UPstanders in Action: The HIVE at Woodstock Union High School

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I recently had the incredible opportunity to work with Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, VT. My visit was organized and championed by a phenomenal young leader, a Woodstock student named Holli Olson. The goal was to empower more people in the community with the tools to be agents of positive change to prevent negative culture/climate and bullying.

These are the kinds of schools I most love to work with, communities where students are the drivers of positive social change. That’s not to say I don’t love it when the teachers or administration or parents are committed to building an inclusive community, but when students are working to improve their community, you really see powerful results.

In addition to a few assemblies that I led at Woodstock, we conducted a UPstander Intervention Training with students. During that training, some of the students were discussing what it would look like to change the social norms at Woodstock so that it were seen as more socially acceptable to be positive and uplifting rather than negative and mean. We discussed the need to get a critical mass of students on board, and we brainstormed what this kind of change could actually look like.

Jamie Utt with students from The Hive at Woodstock

Jamie Utt with students from The Hive at Woodstock

It was during this training that the students came up with the idea for The Hive at Woodstock. Hoping to combat some of the negativity they see on social media, they wanted to combat it directly by creating a positive social media presence. By having a positive, affirming presence both in person and online at the school, the students thought they might be able to actually make headway in building a more inclusive school environment.

Since my visit, I’d been checking in with some of the students about the work they’re doing, and it seems that they’ve been able to maintain some momentum, which is great.

Then this came across my social media the other day:

WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

It’s stories like that of The Hive at Woodstock that keeps us doing what we do at CivilSchools, knowing that we can empower communities with the simple tools they need to have a powerful impact.

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Major Bullying Prevention Myth Debunked & Quick Lesson That Will Build Empathy In Students

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Comic Courtesy of Bob & Tom Thaves

Comic Courtesy of Bob & Tom Thaves

Here is the deal…if your school’s approach to bullying prevention is through the enforcement of a zero tolerance policy, it sucks.

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The concept sounds good, but it is no doubt the path of least resistance. It does nothing to foster a healthy learning environment and build a safe and civil school climate. Punitive approaches to bullying prevention fail the entire community.

Research conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) task force has concluded that schools with zero tolerance policies in place have:

  • Higher Incidents of Bullying
  • Lower Ratings on School Climate Surveys
  • More Suspensions and Expulsions
  • Lower Overall Academic Achievement
  • Higher Drop Out Rates and Failure to Graduate on Time.

This research was published over 5 years ago and there are still school leaders who deploy a “set it and forget it” zero tolerance bullying prevention policy.

So in the infamous words of Biggie Smalls, “And if you don’t know, now you know”.

Image created by Airmagination

Image created by Airmagination

Effective school leaders focus on inspiring pro-social behavior rather than managing misbehavior. Preventing incidents of bullying behavior takes strategic thinking by a leader ready to serve their way to influence rather than to power or coerce their way to it. School’s that experience a large number of bullying incidents have a leadership problem, not a bullying problem.

From Survival Zone to Performance Zone

Now, building a culture of civility is much more complicated, and it requires that all-stake holders regularly engage in behaviors that benefit the entire community.  That is a tall order because you are asking parents, teachers, and students to develop some new habits.

The good news is that they will do it if shown how! After all, keeping children safe is a HUGE motivator. This is your magic point of ALIGNMENT…everybody in the school community, parents, teachers, and students all want to feel safe.

Awareness efforts are not enough. As legendary basketball coach John Wooden articulated, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement”.  

Image Courtesy of Championship Basketball School

Mini-Lesson for Educators

At CivilSchools our curriculum is packed with activities that will foster empathy and perspective taking in all stakeholders. We know when able-minded students, parents, and teachers take time to develop mentalization abilities, (thinking about thinking) that incidents of bullying are significantly reduced.

The Internet loves videos of people standing up to or speaking out to a bully.  We all love a good underdog story. A lot of good can come from these stories.

However, these “speak up” type videos can be problematic because they put the onus on the target, and the reality is that many of the students targeted do not possess the skills or mental capacity required to articulate how they feel or ask for help.  We all know plenty of adults who struggle with asking others for help; why should we expect children to be proficient at it?

Schools that successfully build a safe and bullying-free learning environment do it through the power of community.

Watching this video and celebrating this young man’s courage is a great activity, but it will fall short of leading measurable change that increases student achievement and retention. As professionals and parents committed to preparing our young people for the complexities they face, we must dig deeper and leverage the power of resources like this video to build a healthier community.

Videos like this create great opportunities (vicarious experiences) to get kids and adults to reflect and foster empathy.

Growth does not come through an experience of itself, it comes through the reflection of an experience.

Questions for educators after they watch this video.

  • What are the signs of a child who feels alienated?
  • What type of environment was created during this P.E. class that inspired inconsiderate behavior?
  • How could the teacher have handled the hecklers?
  • Why are this child’s peers failing to engage in UPstander behavior?
  • What skills (that will work for him) can we try and teach this child that will help him better navigate the social complexities he is facing?
  • What could the teacher have said/done at the end that would have strengthened the sense of community?
  • How could the teacher have influenced Jake’s peers to publicly/privately celebrate Jake’s courage?

Written or verbal questions for students after they watch this video.

  • What could have happened to make Jake feel this way?
  • What was good about how Jake handled this?
  • Have you ever felt like people have struggled to see you for you?
  • How do you think Jake felt when he was speaking up?
  • How do you think Jake felt after he spoke up?
  • Why do you think those kids were laughing when Jake was speaking up?
  • Why do you think the other kids ignored Jake?
  • Do you know of any classmates who may feel like Jake? (written response)
  • What would you tell Jake if you met him today?
  • What could the teacher do to help Jake feel more comfortable at school?
  • What could have the other students have done after Jake was finished speaking up to show that he matters?
  • What could you privately tell the boys who were laughing at Jake to let them know that their behavior is not healthy for the community?
  • How could you help Jake make friends?
  • Why do you think Jake has a difficult time making friends?
  • Could this happen in our school?

Make sure to wrap the lesson by connecting the development of these interpersonal skills to their future. Remember, children, like adults, want to know what’s in it for them.

Students will put forth the effort if they believe that it will result in an outcome that is greater than the sacrifice.

During a Parent Teacher Association meeting or a Parent Orientation Meeting this video can be leveraged to discover the expectations of your parents as it relates to bullying prevention. From there, you can start sharing the vision you have for your school community and gaining alignment with the parents your serve.

Building a safe and inclusive community is hardly ever convenient, but effective leaders know how to inconvenience people at a level they can tolerate.

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#BeNice: A Reminder to Listen to Young People

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We at CivilSchools get to work with some pretty amazing young people on a regular basis.  It’s honestly inspiring to realize how many young people are out there in the world, working daily to improve their communities and our society.

Thus, when I got to work with a school in Washington recently, I was expecting to find some pretty phenomenal young people, but I wasn’t prepared for the force for good named Jake.

During our UPstander Intervention Training, I talked to the students at Jake’s school about the idea of being social normers, of being the change you wish to see in your school so that you can inspire others to do the same.  We talked about how social norming helps to change the air students breath in school to make it more inclusive, which makes the other work of being an UPstander far easier.

While talking to these students, though, I didn’t realize that one of the students to whom I was speaking could easily have been up there offering his wisdom.  After all, not long before I came to his school, Jake had made this video:

One of the most common forms of ageism toward young people in our society today is thinking that as adults, young people have nothing to teach us.  Often adults pretend that we have the whole world figured out and that young folks will one day know as much as we do if they make it to the magical world we call adulthood.

In reality, though, young people are often the ones with the most to teach.  After all, they have not been fully clouded by the cynicism or negativity that sometimes comes with age.  Even more, young people are engaging with the world in ways that those of us even ten years older than them could not have imagined at their age.  Youth are inspiring revolutions in the Arab Spring and transforming their communities through activism and servant leadership in every community around the world.  Plus, with the power of the internet that they know so well, they have the ability to learn from other young people as well as from elders in ways I never would have imagined at sixteen.

What Jake reminded me, not only when I met him or when I first saw this video but in our continuing relationship through social media, is that I have a lot to learn.

And Jake reminded me that sometimes the best teachers are those who are many years younger than me.

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