victim's name to do follow-up with.  I was concerned.  The teacher said, "Well, we all heard it, so we're liable.  We better get the name, I guess."  I thought, hmmm, I think you need some empathy.  Other teachers were amazing.  Some said, I learned stuff today.  I'd like to use some of these techniques in my class to teach other lessons as well.  It really varied.

The week is over.  I'm tired but I still feel hopeful.  I am very curious to see where we'll be in May 2012. 

For those of you interested, I did the following for this activity (didn't get through all of it for some classes, depended on the discussion).  I started by showing our student created music video on Bullying, then the following activities were done:

·        Students will start by brainstorming about “what is bullying?”  The teacher will introduce the concepts of three “parties” involved – bully, victim and bystander.  The group will discuss and learn about their roles traditionally and globally in broader sense (genocide, etc.) 
·        Teacher shows and introduces the Bullying Circle:
o       Students Who Bully
o       Bystanders
o       Student Who Is Bullied
·        Then to help the students expand the creative thinking process, the teacher will put two sheets of paper (or use the white board) with the alphabet listed vertically.
·        Students will be split into two teams.  They will line up and on “GO,” they will race to write one word per student next to each letter in the alphabet that relates to bullying.  Their team may help them if they get stuck in on a letter (i.e. Q or Z).  Whichever team finishes first “wins.”
·        After both lists are completed, students will then look at the opposing team’s list of words.  (There will be some cross-over words.)  They will chat briefly about the words and meanings.
·        Teacher will then instruct the students to create a “tableau” using two of the words from the opposing team’s list.  A tableau is a frozen picture using the student’s bodies as the “art.”  So for example, the students can use “Mean” and “Scared” as their two words – their tableau may have three students standing over two others in a threatening pose.  This is a frozen moment.  They should not share their words with the other team.
·        Give students about three minutes to “compose” their tableau.  Then have each group present the tableau to the other.  Have the watching team guess at the words being portrayed.
·        At the end of class, discuss what the words represent, in terms of bullying.  How did the tableaus make the students feel?  As the bullies?  As the victims?  Did it seem realistic or fake?
·        For tomorrow, have them write a reflection of what bullying means to them.

Also, as part of the week, "Shadows," our device drama on bullying was performed for the middle school students.  They wrote reflections about it.  I wanted to end with a few quotes from the middle school students:

"I was moved by the beginning when the girl said, "that's a lie.  Everyone has bullied someone."

"I have been bullied.  I don't like bullying and I don't like to be bullied.  I see it in school and out of school.  In the park, at a store, etc.  I might be short, have glasses and not that bright.  But I have feelings."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Musings on Why We Do Applied Theatre - Written by a student

I wanted to take a moment to post some reflections written by one of my students.  This young man has been in my program four years now.  He'll be off to college next year (and sorely missed).  I asked all of my students to stop for a moment and reflect on why they like this type of work, what it means to them and why public schools should try to implement it.  I asked because every year, they tell me it is there favorite project.  I wanted them to try and articulate why.  (Not to mention, we are getting yet another new principal - fourth one in seven years - and I will have to start the education process again with a new administrator).  I found this young man's reflections particularly poignent.

"Applied theatre is an educational experience that transcends what we know as the classroom environment and expands our knowledge of the world on a 1st person scale. It allows every individual of a student body to participate in almost every way possible. From research, to audio-visual skills, to performing arts, it is a process that includes every different sort of obscure talent that you could find in a public school atmosphere in the present day. The integration of these fantastic abilities gives students an outlet to express themselves while keeping a focus on important social studies. I learned a vast amount of information about the advancement in social activism in our country's history, about the detrimental effects of bullying on our modern society, and many more influential life-lessons because I was able to live them. Opening one's mind can be difficult to do in a classroom, but bring them to the stage and they will never forget the level of intimacy, wisdom, and acknowledgment that touched their souls."

Eloquent, isn't he?  I'm pretty sure he is a far more powerful writer than I am!!

I'm going to continue blogging about our ongoing Year of Respect.  I met with my colleague who teaches Social Studies, and she is going to have her students create an "action plan" for our high school for this project.  I also am trying to get permission to get murals painted on our (very boring) white school hallway walls about diversity, respect, acceptance, etc.  I'll keep everyone in the loop as we go forward.

Happy Fall All!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Doing Applied Theatre to Fight Bullying

So I think I mentioned that the school I work in is a large, extremely diverse public high school, with such a range of religions, ethnicities, ages, and economic backgrounds represented that it’s often jokingly referred to as the United Nations. When I joined the district seven years ago, I was given the mission of creating a drama program. (The school, although not an arts magnet, already had programs in dance, music, television, and visual arts.) Initially I approached this task in a very traditional manner, looking to infuse my students with standard theatre history, theory, technique, and opportunities to perform and direct. But our school wasn’t a traditional school: our students were from all over the map, literally and figuratively. The issues they struggled with were so wide-ranging, and their academic and dramatic skills were so varied, I found myself seeking new ways to reach them, not just as a theatre artist but as an educator, mentor, and guide.

This journey led me to explore applied theatre. The practice is often traced to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, in which non-conventional actors working in non-conventional spaces tackled issues of social significance. Today, around the world, the power of live theatre is helping to rehabilitate prisoners, integrate immigrant communities, and heal the wounds of war and displacement, among many other worthy purposes. Recent years have seen a surge of interest in this type of drama here in the United States—particularly in our schools.

Four years ago, our drama and television departments joined forces on a first venture into theatre with a social objective, integrating history, social studies, and civic responsibility into one dramatic event. The students’ experience, with this and subsequent projects, has been stunning. This year, we expanded the journey into device drama, where students have an opportunity to explore issues close to home and write their own piece of theatre to help create dialogue and change. The students created a list of issues they thought were key in our community, including: bullying, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, immigration and racism. The choice this first year was bullying. In order to tackle this issue in any meaningful fashion, we were required to do preliminary research. The students spent the summer creating a list of open-ended questions for other students and adults to answer. The teachers spent the summer doing research – national research on the issue, school district policies, statistics, and long term ramifications? Then in September, we met again and started an incredible, emotional, exhausting and exhilarating ride.

Over one thousand surveys were given to students and well over five hundred returned. The students from our district wrote. And wrote and wrote. Some of what we read was heartbreaking. Some was terrifying.

I stayed and watched as this guy was being taunted by a group of others because he was from Pakistan and they said he was a terrorist. Anonymous Survey

Some were just jaded. But we started to get a sense of what was happening in our school and who our primary targets were. And after compiling the information, we began devising the drama. The drama students started writing monologues, scenes, spoken word and transitions. They used the surveys, the interviews, the national research, the creative writing from the English students and their own experiences. The final piece they titled “Shadows.”

Since the creation of “Shadows,” the students have performed for over 2000 people, including small groups of students with follow-up dialogue and discussion; for the entire faculty and administration of the high school; for area universities; and have created an anti-bullying toolkit which includes curriculum, posters, pledge cards, DVDs with scenes from “Shadows,” and a music video written and performed by students.

Applied theatre is risky. It’s tough to do well. Administrators, students, and parents have to be taken on a journey to see the value in this work; they don’t immediately jump on board. But it can get entire schools and communities excited about art for change—and students excited about history, justice, politics, and the real people living among them. It can be used to explore global, state, local, and school issues. And it can be liberating for teachers. As Allan Creighton put it so well in Helping Teens Stop Violence: A Practical Guide for Counselors, Educators, and Parents (Hunter House, 1992):

“Giving up the role as the omniscient teacher with all the answers gives us a chance to be learners ourselves. Cultures across the world have always turned to young people for inspiration. Their hope that the world can be different, their outright insistence on justice and fair treatment (sometimes mislabeled “rebelliousness”), their insight and irreverence are essential to our own freedom.” 

The most exciting path in this journey may be ours, as we listen to the young people we work with, discover their perspectives on the world, and witness the power they gain simply by having their voices heard.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Year of Respect

So, I was starting to feel like a lone voice in the wilderness again.  I spent all of last year researching bullying and how to make a difference in school districts.  After working with my students to read and speak with leading experts in this country (many of whom are divided) and reading research from around the world, my students developed an award-winning, original device drama, entitled "Shadows," which was created as an educational piece to encourage dialogue and debate among students about changing school climate and making the hallways and classrooms less friendly and supportive to a bullying atmosphere. 

We had realized through research that a zero tolerance policy based on punitive measures was not being backed up by research.  It didn't seem as effective as what Finland was doing (for example), which was climate change through working with students on developing empathy and understanding, changing the bystander effect and creating an overall safer environment for bystanders and victims and less rewarding environment for bullies. 

This is actually really difficult to do in today's climate, when we turn on the television and watch our politicians bully each other (and the people they're supposed to represent); when we watch "reality" television and watch bullies get huge rewards (more airtime, longer stints on the "competition"); when we watch sitcoms and watch bullies get huge laughs - it is not easy to teach kids that bullying doesn't pay.  They look around and of course it pays.  It pays on the highway (people move), it pays in restaurants (people get comps), it pays everywhere.  Hard to fight that type of environment!

So, we had spent a year creating a thoughtful, evocative, empathetic piece to promote dialogue and awareness.  I spent my summer writing curriculum to support it.  And then... the school wanted to just do some stern threats to students about the new bullying laws here in New Jersey, another assembly (with Shadows) as part of the state mandated Week of Respect, put up a couple of posters and call it a day.  I almost jumped off the GW myself in frustration.  But after going home and stressing overnight, I came up with a plan.  And the next day I went into my principal with a strategy. 

I sat down with her and started with a simple statement.  I told her I felt we were approaching the Week of Respect as an obligation and I felt we should look at it as an opportunity.  I proposed A Year of Respect.  We're supposed to be the innovators and leaders in anti-bullying.  Let's lead.  I proposed focusing primarily on the freshmen (we're a very large school and we needed to start with baby steps).
  •  I offered to take the curriculum written (primarily applied theatre work) and go into our US History classes once a month (during traditionally lull times - testing weeks, post vacation weeks, post exam weeks, etc) and do 1 activity a month with the kids.  If the teachers were feeling pressed about Social Studies curriculum, I would do a half period.  I just need coverage for my classes.  I would do it. 
  • I also would coordinate with the visual art teachers and request a little money (a few hundred dollars) to have the kids create posters that visualized Respect.  The winning designs would be copied in color and displayed all over the school. 
  • I would contact the English teachers and some local newspapers and see if we can a contest at school for poetry or short essay, would the paper publish the winning piece?
  • I would contact the Dance Team (very popular at our school) and ask them to do a song about Respect for the pep rallies this year.
  • The Acting for Film and Television class (which I co-teach) would create PSA (public service announcements) all year to support the effort and play in the cafeteria.
The principal got so excited, she immediately said 1) YES!  and 2) she wanted to order a big banner for the school.  We started talking about other ways to innudate the school with the message.  Suddenly, something that had felt like a burden to her and like the wrong way to tackle anti-bullying to me - felt innovative and fun and exciting and MOST IMPORTANTLY - has a possibility of actually creating a difference.

Of course, she's asked me to spearhead the entire project, but this seems important to me.  So instead of doing a traditional "hall duty" or "cafeteria duty" or "study hall" duty as required in our contracts - I'll be doing this.  I'm excited.  I know it is going to be a lot of work but I can't wait.  If you have ideas, suggestions, ways you are doing things in your district, PLEASE share with me.  I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks!  And happy school year!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Prologue to Changing the Way We Think: Using the Arts to Inspire, Empower and Change Your School Community

Book is coming out this fall!  Check for updates.


I certainly got a large dose of reality splashed in my face today.… This journey is going to be quite difficult if this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Those prophetic words were texted to me by one of my high school students in the fall of 2010. We had just started the process of working on our first devised drama, a look at bullying in our school district. We didn’t know it would be the year that the bullying issue would become national news. That suicides would make headlines from Texas to our own backyard here in New Jersey. That kids would be killing themselves out of desperation from the bullying and isolation they felt. That President Obama would decide to make it a federal initiative to fight with federal and state laws. That the nation would start prosecuting young people as “criminals” for bullying others. We just wanted to look at an important issue in our school and try to make a difference.

My students were excited. They felt empowered. They were going to create change. They were going to use their art to make people think and feel and listen. They were going to impact their little corner of the world. And then…we started the journey. And real life is never as clean or as easy as we hope. Not for my students, not for me, not the teachers in our school who watched as our district went through a transformative experience…together.

Based in central New Jersey, our high school is extremely diverse, often laughingly referred to as the United Nations because of our wide diversification in religion, race, politics, economic backgrounds, and pre–high school educational opportunities. We’re  challenged meeting the needs of a student population that ranges from middle class suburbia teen to fresh-off-the-boat immigrant, with many students living in the projects dealing with little or no family support, parents serving time, and some parents barely older than their children. On the flip side of this equation, we have extremely traditional ethnic and religious families, with the gender and race expectations that walk hand in hand with this upbringing. And, of course, in the middle, the kids who are Middle America, many mixed races, many different religions and beliefs and economic levels. Put all these young people together, add hormones, and stir—this is our school. It creates segregation as well as opportunities for integration. It creates racism and opportunities to discuss race in a unique environment. It creates a true melting pot of religious diversity and all the stereotypes that accompany them—and all the problems, violence, and fear that are proliferated by media, politicians, and peers.

And here we are. A population of twenty-four hundred high school students, some honor roll, some repeating ninth grade for the third time. Yet our school has been honored as a “model school of excellence in the arts.” The arts! In central New Jersey, during an economic recession, in a district fighting to keep its AYP scores up, the arts continue to thrive. So this brought up some intriguing questions. How do we use the arts to help our kids be better students? How do we use the arts to bridge the gap between religions? How do we use the arts to combat racism? How do we use the arts to tackle the ongoing and seemingly unbreakable problem of bullying?

Faced with these questions, I approached my superintendent with a simple premise: The arts can do more. Our high school can do more. We can build an applied theatre program to foster health and self-esteem, and build a better community for all of our students. And he agreed to take the leap of faith. This book is my attempt to help other teachers and districts take this journey as well. It is daunting, it is tiring, and it is the most exhilarating ride you will ever experience.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dog Days of August

It is August 12 and I can't believe there are only three weeks left before school begins.  I realize that my head is not fully involved in the process of starting the year.  We need to start thinking about our device drama about self-esteem.  Last year we focused on bullying - using surveys and research, national figures and professional experts to build and device our piece.  How do we device this year's piece, making it equally powerful yet different from last year?  I think we can still survey the student body, but I'm intrigued by the idea of focus groups. 

I attended a conference in Chicago (AATE) at the end of July where they spoke about applied theatre and faculty development.  Many ways they tackled that work was through focus groups.  Could we apply some of those techniques with groups of sample students from the school?  Can we get the students to talk honestly about some of the issues around not believing that our school offers them a competitive edge (especially in comparison to private schools or upper income schools)?  Or are the anonymous surveys our better bet again?

And how to better utilize dance and music this year?  I watch SYTYCD every year and I know how powerful dance and music can be to tell our stories.  Our talented choreographer can definitely help create this - but I am equally committed to making sure our students' voices are heard - that this process isn't just about the faculty's visions.

Just continuing to pondor the process as time rolls out in the dog days of August.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Working in those dreaded, debated, hated public schools

This is my first time blogging, so I hope you will bear with me.

So, it's August already.  How does summer fly by so quickly?  Once again, I am reading and inundated by the word from media and our politicians about how I (as a public school teacher) am the bane of society.  Our public schools fail our kids and we're to blame.  I guess I'm naive.  I only started teaching six years ago - coming into the profession from being a professional actor for fifteen years first.  I wanted to "give back."  I've led a good life - traveled the world, performed on Broadway and in films.  I've got it "good" (apologies to all the English teachers out there).  And you know what?  I LIKE my job.  I love the kids.  And I work in a public school... in New Jersey (where we are vilified) and I think we make a difference to our kids.

Now, our school is diverse, lots of different students from around the world in different economic and religious environments.  Lots of different issues and academic standards.  Our budget got slashed last year and I haven't had a raise in two years.  But this past year, by using applied theatre, my public school students researched, developed and wrote their own original device drama about bullying that won awards from Mental Health Associations, has received critical acclaim, has created change in our district and made things better and safer, and is going to be published by a major house this year.  Not bad for one of those struggling public schools, right?  This group of diverse students (Hispanic, Asian, African American, Caucasian, Indian) worked together to create change - and did it.

I'm proud to be a public school teacher.  I wouldn't give up my job for the world.