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Voices: Using history to prevent bullying

David Fulton, director of Facing History and Ourselves in Denver and the Rocky Mountain states, argues that teaching historical examples of people who stand up for what is right can help create school climates that combat bullying.

In 2010, the Boston Globe published an article with a sobering conclusion: The majority of bully prevention programs do not actually reduce bullying. The otherwise bleak piece by writer Neil Swidey shed light on one promising avenue for decreasing rates of bullying behavior among students: changing school culture. By encouraging uninvolved students, or “bystanders,” to step in to protest when they see bullying, Swidey argued, schools have the opportunity to create safer, more tolerant learning communities.

So how do we do that?

We can start in the classroom, by studying concepts like bystander – and upstander – behavior from history and our lives today. What if students were in the habit of linking the choices that people made in history – such as during the Holocaust and civil rights movement, and even the modern debate on immigration – to the ethical choices they confront at school and in their daily lives?

Many students in Facing History and Ourselves classrooms in Colorado and around the world do just that. Facing History is an international non-profit created in 1976 by educators who believed that instilling intellectual vigor and curiosity goes hand-in-hand with teaching facts and figures. We provide ideas, methods, and tools that support the practical needs, and the spirits, of educators worldwide who share the goal of creating a better, more informed, and more thoughtful society.

In a Facing History classroom, students not only learn about bystanders and upstanders in history (and why there are a lot more bystanders than upstanders), they also investigate concepts such as one’s “universe of obligation,” and look at history through a lens of in group/out group, justice, and democratic participation.

I believe in this work and therefore, was not surprised when, on a recent visit to a Facing History school in New Mexico, a teacher told me that after a student new to the school began to bully a classmate, another student spoke up and said, “Hey, we don’t do that here.”

That school, Amy Biehl High School, has been using Facing History classroom resources and teaching strategies for years. Teachers have described the Facing History approach as “the heartbeat” of their school, indicating that the values embedded in the approach have extended well beyond the humanities classroom. And comments from the students are just as heartening. “After participating in Facing History (sic), I’ve seen my classmates become really engaged in their work. I also think they show greater respect for one another and when faced with conflict, they make an effort to really understand each other’s point of view,” a high school senior wrote in a recent evaluation.

The data from the school are impressive. A recent survey of 78 percent of enrolled sophomores, juniors, and seniors (137 polled) shows that 98 percent of students reported bullying as occurring “rarely” or “very rarely” in their school, with the remaining 2 percent reported its occurrence as “often” or “very often.” Nationally, the average rate hovers around 30 percent (depending on how the question is asked.) A subsequent case study reinforced this picture of a school that promotes a culture of respect, empathy and tolerance, as well as rigorous academic study.

Ronda McQuade, a humanities teacher at Amy Biehl, will be speaking in Denver on April 30th at 7:30 a.m. as part of the What Matters and What Counts Breakfast series at The History Colorado Center. In this series – a collaboration between the Donnell-Kay Foundation, Colorado Legacy Foundation, Facing History and Ourselves, and History Colorado – we have been exploring school culture from many different angles this year. In this final session, we discuss how positive school culture can emanate from a surprising space: the humanities classroom.

Facing History is no silver bullet for creating a positive school culture – building such a culture requires many components, including great teachers, strong leadership, and a compelling school vision.

But if the study in the Boston Globe is correct, and mobilizing bystanders and developing empathy are among the best ways to prevent bullying, then why not imagine the humanities classroom as a place where students become attuned to issues of exclusion and inclusion; where they learn to view events from multiple perspectives; and where they see examples of those standing up for what is right instead of sitting idly by? History is replete with such teachings – teachings that can be used to help build healthy communities, healthy schools, and a healthy future for our democracy.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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