"Over the years, I have seen many children develop feelings of incompetence and lose self-esteem because of difficulty with academics, athletics, and/or social interaction with their peers," explains Mary Wright, a fourth grade teacher with 30 years experience. "While their classmates comprehend new concepts immediately and achieve their goals without a struggle, those children suffer name calling and scolding because of weaknesses or differences beyond their control. They may become academic failures, and be seen as inferior by other children, who subsequently begin to validate the children's poor self-images. Then, the brutal teasing begins."
Too often, Wright feels, those children are humiliated, not only by their peers, but by adults as well. Unaware of the consequences of their actions, the adults periodically send the message that a particular child is lazy; using facial or verbal expressions that embarrass a child already feeling badly about himself or herself. Those actions prompt classmates to view their own taunting as acceptable -- and a cruel cycle is established.
Promote Respect in Your Classroom!"In order to promote respect, a teacher must show respect -- by appreciating each child for her or his strengths; by letting each child know that he or she is special; and by recognizing that each child is different, that children have diverse learning styles, and that teaching in only one way does not reach every child," explained Mary Wright.
"Children have a lot of stresses in their lives -- today more than ever -- and we must make the classroom a safe place to be, one where children can take risks and not be afraid of failing," Wright added. "Reward the child who respects others for who they are, don't just give attention to those children who don't respect others. Children will take our lead and follow it if we give them the chance. No child is born mean. Teachers must teach academics -- but more than that, they must teach children."
"In a world in which children find themselves in the midst of competition most of the time, chances are they will frequently lose," said Wright. "Losing can be a good lesson, but losing often -- especially for a child who already feels like a loser-- creates feelings of depression and a lack of self worth, both of which are open invitations to bullies. I have tried to learn strategies to prevent or stop the teasing that can result, and to encourage teachers and parents to use as much positive reinforcement as possible with every child -- the bully, the victim, and the bully's disciple -- to make him or her feel successful in some capacity."
Wright subscribes to the philosophy that children themselves must become more involved in the direction classroom activities take and assume ownership of their lessons. Based on that belief, she founded with her students at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, Go Fourth, a program that promotes respect and understanding, while attempting to prevent teasing and bullying.
Go Fourth is based on classroom discussions about respect and understanding. Wright points out that she sees no benefit in simply creating rules against teasing. Punishing children for teasing might cause them to stop temporarily, she says, but that change in behavior arises from the desire to be relieved of punishment, not from real remorse. Discussions, on the other hand, make sense of the damage caused by teasing and make it clear to children why it should be avoided.
"Our first session of Go Fourth occurred in early September 2001, a few days before the September 11 disaster," recalled Wright. "Of course that horrific incident brought up a number of conversations. Class discussions happen when they happen; it is very hard to plan ahead, as incidents in school or in our towns and cities often promote discussions related to Go Fourth." In fact, students in Wright's classroom are encouraged to ask for a Go Fourth "moment" whenever they need to apologize to another child or initiate a discussion relevant to the program.
Go Fourth, however, has grown even beyond Wright's expectations; the program now has participating classes across the nation and around the world. Students talk about such topics as bullying, diversity, teasing, and respect within their own classrooms, and then exchange e-mail messages and letters with students from around the world.
"The pen-pal aspect of Go Fourth encourages children to write about their feelings and share those feelings with children from different backgrounds who are dealing with comparable issues," Wright said.
In addition, last year, children involved in the program walked a mile celebrating Go Fourth; they pledged not to tease or bully one another, and promised to respect one another's differences and to try to make the world a more peaceful place.
Parents participate in the program as well, Wright noted. "Parents write to parents about their goals for their children and about the kind of world they want their children to live in as adults. That way, the program reaches entire families.
"I am not trying to be a Pollyanna," Wright explained, "but I do believe that every child is entitled to feel safe, and to feel good about himself or herself. Occasionally, miraculously, a child will say, 'Why did I ever tease? It was really a silly thing to do. I hurt someone else's feelings." Those are the days Go Fourth is working to achieve.
Students who traveled to China with Mary Wright shared some of their thoughts with Education World.
"When I met my pen pal, she didn't speak very much English, but at the end of our short time together, we knew that neither of us would ever forget our friendship," said sixth grader Zoe. "It was so amazing that even though we lived on opposite sides of the planet and didn't speak the same language we could still be best friends."
Chelsey, a fifth grader, found friendship in China as well. "I think it was very important to do this trip for us and for the Chinese," she said. "We all learned so much about the other side of the world, how different and beautiful it is. I also think that the Chinese children learned a lot about us and our side of the world, and I think we got closer together as friends."
Fourth grader Lucianna reported, "Everything was so overwhelming. I even signed autographs! I have a pen pal in China and I went to her house, and we made dumplings. We also played on the computer. We had a lot of fun!"
"In Shaoguan, we went to an international children's show," explained Richard, grade four. "All the skits were amazing. The kids were singing, acting, dancing, and they even had costumes. When I returned to America, I told everyone how good the plays were. It was one of the best moments of my life. Going to China, especially the city of Shaoguan, showed me how we are all the same. My Chinese pen pal was very kind and we could communicate and play even when we couldn't speak the same language. After all, we're kids!"
Recently, a partnership with John Wu's fourth grade students in Shaoguan, China, that arose from the Go Fourth program, led Wright, 12 of her students, and their parents on an expedition to that country to promote respect for cultural differences.
"We realized that our goals are the same and that our lack of proximity didn't hamper our ability to express our feelings about education and the world today," explained Wright about her class and Wu's. "We felt, however, that if we could actually get together, we could demonstrate to others that even our two countries -- with their strong history of governmental and cultural differences -- could, through our children, share the similarities that bond human beings together: feelings, needs, wants, and of course, a desire for peace."
|A sign at Xhixian Elementary School in Shaoguan, China, reads "Warmly Welcome Rocky Hill School Delegation!"|
With permission from school administrators, planning for the trip began in June 2002. Fundraising was necessary in order for some of the families to participate, but by October, the entire town of Shaoguan was anticipating the arrival of the U.S. ambassadors. With cameras and journals in hand, Wright's group departed on January 12, 2003, for their two-week visit to China.
"Although we visited Hong Kong, saw the wonders of the terra cotta warriors in Xian, and climbed the Great Wall during our three days in Beijing, I would have to say that our days in the city of Shaoguan, Guandong province, presented us with that once in a lifetime magic," Wright told Education World.
"How can I begin to describe the moment when we arrived at the Xhixian Elementary School, descended the stairs from our bus, and looked up over the gate of the school to see a banner that heralded us with the words, 'Warmly Welcome Rocky Hill School Delegation'? How can I explain the view of the red uniformed marching band of children playing The Star Spangled Banner as we walked through the gates? How can I ever remember without emotion, the once in a lifetime magical seconds when we walked into the school's vast courtyard, first hearing, and then seeing, 1,200 children and teachers stand and applaud our arrival? Wow!"
Getting Started with Go FourthHow does Mary Wright introduce her classes to the Go Fourth activities? "Usually I start the initial September session by asking students, 'Have you ever been teased?,'" Wright said. "Then I raise my hand, identifying myself as a person who has been teased. The children follow; usually all of them raise their hands. Then I say, 'What does it feel like to be teased?' The children respond. Then I say, 'Raise your hand if you have ever teased anyone else.' Once again, I raise my hand in order to make the children feel more comfortable about admitting something that difficult." (Wright cautions that a teacher must never single out or contradict a child who does not raise a hand, and it is important to gently quiet the children if they do it.)
Wright then asks, "How did it make you feel when you teased someone else? Did you feel powerful?" And the discussion begins.
Said Wright, "I ask such questions as, 'Why do you think you have teased someone? Were you feeling good about yourself that day? Did you do it to please a so-called friend?' I also talk about peer pressure. Then I ask if the students think teasing is a good thing to do. 'What does it do to the person who is being teased? What is the end result? How do you think the person you teased felt after school that day?' More discussion ensues. 'Do grown-ups tease? What is the worst kind of grown-up teasing?' Most children will say war."
Photos courtesy of Mary Wright.