There’s a line by William Blake, written long before gender equity in poetic verbiage, that comes to mind sometimes as I watch the middle school kids bumping into each other at lunch: “Great things are done when men and mountains meet/This is not done by jostling in the street.”
It’s a truth that 7th and 8th graders jostle. A lot.
Sometimes it’s good natured: boys, backpacks, and wide open spaces is a recipe for goofing around. Sometimes it’s mean: twelve and thirteen year olds say things adults hold back, and sometimes they put those remarks in text messages or online so the world can see. More often than not, the physical or verbal bumping into each other presents administrators like me and my assistant principal with opportunities to help kids learn.
Here at Diegueño we have a few approaches when it comes to helping students make good decisions about how they treat one another. Some are punitive, some reactions to behavior that needs to be reacted to, and some (the best) are proactive.
Aware that suspensions and detentions are great as “time outs” from school, but don’t do much to really educate kids about how to make better decisions, our district has developed some alternatives that put learning above punishment. My favorite is something we affectionately refer to as a “cyber-suspension” and call more officially a “corrective action unit.” Using Blackboard to deliver content online, a team of administrators developed a series of short videos and texts that students watch and read, followed by questions that ask the students to reflect on what they learn. At the end of five of these texts, students write a reflective essay on the behavior that earned them the cyber-suspension, and how they might make a different decision moving forward. They discuss that essay with the assistant principal, and have to confront what they’ve done in an honest and real way.
This facing the results of a decision underpins our move toward restorative practices. This idea of engaging students and focusing on changing behavior is both sensible and has the potential to make a real difference when conflict arises.
Even better than reacting to student conflict is putting the focused effort into preventing it. This community building doesn’t happen by accident, or through one time events, but stands the best chance of success when it is systematic and ongoing.
At Diegueño that means creating celebrations of character that include our Cougar Pride program, ASB sponsored Link/Friendship Weeks, Diegueño Spirit Day, and our Kindness Challenge. It means teachers, administrators, and staff building positive relationships with kids and each other, modeling kindness, valuing community, and praising the many positive decisions kids make every day.
Seeing the kids look out for one another both in and outside of class, seeing them participate in fun community building events, and expressing gratitude when others treat them well gives me hope that our school is a place where good behavior is the rule, not the exception.
And still, as in every middle school, there is going to be some jostling in the street. In those cases we do our best to educate, provide perspective, and change both attitudes and behaviors. It’s no small task, meeting mountains never is, but when it works… great things are done…