My Corner of the World
by Danielle Ross | 09.28.16
Danielle Ross is a Reading Specialist and Psychology teacher at Chowchilla High School in Chowchilla, CA.
I’ll never forget that Thursday morning last year when my students and I sat together in class and cried.
What could possibly bring a class full of high school students and their teacher to tears? Bullying. We were sharing our personal experiences of being bullied and reliving those feelings that we push down but that don’t ever really go away. It had been 25 years since my “friends” had called me asking about homework and giggling in the background from a party I wasn’t invited to. Twenty-five years later and the pain came rushing back when I shared the experience with my peer counseling students. And I wasn’t the only one; student after student shared similar experiences that happened to them, mostly during elementary school.
This was the first-ever peer counseling class at Chowchilla High School and we had spent a lot of time getting to know and trust each other. Once a week, we had a class discussion centered on a topic in order to work on our communication skills and become closer and more unified as a class. For some reason, the topic of bullying really struck a nerve with everyone in the class; unfortunately, it is a pretty universal topic.
And then Sam made a statement that changed everything: “What if we could go to elementary schools and tell them not to bully.” Why not? Why couldn’t we go to other schools and talk to them about bullying?
So we spent the next several months contacting schools and setting up presentations, creating and perfecting a 45-minute interactive presentation, developing a website with our message and anti-bullying resources, making personalized T-shirts to wear and designing a “care package” for each student we presented to. “We” is probably the wrong pronoun to use; they did it all. I was merely a facilitator available to answer any questions. This was truly their project from beginning to end.
How did we come up with the money for the T-shirts and goodie-bags and other miscellaneous supplies? DonorsChoose.org. I cannot say enough about this organization that allows teachers to create projects that anyone can contribute to. I have had myriad projects funded by friends, family and sometimes complete strangers that have brought Chromebooks, Playaway audio-books and much-needed supplies into my classroom.
When getting started on this project, I was thrilled to see a new DonorsChoose.org category: Student-led projects sponsored by Think It Up, a program of the Entertainment Industry Foundation. This fit the bill as I wanted my students to lead the process, from writing the proposal and ordering the exact items to getting the word out about our project and writing the thank-you letters. Students worked hard putting the project together and troubleshooting issues that arose. When finished, we clicked submit and then held our breath and crossed our fingers. We had had a class discussion about dreaming big and they knew it was not guaranteed that the project would be fully funded in time for our scheduled anti-bullying presentations.
The students clapped with glee when they found out the project had been funded. I work at a Title 1 school with more than 70% of the population receiving free and reduced lunch. Most of my students live in and around poverty and they were surprised that so many people who had never met them were willing to donate money for something like an anti-bullying presentation. They shared feeling proud and important and excited about the presentations. We quickly received our materials and put together the activities and care packages for each student.
My peer counselors gave their presentation to two different elementary schools and I could not have been more proud of them. They emceed the entire presentation, led small groups through activities, presented a skit, brought students up onstage for an interactive activity, met with struggling students on the side in impromptu peer counseling sessions and shared their personal accounts of bullying with an audience of strangers.
My students don’t know this but I held back tears during their presentations. I looked out at an audience of 500 transfixed elementary schoolers and I looked at my 20 high-schoolers. Right in front of my eyes, those 20 students transformed into leaders and into activists. They had confidence, they communicated, they worked together, they solved problems and they anticipated the needs of their audience. I had been dreaming for a moment like this since I started teaching 12 years ago. If I had known then how easy it would be, maybe it could have happened sooner. All I had to do was let go; give up control over my classroom into the hands of my students. I had to lay aside my own ego and be willing to let them lead. At times, I became their student. And when I let go, they soared.
After the presentations we celebrated as a class. My students were giddy with excitement as they shared all of the things that had happened, both expected and unexpected. Many of my students had siblings present at the presentations and they reported back all of the positive energy that spread around the elementary schools; the younger students had really responded well to the older students. Mission accomplished!
We thought that was the end. But we were wrong. Toward the end of the year, we were invited to apply for the Think It Up Innovation Award. The students were very excited but I also made sure they understood that the chances of being selected were pretty small; more than 2800 applications were submitted and only eight projects were chosen. Ours was one of them. This year’s peer counselors, five of whom are returning, will have $5,000 to spend toward DonorsChoose.org projects in order to further their anti-bullying campaign. All of this started with “what if?”
Truly transformative experiences can only be experienced once trust is established and only if students (and teachers) feel safe. Safe to dream big together. Safe to throw out “crazy” ideas. Safe to ask “what if?” What if teachers all over the United States and the world allowed their students to pursue real-world projects that impacted their community? What if teachers and students dreamed big together and then attempted to transform their dream into reality? What if you dreamed big with your students this year in your classroom?
What can you can do right now to make your classroom safe and transformative?
- Allow time for students to get to know and trust each other and you. It might seem like a waste of time at first; however, discipline problems will virtually disappear in a class where students feel truly safe.
- Consider starting your own peer counseling or bullying prevention club or class at your school. If one already exists, encourage your students to join or use their services. Consider offering extra credit to students who attend peer counseling sessions.
- Ask yourself constantly: Can my students do this? Can they make the presentation or teach the lesson? Research shows that the best way students learn is by teaching others. So allow them to do that whenever possible. Keep your expectations high and they won’t disappoint you.
- Be very careful about allowing teasing or sarcasm in your classroom. What you might think is friendly banter could really be bullying in disguise. Students will follow your lead if you are firm and consistent. Create an anti-bullying culture in your classroom.
- Take the leap: give control of your class to the students. Ask them what they want to learn or do. Allow them to work on projects that involve the community. Empower your students and they will find their voices. The most powerful teaching moments occur when you transcend from teacher to facilitator.