It was very much a fresh start for everyone after the winter grind that brought long streaks of indoor recess, multiple rounds of state and district testing, and a consistent escalation of what my kids call "drama." I call it meanness.
For the two weeks or so before spring break, there was a noticeable increase in student counseling , calls from concerned parents, and tears in the 6th grade. Student factions were constantly shifting their allegiances, leaving what were once friends, literally and figuratively standing out in the cold. The evidence and impact of rumor mongering, which causes emotional pain and hurt feelings, had increased. To me, the meanness was starting to erode away some of the classroom community that we had worked so hard to build together over the last eight months.
Monday, as the kids began sleepily doing their morning work and listening to welcome back announcements, I started to clean the main whiteboard. The task got their attention, because it is something that they have never seen me do before. Tasks like those don't take place when kids are supposed to be learning. I removed all of the 'stuff' from what is normally our main board for instruction. All the magnets, signs, attendance sticks, etc were taken away or placed on the auxiliary board. I used the 'special' overpriced whiteboard spray and some rags to achieve a perfectly white surface. Nothing.
The following morning I had written, just one word on the board. mean. I then shared some more videos on how bullying happens and how it continues. The lessons were short, focused and sometimes intense. I didn't want to lecture, I wanted to inform. I wanted the kids to make the connection between the words and actions they choose and how those choices impact others.
Friday we were visiting the middle school that my 6th graders will be attending next year, and with it, a glimpse of another new start. Before we left we watched a powerful video of a young boy who was changing schools and was afraid that he would continue to be bullied and called names. The video message ends with him making a decision to keep fighting for who he is and a recognition that he matters.
Once the video was complete, I silently walked to the board filled with mean words and characteristics, erased one of them, and replaced it with Love. I wanted to give them an opportunity to define themselves, while at the same time realize that they were in charge of their choices and legacy. I handed my marker to one of my students and asked them to help me erase meanness and replace it with a word of kindness or a word that they wanted to be remembered by. Over the next few minutes, as the rainbow of dry erase markers were passed around, the words on the board began to represent their aspirations. I was so proud of these young people and the respect that they were giving the process. They sat quietly and watched their classmates slowly transform the black and blue board into one of color and hope. It was an amazing and touching experience.
During dismissal procedures, when my kids returned to gather their things and head home, they noticed that all of the harmful words weren't gone. Still visible were words such as envy and detest, but then a powerful observation was made. Yes there was meanness still present. Sadly, we can never get rid of it all, but kindness and caring can overwhelm the unkind. When we looked at the colored words of kindness that now represented our 6th grade, you barely noticed the words of pain.
We literally "Erased Meanness" and replaced it with kindness.
Update May 2013 : The reply I gave to a reader's request.
Thanks for reading, I appreciate it. And yes it was an amazingly powerful lesson and one that I hope they never forget. I've never included the specific videos that I used in this post, because I picked them out specifically for my kids to address some of the things that I was seeing in my classroom. I guess I didn't want the lesson to be copied verbatim if another educator wanted to use the idea. I would rather have them tailor it to their classroom. I see know that that may have been shortsighted. I used a variety of sources and clips and have included them in my October Post "Charles Adler Show" here
The word list I use to create the whiteboard is available here in this Google Doc
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