Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bullying and Conflict: Turning Things Around

Any teacher who’s ever had a class filled with bullying and conflict knows the challenge and frustration of getting through each day. Emily Voelkel of Houston Texas, is one such teacher. Faced with a 4th grade class who were at each others' throats continuously, Emily summoned up massive doses of determination, creative energy, and heart to deal with the problem head-on. She decided to use No Kidding About Bullying as her foundation for turning things around. What follows are her words, filled with so many creative (an moving!) ideas, I had to pass them on to you.

Emily's Words:

Your book is a godsend for teachers. I have passed it around among the people I know and will continue to do so. Teachers have so little time to pull a lesson together, and your book does it all. It even gives the exact words to say and ready-made worksheets. Not only did it help me focus, but it allowed me to be able to spend more time preparing for the kids. 

Before starting the book with my kids, I asked them to respond to these questions:

- How do you feel when you come to school?
- How do you treat your classmates/friends/teachers? How do they treat you?
- How do you feel at the end of the school day when you go home?

Here are some of the things they wrote:

"I feel depressed, sad and angry."
"This class is so mean. I don’t have friends.I just want to die."
 "Sometimes I wish I wasn’t even born because of the way I’m being treated."
 "Save me."
 "When I leave school, I feel very relieved that this nightmare is over."
 "Everyone hates everyone. I want it to be where everyone loves one another. It will feel better that way."

I put their words into a powerpoint presentation, then I gathered them in a room, turned the lights down, and read aloud their words. At the end, I played “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” had them join hands in a circle, and I gave each student a hug. I asked if they were with me as a team player in creating a more peaceful place every day, and they all responded “yes.” Some were in tears because they had never experienced anything like this before.

After that I worked hard to teach as many of the lessons as I possibly could. Because they were a difficult group, I had to intersperse the lessons with many, many hands on projects:

  • We took clay and formed a peace sign, let it dry and painted it. 
  • We made similar sculptures with wax. 
  • We painted pictures that represented a peaceful place. 
  • We made peace signs with beads and I melted them together with an iron at night. 
  • We made a peace pledge banner and they stamped it with their hands with paint. 
  • Every morning, I chose four students who were willing to step up to the plate and be a leader of peace for the day. They’d put on peace t-shirts I made them, and then I would say their peace pledge in the form of questions. They had to answer, "I do" after each statement.

Another project was picking a name out of a hat, then drawing a picture of something that person is good at doing, wrapping it in wrapping paper with a bow, and giving it to that person along with a note affirming their talent. 

I also had my kids choose a feeling: happy, sad, angry, depressed, excited. They drew a portrait of a person with one of those feelings. Then I asked them to think about what they would say to a student with that feeling if they saw them in the hallway. I typed their responses and we pasted each one on the portraits. All the portraits went on a banner that we displayed.

I’m telling you all of this because as I read your book I was inspired to do so many things to bring the message home for my kids. I had students write to me asking if they could be the leader for the day. Every student begged to wear the t-shirt. On the playground, they used win/win to discourage their friends from bullying and, instead, work out their problems with each other. When they witnessed my frustration, they reminded me to breathe! I had a large banner that read, “This is what we are doing to create a peaceful Houston!” The students wrote all over the banner messages about the way their friends, teachers, and staff were creating peace. We posted it outside of the cafeteria. 

For the last week of school, I wrote a peacemaking presentation for my fourth grade students to perform for the 2nd and 3rd graders. We gave 3 performances that week. Administration, parents and the counselor came to see it as well. The room was decorated with all the artwork and sculptures that we made. I awarded students at the end who had always been good peacemakers and those who had improved the most.

The principal gave me a card thanking me for my efforts and the kids were excited about what they had learned. The kids learned good lessons and it made them start to think about how harmful their words can be to each other. It also gave them hope that they can work out their problems at school and at home. They started to understand that a school can be a peaceful place and that they can be instruments of change. 

Thank you, Emily, for sharing all of this! I know your story will give hope and encouragement to every teacher who has ever struggled with a class that can't seem to get along.

With creativity and heart, it's possible to turn things around.

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