Bullying. Ostracism. Peer pressure. Exclusion. Most teachers have faced these destructive forces at one point or another and struggled with how to address these issues in the classroom. This is how Facing History and Ourselves helped prepare me for confronting these issues in my classroom.
I got to watch over the summer as construction workers transformed an empty corner lot in a budding new subdivision into my school’s building.
This year was atypical for me. I left a school I had been teaching at since I began my teaching career five years ago, and was lucky to have the opportunity to teach at a brand new school. I don’t just mean new to me, I mean literally brand new. The students that would be attending my new school would be coming together from various other schools in the area. Going into the school year I knew it was going to be important for me to help my students come together as one and create a safe and reflective classroom community, where all students felt welcomed. To create such a classroom was, and still is, one of my goals as an educator:
Introduction to Decision- Making-in-Times-of-Injustice
Scenes from a Middle School Classroom
As mentioned in my previous blog post, I started the year using the contracting strategy to help create a safe classroom space. To help build my reflective classroom community, I also utilized a variety of other Facing History and Ourselves strategies, such as the “Have you ever...” activity from lesson 1 of Decision-making in Times of Injustice and the Attribute Linking strategy, as well as strategies from the Rethinking Schools book Open Minds to Equality.
I spent the majority of my days during the first weeks of school dedicated to this work. As we worked through these lessons in my classroom, I noticed students creating connections with one another: They were able to see that despite coming from various schools and various experiences, they had many things in common, from cultural/religious traditions to favorite musical artists and favorite video games. With these new connections made, I saw my students come together as a group, valuing each other’s differences and respecting each other’s points of view. However, as time went on incidents involving bullying, ostracism, peer pressure, and exclusion became increasingly common both inside and outside the classroom.
From Bystanders to Upstanders
One of the most difficult things to deal with personally as well as professionally was the reluctance of students to get involved when they saw incidents of bullying, ostracism, peer pressure, or exclusion taking place. With the help of my administration and my teacher-librarian (herself a Facing History teacher) I worked with my students to help them realize their potential as upstanders - individuals who stand up for others facing hatred or injustice.
Resources and Strategies That Helped
To help with this work, I drew from various Facing History and Ourselves resources. Here are a few in particular that I found helpful:
- Bullying: A Case Study in Ostracism: this resource helped me build working definitions to deepen student understanding of various key terms (e.g. bystander, upstander, perpetrator, victim). By discussing these terms, students were able to identify that we all occupy one or more of these roles at some point in our lives: victim, perpetrator, bystander and upstander. Through this recognition and shared understanding of the vocabulary, students were able to better understand when and how they were occupying these roles and this allowed them to reflect on how to change and adapt their behaviors.
- To help my students see the damaging effects of bullying from an outsider perspective I showed the middle school version of Lee Hirsch’s documentary BULLY. To help facilitate discussions before and after viewing the film I utilized Using Bully in the Classroom and A Guide to the Film BULLY: Fostering Empathy and Action in Schools. The discussions on the power of friendship were particularly helpful.
- With the help of my Program Associate Jasmine Wong I created a unit around Ji-li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl. The purpose of the unit was to have students explore a historical case study dealing with issues of prejudice, conformity, and groupthink, but also to have them relate the messages found in the text to their personal experiences dealing with such issues in the class. The Teaching RED SCARF GIRL resource provided many ideas during the planning and implementation of the unit. Through studying this book, students in my class were able to see the damage of groupthink from an outsider perspective. They made connections to what we were experiencing in our own class and often expressed that they did not agree with the negative and hurtful things that were being said by others. However, most said that they went along or at least did stand up when such incidents arose, as a way of not becoming a target themselves. We had many discussions on how to safely stand up in these situations.
Final Thoughts: Toward Upstanders in Action
It would be remiss of me to say that my classroom was completely transformed, but I am happy to say that the severity and frequency of incidents of bullying and exclusion reduced, and I incorporated lessons on community building and the power of upstanders into my program as the year closed. What I learned through this experience was that these lessons must be ongoing throughout the year, even up until the last day of school.
In addition, I am proud to say there have been cases of students from my class taking what they have learned through our work beyond our classroom and helping students in younger grades deal with these issues in positive ways. In one instance, students from my class intervened on the school yard during a nutrition break when they saw a student being verbally bullied by another student. My students were able to disrupt the bullying behavior and assist the victim in getting help from a teacher on duty. In an effort to make the student feel more included they invited them to join in their daily recess activities and continued to mentor and offer support to the student after the incident occurred.
My experience with Facing History and Ourselves gave me the pedagogical framework and necessary resources to help provide my students with opportunities to develop their skills as upstanders. My hope is that they will carry these lessons with them through the rest of their school years and into their adult lives, as one of the goals of any Facing History teacher is to foster student’s critical thinking and their active participation in civic life.
What are some of the ways you have addressed bullying, ostracism, peer pressure, exclusion in your classroom?