Mix It Up at Lunch Day is just around the corner. Most students report that the Mix It Up experience – taking one lunch hour to sit somewhere new and make friends – is a positive experience that helps reduce tension across social boundaries. Sometimes, though, students are reluctant to participate.
If you have some of these students in your class, educational consultant Rick Phillips may have a solution for you. Phillips is one of the creators of Safe School Ambassadors, a program that taps the existing social structures in schools – i.e. cliques – and uses them to fight bullying.
The basic concept is simple. Educators identify the students in the school who are the leaders of their social groups (usually by surveying students on what group they belong to, and asking who leads each group.) Then teachers enlist those clique leaders in the effort to create an emotionally healthy school environment.
The approach is outlined in a book by Phillips and his colleagues John Linney and Chris Pack. In an interview with Phillips, I asked him for more details on how the program works and how our readers can use these techniques in their own classrooms.
Teaching Tolerance: In our years of doing Mix It Up at Lunch Day, we’ve occasionally run into students who don’t want to mix because they find safety in their social clique. How does Safe School Ambassadors handle this situation?
Rick Phillips: First of all, let me say that Mix It Up is a great idea. If you give people a chance to truly get to know each other, you reduce the likelihood that they’ll target each other for mistreatment. What you’re doing with Mix It Up is really important.
But there’s a lot of peer pressure in schools – pressure to conform the expectations of your own group and pressure to observe the norms that already exist. When students are asked to socialize with kids from other cliques, they feel that pressure.
Our approach is to recognize what we call the “alpha kids” – the clique leaders, kids who are highly respected and who have a certain cache within their peer group….
Once we’ve identified the clique leaders on campus, we invite those leaders to an orientation. [The clique leader] gets a hall pass and is asked to report to the gym or some other assembly room. Of course, they’re wondering what sort of trouble they may be in. When they arrive, they find a room full of [kids known as] “jocks,” “stoners,” gay kids and straight kids, kids of different races. We sit the kids down and say, “you’ve all been invited here because you’ve been identified as leaders.”
Usually there’s silence. A lot of these students have never thought of themselves as leaders. For some kids, this is a “moment.” There’s a palpable feeling like, “wow, I’m a leader.”
Then we tell them: “We, the adults in the school, have noticed that there are problems in the school climate. We can’t address these problems by ourselves. We need your help.” Then we tell them they’re invited to a program that will train them to be “safe school ambassadors” – training that will help them learn how to make their school a safer place….
When you make that kind of sales pitch, that appeal for enrollment, you can get students motivated. People want to be empowered to change their own environments. Too often, we’ve given kids demeaning jobs like turning people in on a tip line. Kids want a larger role.
TT: If I’m teaching at a school that isn’t doing Safe School Ambassadors, how can I adapt the program for use at the classroom level?
RP: You probably know who the leaders are in your classroom. Enroll them. Engage them, empower them. If young people have the opportunity to see themselves as contributors rather than consumers, they usually more than willing to get involved. Ask the “alpha kids” to get involved in shaping the culture and the norms of the school in a positive way. Ask them what they think it would take to make an anti-bullying program successful. As a teacher, it’s in my interest to see kids not as a problem, but as my allies.
TT: In your book, you make a point of identifying bullied children as “targets” rather than “victims.” Why?
RP: We want kids to speak up about aggression. The word “victim” often discourages people from taking action. It carries a lot of emotional weight. Sometimes when you hear the word “victim,” you see that person as weak, or feel that maybe they deserve what they get. Sometimes you feel sorry for the person, but in a way that looks down on them.
“Target” creates more empathy. Anybody can be a target: you’re just minding your business, and something lands on you. Kids are more likely to intervene for a “target” than for a “victim.” These words carry a lot of meanings for young people, and those meanings have an impact on their behavior.
TT: We’re all familiar with the emotional and academic toll bullying takes on targets and bystanders. Your book also focuses on the cost of bullying to the bullies themselves. What are the effects and why did you choose to focus on them?
RP: Clearly the prevalence of bullying has a serious effect on the target, and on the bystander, who feels disempowered. But it does indeed affect the aggressor in negative ways as well.
The bully develops a persona, a reputation – in a way, it’s a form of self-labeling. Now imagine that you’re in a comprehensive four-year high school. Imagine you want to change your label, your sense of self. If you’re known as the aggressor, you don’t get to leave that role. You have to maintain your social position. There’s a strong feeling that if you do lose social status, you’ll become a target. So you keep doing what you’ve been doing.
As a result, the bully usually falls behind developmentally. If you’re locked into this position, you miss out on important opportunities to develop empathy, negotiating skills and cultural competence.
Bullying also gives a person an inflated sense of self-worth. You have the sense that you are better than other people, that you have the right to push other people around. As it turns out, that kind of thinking gets people into trouble later in life. Aggressors follow their relationship patterns into adulthood, and as a result, they have high rates of substance abuse, workplace violence and domestic violence. What works in junior high school doesn’t work in the workplace.
TT: Don’t students often fill more than one of these roles, and aren’t there sometimes muddled areas between target and bystander, bystander and bully?
RP: It’s true that most students aren’t locked into a single role.
Let’s say you bully me because you’re a senior, and maybe you’re bigger and older. I may take out my frustration by turning to a freshman, cornering them in the locker room, and doing to them what you’ve done to me. Or I may sit passively while someone else does these things.
The bystander is the critical player in all of this, because the bystander is usually passive and allows the bullying to go on. You can’t change the culture of the school unless you activate the “influential bystanders” whose behavior is emulated by other bystanders.
TT: Time is always at a premium in the K-12 school. What would you say to teachers and administrators who struggle to find the time to implement these solutions?
RP: We hear this a question a lot. “How do we find time to do this?”
A better question to ask is, how much time are you spending on discipline issues now? If you go to the average assistant principal’s office, you’ll see that they’re spending a great deal of time with issues of “he said/she said,” rumors, investigations and complaints by parents about a student’s treatment of their child. You waste less time if you devote time to prevention rather than punishment.
Like many, if not most, I had a rough first year as a teacher. I was 21 years old and full of passion and desire but little else. I had survived student teaching on the Navajo Reservation for six months, but arrived on the other side of that experience with much to learn. I was teaching two-hour blocks of seventh-grade history and English. I was struggling on almost every level in almost every area.
You name it and I was having difficulty with it. Content — struggling. Implementing pedagogy — struggling. Connecting with students — struggling. Connecting with colleagues — struggling. Lesson design — struggling. To top it all off, I was new to town, and the woman I loved was across the country working on a master’s degree. It was bad all over. And don’t even remind me of the classroom management disasters I was experiencing.
Things had gotten so bad that I had taken to writing my letter of resignation as a stress-reliever. On particularly bad days I would go home, lock myself in my bedroom and write out a letter to my principal explaining why I was such a failure, asking him to accept my letter of resignation.
It was the day after writing my letter of resignation for the second time that I was introduced to Ted Sizer. That was when an older teacher whom I had never seen before stopped by room and said, “You’re new right? Here,” and then abruptly left. I didn’t know until later that she was leaving the school forever, retiring in the middle of school year. She had handed me a book entitled Horace’s Compromise by an educator I had never heard of named Ted Sizer. It was old and battered, underlined, with questions and recriminations scribbled in the margins. I was obviously a book that had been loved and examined repeatedly, mined for all its nuggets of knowledge.
I sat down right there in my classroom and began to skim it. I read the majority of it that night and had read it all by the weekend. The book gave me energy, a bounce that I needed to keep alive. On Saturday, I went in pursuit of Sizer’s second book, Horace’s School, and devoured that one as quickly as the first. Sizer’s writing style was unique for an educational text. He wrote through the eyes of an “everyman,” a fictional English teacher named Horace Smith who examines and explains the compromises that educators face working in a system without the time and support to do their jobs as well as they need to it. In the second book, Horace Smith becomes a part of the reform at his school site. The books were honest and hopeful and it is not too much to say that they saved my career. It was through these books that I was introduced to Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools and the underlying educational philosophy and pedagogy that he developed.
If you’ve ever used an essential question, ever backwards planned, ever engaged students in a Socratic Seminar, or ever had students complete an end-of-unit or end-of-course exhibition, then you have been the beneficiary of the work of Ted Sizer. It is with great sadness that I mourn his passing on October 24th, 2009. He will be greatly missed in the educational struggles that are ahead of us, and all around us.
When I first met Graciela Tiscareno-Sato, I was literally living in the wild. In 1991, Grace and I were both students in the U.S. Air Force Survival School, and we spent a week in the forest on the Canadian border, eating ants and worms and trying to make fire with sticks. I was terrible at this stuff, but Lt. Tiscareno – as she was known then – became a “go-to” person for everyone in the unit. She wasn’t much better at starting fires than the rest of us, but her can-do spirit made her feel like someone you could lean on.
So imagine my surprise when I saw her name in the “letters to the editor” file at Teaching Tolerance 18 years later. Grace didn’t know I worked here: she just had a story to tell, and was confident we would be interested. In the Air Force, when you take that kind of adventurous stab at something, people say you’re doing things “in the blind.”
Grace wanted to tell us about her “wild” child. Milagro was born 15 weeks premature, and while she’s thriving now, she never developed the ability to see. People told Grace that her daughter’s visual impairment would limit her physical activity. But early on, Grace and her husband could clearly see that their daughter was “wild” in the old-fashioned, boisterous-child sense of the word.
So Grace and her husband let their “wild” child run that way. They installed a pair of trapezes in the living room. They introduced Milagro to skateboarding and gym classes. Today Milagro is a gymnast, a downhill skier and just generally a kid who likes, in Grace’s words, “to fling herself into space.”
Grace produced a documentary to offer other parents some hints on how to raise “wild” children with disabilities. In this film, there’s not a lot of preaching about theories of child development. Instead, the documentary is an up-close story of Milagro’s unfolding interest in any activity that is daring and challenging, and the story of how Grace and her husband made a space for that interest.
Every major point is underscored with video of Milagro in action at various stages of life – swinging, skiing, tumbling and taking bold first steps into a number of other activities.
There’s a lot of raw material here to discuss with your colleagues. Are we overprotective of our children? If you’re teaching children with disabilities, what things are parents doing at home that you can emulate? How do you scaffold kids to behaviors that go beyond what most people expect of them?
I’d love to hear what you think about living “wild,” and living “in the blind.”
Have you ever walked in the same hallway every day -- or driven from point A to point B -- without remembering how you got there, who you passed, or what you saw?
As I prepare for Mix It Up at Lunch Day, I continue to see things and people that were once invisible to me.
One morning not long ago, before the start of school, I saw two students sitting on the main stairway, glanced, smiled, and kept on walking. As the days passed, I realized those two students sat at that same spot, as they did every morning, in the middle of the main stairway, to themselves. Finally, I started making conversation. I introduced myself, asked what grades they were in, what their ambitions were. They are two African American 11th grade sisters.
As I spoke to them, and really began to see them, it struck me: how many students are “invisible”? How many people in our school, adult and students alike, have blindfolds on? As we built our relationship, I began to ask my new friends some questions -- particularly how two African American students in a primarily Arab American school were viewed. (I work at Fordson High School, in Dearborn, Mich., where more than 90 percent of the student body is of Middle Eastern descent.) Thus began our journey to recruit a diverse student population for Mix It Up at Lunch Day.
I began to look “at” instead of “through” the school’s population. I found other teachers who wanted to be part of the project. The next step was to have a meeting with teachers and a diverse group of students.
We brainstormed ideas for the Mix It Up Lunch. Our challenge: How do we make the invisible visible? We have three lunch hours. We also have access to lists from teachers to help us pick student advisors: athletes, bilingual students from the English as a Second Language program, musicians from the band and choir, and students with special needs.
Our plan for Mix it Up at Lunch Day was to assign every table a student to facilitate. We brainstormed different icebreakers for students to use with others at their table. What would you rather have, a car without a license, or a license without a car? If you could be an animal, what would you be and why?
Another activity for the students is to circle up, with one participant in the middle, and ask such questions as: “If you’re like me, and you like pizza, switch positions.” Students could not go to the same spot, and whoever did not find a spot had to go to the middle of the circle and pose the next “if you’re like me” question.
We are meeting weekly with the student/teacher advisors to run through the exercises, find a room large enough to host Mix It Up Lunch and secure the lunch menu.
For everyone who feels overwhelmed preparing for Mix It Up at Lunch Day, my advice is to empower the students. They have ideas, thoughts, ambition and the ability to see what’s really going on. Advise them, encourage them and nourish their ideas. They teach me, and not the other way around.
Today is the 11th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. I don’t think anyone can contemplate this date without a mix of strong emotions. But for me, the date always brings a special blend of anger, shame and guilt.
Many people will use this day to commemorate the life of Shepard, a 21-year-old who was brutally murdered in a hate crime in Laramie, Wyo. Many will remember the people in Laramie who spoke out against hate and homophobia after Shepard’s death. Their efforts snowballed, inspiring a movement that led to the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act which is now before Congress.
That’s what most people will remember. But I’ll remember Billy Jack Gaither, who was murdered just a few months later in Sylacauga, Ala., not far from my hometown.
Unlike Laramie, Northeast Alabama reacted to this anti-gay murder with an uncomfortable silence. Gaither’s friends and at least one local pastor spoke out about the crime. But for the most part, rural Alabamians turned and looked away. Many people didn’t even want to talk about the fact that Gaither was gay.
Looking back, I see that I was part of the problem, part of the silence. At the time of Billy Jack Gaither’s murder, I was working for a newspaper not far from Sylacauga. Sylacauga was outside our “coverage area,” so we let Associated Press report the story for us.
But as a reporter, I felt that the lack of local outcry was a story in itself. My editors told me I could run with my story if I could find an angle in Etowah County, where my beat was.
I struggled with the story for weeks, but it died before publication. It died because the gay community in my area didn’t have a public face. It died for lack of strong straight allies to speak out. And it died because the reporter didn’t push hard enough – because I was afraid I would cross the line from journalism to activism.
I’m not proud to be part of the silence that surrounded the death of Billy Jack Gaither. But it taught me some things. If we want to respond in the right way to acts of hate, we need more than just a conscience. We need spaces where LGBT issues can be discussed. And we need to have the courage to step outside our professional comfort zones, and take the risk of being considered an “activist.”
Every day at Teaching Tolerance, I hear from teachers who are doing those things. On this sad anniversary, I just want to say thanks to all of you. When you’re doing the work, you may not feel like you’re having a great effect. But, when that work isn’t being done, the silence is deafening.