The class was silent as we waited for Samuel to collect himself. It was a respectful silence that happens when everyone knows something powerful is taking place. Samuel’s elbows were on his knees, his head was down. A few tears had fallen.
Our chairs were placed in a circle. A sign posted on our classroom wall read, “Every person in this community is as important as every other person.” We were in the middle of our weekly class meeting, a time when we acknowledge conflicts and work to resolve them as a group. The current topic: name-calling and disrespectful speech.
A few students had noticed that name-calling was on the rise: during breaks, between classes, in the halls. They also noticed their classmates’ frustration with those unkind words.
Since we had spent a lot of time making class rules at the beginning of the year, everyone knew and agreed that respectful speech was a community expectation. I pointed out that words such as “weird” and “dumb” may feel like they don’t carry the same weight as racial or gender slurs, however, all epithets achieved the same effect: to alienate, exclude and hurt. No name-calling is harmless.
That was when Samuel started to speak and was interrupted by emotion. He told us that he had been called all kinds of names at his last school and it was awful. He never wanted to experience it again.
When Samuel first started in my class, he was quiet and anxious. He kept to himself, responded to questions hesitantly and didn’t interact with other students during free time. His mother had told me that she feared he had been bullied at his last school and that he had been unhappy and scared there. She wasn’t sure because he would never tell her.
After Samuel spoke in our class meeting, several other students shared experiences at their past schools, assuring Samuel that he was not alone. We then went on to create a tool to counter name-calling in our class. We made a chart: on one side were hurtful ways to say things and on the other were helpful ways to say them. I reminded them that there are also some words we just don’t ever use because they are too hurtful.
We posted the chart in our room as a reference and whenever someone said something in a hurtful way, we responded, “Go to the chart!” In future class meetings, we revisited the chart and checked in on how it was going.
That particular class meeting proved to be a breakthrough for Samuel. Over the next few weeks, he opened up to us more and more. His mother told me that he began to hug family members at home for the first time in years.
I can’t give all the credit for Samuel’s turnaround to class meetings, but I am convinced that they are a powerful and authentic practice for creating real and respectful relationships in a classroom, especially when combined with other community-building practices. Even if meetings can sometimes be messy and don’t always go the way I expect, they are one way I try to keep my classroom safe and give everyone a voice.
For more information about class meetings and how to implement them in your classroom, check out this book from Positive Discipline.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.