Glendale Middle Schooldoesn't exactly have a stellar reputation. It serves a community with a sizable population of immigrants and refugees, as well as being in traditionally economically disadvantaged area. Throughout the last century, the Glendale neighborhood has had a reputation as a working class and immigrant community. Beginning in the 1970s, it developed a reputation for having high crime rates. Large parts of the area's housing are bungalows from the 30s and 40s with some later homes squeezed in. In the 1990s and 2000s, several tracts of new housing were built in the era's distinctive beige stucco, peaked roof style. The school's reputation mirrors the neighborhood's.
Last night, Glendale Middle School's principal, John Erlacher, supported by the Salt Lake City school board (several members of the board attended), held the first of what will be a series of community discussionson bullying. To his credit, the Principal Erlacher did not wait until there was an issue with bullying or until there were high profile incidents of bullying to hold this gathering. This simple decision has put the school ahead of the game on the issue of bullying. (I'm not suggesting there's no bullying in the school, simply that what bullying is happening hasn't reached a crisis point.)
I'm going to first give a description of what happened at this public gathering, then discuss conclusions and ideas, and finally suggest what I see as a path forward.
Parents, students and residents were invited to attend. The gathering began at six and the principal made good use of the school's infrastructure, sending buses on several routes to pick up attendees. He planned for and ordered pizza to be delivered at six. He also brought in two skilled and experienced facilitators to host the meeting. Carla Kelley of the Human Rights Education Center of Utah; Carla has extensive experience working with teens around diversity and anti-bullying initiatives. Last summer, she used grant money to host Playback Theatre in which teens not only examined the ways in which bullying happens and its effects but also came up with ways to confront bullying. Carla drafted a mutual friend and colleague - Tenneson Woolf. Tenneson is an experienced host and facilitator. He works with a wide variety of organizations on a wide variety of issues, mostly managing change. Tenneson has worked for years with Berkana, whose motto "Whatever the problem, community is the answer" is a personal favorite. Tenneson is extremely skilled at bringing communities together and helping them choose what to do when they don't know what to do using a variety of methods of participatory leadership.
The evening began at about six with pizza dinner. Most of the group, that is people middle school age and above, moved into the school gym and formed a circle for a few minutes of "play." In this context, play usually means activities that engage us in moving around and connecting with one another in easy ways. As for example, we started in a circle, then were instructed to cross the circle. On each crossing, we added different components, such as look five people in the eye as you cross the circle, or touch elbows with five people as you cross the circle. These activities - very simple, easy to lead and requiring nothing more than some space - help people move into a more open-minded and open hearted space for discussion.
After a few minutes of circle activity, attendees were invited to take seats in groups of five and discuss two questions - what do you value in this community? and what challenges do you feel the community faces? On yellow/green post its, people recorded challenges, on blue ones what they valued. Those were posted for all to see on large signs corresponding to the questions.
Attendees identified diversity as both something they valued and one of the challenges. Last night, there were speakers of six languages - Swahili, Bengal, Nepali, Tongan, Spanish and English. There were people who were born and raised in the neighborhood and people who were refugees from Africa, immigrants from Africa, Central and South America, Nepal and Bengal and Tonga. There were students there who are the primary English speakers in their families. There were people for whom English is their third or fourth language.
The diversity of cultures and languages is both a tremendous source of richness but also a source of challenge. One man, an African immigrant, pointed out that in his culture, you show respect by looking down when speaking to someone of higher status (i.e. a boss or school teacher) and that the American habit of looking one another in the eye is very difficult for him. A woman from Central America pointed out that the simple process of enrolling in school here is very different than in her home country. She had to visit the school three or four times to do something that would have taken someone familiar with our system one visit. Another man observed that the parents he deals with often interpret any communication from a teacher as a sign their child is in trouble rather than being updates or invites to events, and that many parents don't understand why they should attend parent teacher conferences. A teacher in the school pointed out that she recently contravened cultural custom of one of her student without even realizing it and the student believed they were in trouble because of something she never considered. During the opening play, it was clear that cultural attitudes toward touching differ - several of the women attendees were challenged as they tried to avoid touching men's elbows. Such taboos and differences can create stumbling blocks that remain hidden until it's too late.
In a modified version of World Cafe, groups were encouraged to scatter, and discuss a third question - what opportunities suggestions for improvement do you see? Following the earlier pattern, these were recorded on pink post its and put up for all to see. After these post its were in a public space, our hosts (Tenneson and Carla) got to play Jerry Springer - they carried mics around for attendees to suggest specific improvements that could begin or be taken by the community and the school. Several suggestions included engaging the whole of the community and family in confronting bullying and for students to appreciate the opportunities the school gave them. At the end of the evening, there were over 100 post its with specific ideas on the poster in the gym.
What was observed and learned?
The evening ended with a brief harvest - gathering together of ideas and suggestions. One parent pointed out that ending bullying starts in the home - parents have to confront attitudes that lead to bullying in themselves and their families. Someone else pointed out that the community as a whole has to engage in efforts to create a respectful community. One suggestion was specifically to find ways to nurture community diversity (as the speaker put it, we live in a diverse community but only encounter it in spaces like this discussion). One student spoke up and said students needed to start appreciating and valuing school. Several parents announced and reminded other parents of weekly parent meetings at the school to nurture the school's supportive and welcoming environment. The biggest learning was the need to keep the discussion going.
What is the path forward?
1. Training hosting teams to hold meetings in the community
2. Identifying cultural differences and ways to establish acceptable behaviors that are mutually respectful of those differences
3. Bringing adults together over shared meals to build a stronger sense of community
4. Empowering students to understand and confront bullying
5. Encouraging the administration, teachers, parents and students to see themselves as a community
The most important thing is to keep up the good work. You can't solve a problem in 90 minutes. You can't change the environment so that bullying is minimized in one evening.
In order to engage the whole community, I think the school could call on some of last night's attendees as leaders. These leaders could work in hosting teams and hold gatherings in their homes or places of worship in which the community discussion is ongoing. Such home gatherings would further cement the sense of community in the Glendale area. They would also help community members connect with one another and find ways of communicating across the various divides in the community. Simply gathering together on a regular basis will create stronger bonds within the community and encourage individuals to see the differences are sources of richness and learning rather than causes of separation.
The Glendale area - and Salt Lake's west side in general - has done a good job of nurturing a sense of community identity. Other parts of the city (Sugarhouse, the Avenues, Central City), are distinct neighborhoods but have done less intentional work in creating a sense of community identity. Glendale parents regard their area as a distinct community. This sense of community provides an excellent starting point for any future initiatives. Recognizing and naming the cultural differences will provide further support for the community. The goal in making explicit those cultural differences isn't to demand that people conform to one or another standard, but rather to recognize where stumbling blocks exist and navigate around them in mutually respectful ways. To take one example - American teachers often interpret downcast eyes as a sign of disrespect or insolence rather than respect. We don't have to demand that students look teachers in the eye so long as their other behaviors are consistent with academic standards and good behavior.
It's easy to fall into the trap of food fairs and festivals when exploring diversity in communities. Such events are usually well meant but tend to gloss over very real differences. That doesn't mean that shared meals are a bad idea. Providing spaces for parents with different cultural, economic and ethnic backgrounds to meet and model respect and tolerance is crucial to imparting those values to children. Breaking bread together is a powerful experience which can connect us on a human level so that we understand one another without demanding we conform to each other's behavioral expectations. These shared meals become opportunities to learn mutual respect - times to share our stories with one another. There's quote something to the effect that you can't fight with someone whose story you know. Breaking bread together builds bonds that allow us to work together even as we see one another's differences.
Within the school, there's the possibility of mentoring students to become leaders who help one another confront incidents of bullying. (Yes, I also know that at least some students will look on such efforts with cynicism, distrust and outright hostility - my favorite commentary on that phenomenon is found in the film Heathers in which a teacher tries to host a love in the cafeteria and Veronica cynically tells her to get a job.) In this case, rather than the usual approach of identifying a few students who become associated with the faculty and administration (i.e. the enemy in middle school), these students could be empowered to work on their own to host discussion forums in which students are able to name and claim their experiences of acceptance and rejection, to talk about their experiences of being bullied or of bullying other students and devise ways to change the environment to make bullying unacceptable and less common. Empowering students to find ways to reduce bullying will work far better than almost any action initiated by the faculty or administration.
I'm not sure how to fully explain this insight but I'll try. In the US, teaching is a profession. As a result, faculty and administrations see themselves as separate from they community in which they teach. For many parents in Glendale, however, their tradition holds that the teacher is a member of the community, someone who is almost extended family and thus empowered to discipline children as a parent or family member might. American teachers see their role in the classroom through the lens of professionalization. This has been mostly a good change - it allows us to establish academic requirements for teaching. A friend of mine describe the shift in American teaching theory as the move from the sage on the stage to the guide by the side. The next obvious step is to see the school not so much as a public school but as a community school and that the community in this case is defined two ways - the local area the school serves is the most obvious level of community. But community can also be defined as those persons who affiliate with the school; you don't need to live in the area to be part of the community. The teachers who showed up last night get that. Other faculty and staff can start participating in community in the same way. It's not so much about working more hours as it is about the ways in which relationships are regarded and maintained. My relationship with my doctor is very different than my relationship with my pastor. One is strictly professional and it works fine. But the other is grounded in shared values and respect and shared identity within a community. I believe if teachers and parents and students see themselves as members of a single, shared community they will be better able to work collaboratively and collegially toward creating a bullying free environment.
That's what I've got today. I'm sure I'll get other ideas as the week goes on.