May 11, 2018 -- Heights Middle School teachers Debra Oden and Zakkiyah Bergen have lofty goals for their students: “To be global leaders who help create a more inclusive world, learn to appreciate differences, and stand up for justice.”
Luckily they have some help from the Department of Education’s Ohio Leadership organization, which has sponsored training sessions for student leaders as part of its “All In” program. A group of 8th graders recommended by their teachers for their leadership potential have participated in three day-long training sessions at colleges and universities across northeast Ohio this year.
With a focus on tolerance, anti-bullying and creating welcoming environments for all students regardless of background or differences, the Student Leadership Sessions had a profound and eye-opening impact on the participants.
Desire Hayes realized that she had been engaging in hurtful behavior that she’d previously seen as harmless fun. “It truly changed me,” said the Monticello 8th grader. “I saw how others might feel and felt bad about the way I had acted.”
She and her All In partners are bringing that message to the rest of the school. Administrators recognize that sometimes the best way to effect change is to have it come from the bottom up, student-to-student, instead of from the top down. “They’re much more likely to hear these messages when they’re coming from a group of 8th graders,” said Monticello principal Dr. Jeff Johnston, of the 50 sixth graders recently gathered in the auditorium to listen to a student-led presentation on bullying.
The eight older students improvised a skit featuring a bully, a victim and a bystander. The focus of this particular presentation was on how to shift from being a bystander – someone who stands by and witnesses an act of bullying without intervening – to being an upstander, someone who steps in and stands up for someone else. “Don't be afraid to say something,” Braedan Gallagher told his audience. “You never know what a big effect it could have on someone if you speak up.”
When the 8th graders were later asked who has the power to stop bullying, their responses varied from teachers to bystanders to the bully himself. Until Ashton Everette interrupted his classmates to say, “Everybody has an equal amount of power. We can all act in some way to make the change.”
The All In group has certainly been acting. They meet several times per week during their lunch period to plan future activities. “It’s hard because that’s the one time all day we have to be social and just talk with our friends,” said Neiko Foster. “But I feel like I’m doing something important, like I’m a role model with a real voice.”
Cati Fehn agreed. “At first, I felt obliged to go to Ms. Bergen’s room during lunch. But now I go because I want to.”
The students will continue to meet with small groups of 6th graders, either giving presentations, engaging in necessary conversations or playing games that encourage reflection, like Diversity Bingo. Before the school year comes to a close, they will help staff select a group of 7th graders to follow in their footsteps. The building is instituting a peer mentorship program next year called Where Everybody Belongs
that will partner 8th graders with groups of 6th graders to help ease the transition into middle school.
The administrative team admits it faced some logistical challenges combining the two schools under one roof and hopes that programs like WEB will improve the overall school climate. According to a letter that was recently sent to the parents of incoming 6th graders, “WEB provides the structure for 6th graders to receive support and guidance from 8th graders who have been through the challenges that middle school poses and understand that the transition to a larger school can sometimes be overwhelming.”
James Huff, a member of All In and MSAN, is poised to make such a transition himself, as he and his classmates prepare to move into the high school. “We earned our ranks here,” he says of his leadership role in middle school. “But we’re gonna lose them again.”
He can follow the advice he gave to 6th graders during the All In presentation: “Try to stay positive. Be the one to say hi to that one lonely kid. You have the power to make a difference.”