For today’s post, in honor of Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, Donna talks about a recent classroom experience that reminded her of “The Power of Elle.”
Prepare has been hired to teach Walk the Talk. Today, I am pretending to be very mean to 3rd graders at a school in Brooklyn. Prepare believes in learning by doing — so we focus on role plays — behavioral rehearsals — so students can combine powerful words with confident bodies in real-time settings.
These are the kind of things my teaching partner and I are saying:
“You sleep with a teddy bear; you are such a baby.”
“We don’t want you to play basketball, you’re a girl.”
“You should be held back a grade, your reading level is so low.”
In each of these practice scenarios, students have the opportunity to stand up to my character’s bias and stereotypes. They replace a normal desire to “put the other person down” or label the aggressor by saying “you are mean” with using powerful, congruent, boundary setting statements.
Additionally, students practice standing up for others when they hear these put-downs. They get to embody what it means to be an ally.
So how do Bias and Stereotypes connect to anti-bullying work? In the above examples, you might notice that ageism, sexism, and ableism are at the roots of the put-downs. If one holds biased beliefs about difference, it is easy to express those beliefs through mean, aggressive, or thoughtless statements — even without any (conscious) intention to hurt the other person.
The scenario that stuck with me today was the following put down:
“I feel really bad for you because I am going to Disney on vacation and you have to stay home.” I delivered this micro-aggression with sincerity and concern, not any mean-spirited attitude.
Kids often struggle with this one ’cause everyone knows a Disney vacation is better. Right? Wrong! The student immediately understood that a classist belief was fueling my character’s pity. He confidently said, “That’s not true, vacations are about relaxing and spending time with family.” Right after that, another student, acting as an ally said, “And if it snows, he can go sledding and build snowmen.”
As I said, these role-plays happen in real time and as the aggressor I was shut down. The room exploded in cheers.
This reminded me of my first year teaching Prepare when another room roared with cheers. I was in a classroom of students, one of whom used a wheelchair. Her name was Elle. I’ve already mentioned that I inhabit a character in these role plays who is mean, so I took a deep breath and decided she deserved to have as mean a role play as everyone else. “I feel bad you use a wheelchair.” ‘Cause everyone knows that is bad. Right? Wrong! Elle became calm and powerful and stated very clearly that she did not need my pity.
Spontaneously the entire room stood up. I was bombarded with a classroom full of students acting as Elle’s ally. I was shut down! The girls explained to me that they made a pact that they would never say anything to hurt Elle’s feelings. And while they were being kind and inclusive to Elle, they decided they would do the same for each other.
When I met that same group several years later as 6th graders, an age notorious for mean behavior, this group was still honoring their pledge. Elle was a popular, well-liked kid. And it was a grade that had deep respect for all of the students. Elle told me that she remembered her role-play and how proud she felt standing up to me and how supported she felt by her classmates.
That experience, 18 years ago, was an “ahah” moment. First, communities can change their beliefs — even ones deeply held around ableism, or sexism, or classism, or lookism, or racism. Second, once those beliefs about difference and otherness shift — it naturally supports inclusion and kindness.
Anti-bullying work that includes a deep understanding of Bias and Stereotypes can deeply impact the community. That is the power of Elle.
For further reading on the power of a single young person to rally a community and shift a culture away from bullying, please read:
Canadian teen responds to bullying with a positive post it on everyone’s locker at school. In trouble for littering, her community rises up to support her.
Watch this story about how Jetta stands up to bullying after she donates cut hair to cancer patient charity and kids at school behave cruelly
NJ teen turns body shaming graffiti message into a campaign for body acceptance. Her awesome pic and message on her mom’s facebook page goes viral.
Thank you Donna for sharing your experiences teaching Walk the Talk. We return next week with more in the series on media coverage of the Ray and Janay Rice story looking at allied behavior from James Brown, Terry Crews and others in the world of sports.
Please join us again and invite others to do so as well.