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Students Break the System of Bullying in English Class

Rebecca Grodner

8th Grade English Teacher
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Everyone is a Participant (Video Transcript)

Teacher: Once you gain your students' trust, if you can give them that's just a little beyond their reach, then they will go way farther than you ever expected. And they will be hooked into that, because every kid wants to achieve.

Student: Me having an idea alone is not going to make as much of a difference as ten kids having an idea and putting that to life.

Teacher: The students decided that they wanted to have this campaign against bullying and they created a logo and a slogan, and the slogan was "Break the System." So their idea was that bullying is this system of bad things that kind of happen between victims and perpetrators, between bullies and the people that they bully. So the idea was, if they could get control of this thing by teaching people to break the system, then things would start to get a little bit better for people. In order to make this belong to the kids, I started off by starting with how they were feeling, and things started coming out, like, "I experienced bullying at this time," or "I saw a kid get bullied and it made me feel like this," or even, "I feel like a really bad person right now, because I've seen what things that I've done could have done to somebody else." I think one of the most important things for making something belong to the kids is letting them talk.

Teacher: Don't follow in anyone's footsteps.

Student: Where's the "Find someone that's confident" stuff?

Teacher: Yeah, that's here.                            

When the kids feel connected to the material, they engage in it. And when they engage in it, they participate in a whole different way. And the other way that kids really participate and they become participants is when you hand over the onus of learning to them. Kids learn so much more when they're talking to each other. They learn so much more when they're working through a problem together. They learn so much more when the feedback comes from each other, rather than from this higher power that they hear from all the time.

Student: The things that are good about it was the collaborative aspect of it, how we were all able to talk together and make a huge way for teachers and students to learn with each other about not bullying.

Teacher: Starting at a place of collaboration, finding the common ground, is a place to build that collaboration and it becomes a form of inclusion, because when you have kids collaborating on big projects, on big issues, on solving big problems, then the kids who might not normally have the strength in a situation, their strengths come out.

Student: I was scared that this wasn't going to work like we wanted it to, but it did. Like it really taught me lots of things, not only like as a person, but, you know, as a kid.

Teacher: The thing I like the most about the Quest models, I really like that everything's contextualized. I feel like my students have connected a lot with that. And the fact that they have this reason, this impetus for figuring things out. And then on top of it, I think it's really nice to be at a school where we're expected to have students collaborate, because I really learn the value of collaboration for kids and how much of a difference that makes for them in learning.

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  • Director / Camera / Editor: JR Sheetz
  • Special Thanks: Quest to Learn, Rebecca Grodner, and her students

This video was originally produced by Institute of Play, and was made possible through generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

In November 2012, a crying student burst into my classroom during lunch. Through sniffles, she talked about how her group of girlfriends suddenly excommunicated her, and were going to great lengths to make it known during their lunch period. It was a story I knew too well, both from watching students experience it year after year, and from my own experiences in middle school. I promised myself when I became a teacher that I would do more to stop bullying, but I had not figured out how.

Until that winter, when an anti-bullying experiment that started with a small group of students turned into something much bigger, and became a part of my yearly eighth grade ELA curriculum.

Break the System, my project to prevent bullying, began as a seven-day experiment with ten of my students. I set out with only a vague plan in mind: students would design a toolkit to prevent bullying, and maybe present it to elementary students. After only one week, that group of students had launched a movement -- complete with a short film, a toolkit of anti-bullying learning materials, and a series of moving presentations.

Reflecting on Break the System that following summer, I realized all the learning opportunities that project provided for students. Not only is it deeply engaging (addressing an ever-present dilemma for middle school students), but it also creates a natural context for learning ELA concepts. Students can:

  • Explore audience through designing learning materials
  • Evaluate authorship as they compare nonfiction texts
  • Explore point-of-view and narrative techniques through film and fiction reading
  • Use systems thinking to develop complex written arguments.

Here’s how I challenged my students to break the system of bullying.

Begin With Trust

Students' experiences with bullying range from hearing the term but not understanding it, to feeling lasting damage from it, to believing that it's an important social structure. Every experience is valid -- as facilitators, we must respect that, and help students respect it. Developing a clear set of group expectations is vital to the process of discussing a sensitive topic like bullying. We co-created a set of group norms and signed a contract that we kept posted in the classroom throughout the project.

Once the students felt safe opening up, I could see how trust was put into action. In one exercise, we watched the heart-wrenching documentary Bully, and then students took a few minutes to reflect silently in a free write. Sitting in a circle, I asked them to share their initial thoughts on the film, and I saw and heard amazing things. Students who had barely said more than two words to each other consoled one another. Students who were silent victims found the courage to speak. Students who had been aggressors showed deep remorse. And in the whole conversation, I didn't say more than a few words.

That's the other part of trust. As educators, it can be hard to let go of control and let students drive their own learning. Try to step back and watch as they can guide their own learning -- it's incredible.

Think Systemically

As students take the reins, give them tools to look at the problem of bullying holistically. At Quest to Learn, we teach students to grapple with difficult problems through systems thinking. Using systems thinking tools like causal maps (webs of interrelated causes and effects with arrows illustrating their impact), students discovered leverage points to change the system of bullying. You can see examples (at 3:05 in the video above) of these causal maps which students created to examine the systemic nature of bullying.

The first time I did this project, my students noticed a leverage point in elementary school empathy education. They decided that the younger we taught empathy, the less likely children were to bully later.

In last year's class, students pinpointed various leverage points throughout the system of bullying, from school cultural factors to counseling services offered. The students saw all the places where people involved in the bullying system could take preventative measures (even some places that adults often miss!), and they jumped at the opportunity to use these insights to initiate change.

Students Know Best

Of the many bullying prevention materials out there, most if not all of them are created by adults for children. When I tasked my students with creating a bullying toolkit for elementary students, they were excited not only about taking on a design challenge, but about being informed critics of the materials created by adult bullying experts who are more removed from the problem.

In order to create their toolkit, students began by deciding two things:

  1. What their audience needed to know
  2. What kinds of materials would appeal to this audience.

Without even realizing it, students were considering the complex concepts of audience and authorship, tailoring their techniques to best fit their messages. They brainstormed a list of learning goals and products, and then narrowed it down to a manageable amount of materials to produce.

Now that this project has become a part of my ELA curriculum, students develop toolkits in smaller groups with a more specific audience in mind, such as a certain grade, a group of parents, or educators.

Divide and Conquer

After students made decisions about what their toolkit needed, they divided up the work. This required students to approach challenges like adults do in a professional team setting. They considered even distribution of work, talents possessed by team members, and who might work best together. With a strict deadline, students worked efficiently and effectively. Most importantly, each student maintained ownership of certain parts of the toolkit.

After intense periods of drafting, students came back together and evaluated each other's work. They gave verbal and written feedback, putting themselves in their audience's mindset to discover successes, flaws, and gaps. In no time, they were back at the work, scrambling to improve their creations. Check out the video above to see how these students worked together, and hear them reflect on their experiences in collaboration.

Make It Real

What ultimately made all the hard work worthwhile was that it was real. Students knew their product would be presented to their audience. They knew that students, teachers, and parents would use the materials they created. At the end, I made sure they got to see it.

We visited elementary schools around the neighborhood and presented to various classrooms, as well as principals, teachers and guidance counselors. The students presented with pride and confidence. They reflected knowledge they had developed during research, and passion they had developed through discussion.

The best thing about this project is that it doesn't simply fade away once completed. The students made a real commitment to bullying prevention. For my first group of students, the project became a school club, which became a lunchtime peer support group. For my eighth graders who experienced this as a part of their curriculum, it became a way of handling future conflicts, an understanding of the process to make a change, and an increased awareness of an often hard-to-see problem.

What steps have your school taken to help students break the system of bullying?

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

This is so powerful, Rebecca! I am going to look into it and see if I can work it into my 8th grade ELA curriculum. I love how the kids explored the causes and solutions themselves -- so much more powerful than us telling them what to do. Thank you!

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