Financial Slavery

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."


  1. Jen,

    It's so valuable to the field that you are documenting your year-long experiences with this project. It's not often that we take time in the "midst of" to record the present-tense details and in-the-moment musings. I am particularly struck by how student-centered your writing is (focused on their responses and how this fits into their year-long process) and the depth of your own questions. Everything you're questioning-- those are indeed the Essential Questions. Thanks for sharing your pedagogical strategies, direct quotations, and the challenges you face with colleagues. I learned.

  2. Thanks Rachel! After I posted this, I led two more workshops, including one with students from Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. There was this amazing moment when we discussed bullying at a governmental level. They had this epiphany about the role of governments and responsibility and power. The question got posed, can a government bully its people? Watching them tackle that was an amazing moment for me!