As a teacher at an all-girls school, I cannot tell you how many times I've heard the word "drama" tossed around. It's troubling to me, really, to see how easily people connect this word to the conflicts that emerge between girls and women. Even in efforts to help girls and women build strong and healthy relationships, we’re reminded to "stop the drama!" or "just say no to the drama!"
As a Facing History teacher at the Girls Athletic Leadership School in Denver, Colorado, one of my goals is to build and maintain an environment that supports healthy relationships between girls. I started this work because I saw with my own eyes how quickly the struggles between girls are relegated to the land of “drama,” and how this seriously undermines any effort to empower girls' voices. It’s an issue that my experiences teaching Facing History brought to the forefront.
Over the past 12 years that I have taught Facing History, I’ve seen my students excel. I’ve seen them grasp the meaning behind terms such as bystander and upstander, and employ their understanding in their analysis of historical events and in their own worlds. But when it came time for my students to be an upstander, it was a different story. I found that my students really wanted to be upstanders, wanted to create a positive school culture, but that it was a scary concept, one that seemed abstract and hard to put into practice. They lacked the tools to intervene where it was necessary. I wondered how I could support them in building those tools.
This is where I turned to Facing History resources. In 2013, I applied for a Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant to establish a restorative justice program at my school, one that will be anchored in our 8th-grade Facing History unit on the history of South Africa and their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The program will very concretely provide my girls with the tools for resolving conflict and repairing harm and will be grounded in a historical study of transitional justice. This semester we’re beginning our work by studying the process of restorative justice while we look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the work of Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the aftermath of apartheid. And we’ll look at how their own actions can make a big difference when it comes to issues of intolerance, bullying, and prejudice at school or in the community. Through this work, I hope that the students will be empowered to take action, to choose to participate, and that we can develop our own restorative justice process at my school.
Which brings me back to the word “drama,” and the often very real and difficult conflicts that young girls experience. Part of our job as educators is to validate our students’ struggles and give them the tools to work through them. If we keep dismissing them, our students will stop engaging us in their problems, which is no good for anyone. Just as restorative justice can amplify silenced voices, so too must a healthy school amplify the voices of students. There can be serious consequences when students view adult intervention in their conflicts as more harmful rather than less so. If young people think adults are going to dismiss their pain as drama, they will not communicate with us, and if we are to build healthy school cultures and empowered upstanders, we have to have open lines of communication with our kids.
This post is part of a series that highlights the classroom and school work of the 2013 Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant winners. These teachers are thinking outside the box to transform schools and impact student learning and their projects are helping students worldwide to become more active, concerned citizens.
Explore Facing History’s “Bullying: A Case Study in Ostracism,” which can help adults and young people think about their roles in preventing and responding to incidents of bullying and ostracism, and developing student voice.
Download the Facing the Truth with Bill Moyers Study Guide, which accompanies Moyers’ documentary about the efforts of South Africans to deal with their past – specifically the years of apartheid. The film focuses on the stories of the individuals who testified before the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to investigate violations of human rights in South Africa and beyond its borders between 1960 and 1994.
Facing History’s “Choosing to Participate” resources help students and adults start conversation about the importance of participation in our community, nation, and world.