I also noticed that it was the rare parent that would seek the professional needed to help their child talk about things on their minds and provide healthy outlets for their frustration. Regrettably, most of these kids just sat in class, not focusing on their education, but on their lack of control and the elevated level of discomfort in their lives outside of school.
Students didn’t feel comfortable going to the school’s counselors, for one reason or another. Instead, they were way more likely to disclose personal information to the teachers they saw on a daily basis: the ones whom the students trusted, and the ones who cared about them.
After hearing many students’ responses about numerous topics, from their new learning environment to their own personal lives, bullying was at the heart of the matter. While asking students how they handled these situations when they arose, it seemed that most would retaliate with negative words or actions.
In the growing age of social media, when what used to be behind-the-back gossip and bathroom fights are posted on the World Wide Web for all to see and respond to, addressing the evolution of bullying requires an equally innovative approach. To develop this new approach, we isolated a few key issues: How can we bring these victims and harassers together in a controlled environment? Can we broadcast the sessions so bullies can’t hide? Can students take the lead in this process? Can we help both sides find a common ground? And, perhaps most importantly, can we help them create a sense of empathy?
Then and Now
started with caring 8th graders who recognized a problem and wanted
to be in a group that helped. With a little promotion and word of mouth, a
group came together that we called “The Roundtable.” Over the course of two
twenty-minute homeroom periods, the members gathered in a small meeting room in
We videotaped those two sessions, edited them to fit into a single homeroom period, and used our closed-circuit TV system to broadcast the first episode of “The Roundtable” to the entire school. Impact was immediate. In one class, directly following the show’s conclusion, a girl raised her hand and said that her uncle had sexually assaulted her. The video had not even addressed sexual assault, but after seeing students telling their own opinions of issues close to their hearts, the girl felt comfortable enough to open up to her classmates and teacher about her own intensely personal experience. (The teacher reported the claim to our people in charge of child abuse cases, who then handled the investigation appropriately.)
This incident, and others like it, sent a clear message: if we can get this kind of response from kids, where they feel encouraged to address issues that have been boiling inside them for so long, then we just can’t stop doing this.
Since that initial broadcast of our first session four years ago, the group has remained fluid in both its membership and its format. It’s had as many as 90 students in it at one time, and it’s been as small as six students as well. It’s had members from grades 6, 7, and 8 come together to discuss school-wide issues, and it’s had one-grade-only sessions to address more specific concerns. It’s taken on an intervention platform, where students with poor reputations come in, and their peers help them find alternatives to negative behavior. It’s held meetings in the library, and it’s met during lunch. No matter where, when, or how often it continues to meet, if the group helps one kid be less violent toward others, then mission accomplished.
Taping and Airing
Our TV Production teacher, William Steelnack, tapes these sessions and edits the content to keep the message clear. Students are respectful during the discussions, but every now and again their honesty is overwhelming. Quotes have included, “No one in this building cares about us except you two,” “Teachers don’t care, counselors don’t care, and you can’t talk to anyone around here,” and “They don’t want to listen.” We use these comments as fuel to drive us to help students further, but we don’t use them in the broadcasts. We don’t want to create more division among teachers or students; our mission is to prevent conflict, not to create it.
Each episode follows a standard format. The video begins with a scripted introduction in which a student prepares viewers for what they are about to watch and encourages them to pay attention because “they might just learn something.” For the main content, we take the students’ comments from a wide range of topics and combine them into a logical order, with title screens to signal the start of each new segment. This allows us to create a consistent narrative while using elements from discussions filmed days or even weeks apart. At the end of each video, we pose some discussion questions to keep the conversation going in each room. We try to air a new episode every two weeks.
Teachers and schools that don’t have access to a TV studio can still emulate this production model by using some basic, readily accessible equipment. Hand-held digital cameras are commercially available for under a hundred dollars, and tripods are cheap. As for editing software, our school computers use Windows XP, which includes the program Windows Movie Maker. After transferring footage from a digital camera, teachers can easily create a digital video file using this free program, which they can then burn to a disc or send electronically to other teachers to watch with their students. We’ve found that this last step, having teachers actively watch the video with their students, is a key to having our message stick with the audience. When teachers are engaged, students are engaged, and the discussions that naturally take place give each student in the school the chance to become an active participant in the process. Really, creating something like this is almost easier done than said.
Let us make the motives of this group clear. The purpose was to give attention to the issue in schools: bullying. Not to lower school-wide violence, raise standardized-test scores, or create world peace. If these happen as a result of the simple motive of wanting to help one child realize the impermanence of bullying, and understand its causes and solutions in the short and long term, then so be it.
Frame your group around this simple motive and mission. Let kids take the reigns, while guided by a few teachers that care and want to listen and help. This will create teamwork among the students, their peers, and their teachers, and will give that team an opportunity to exert a positive influence, which can last a lifetime.
Sean Brooks and William Steelnack will be presenting at the
National Middle School Association’s annual conference in
M. Brooks teaches Health Education at
Steelnack teaches Broadcast Communications at