January 31st, 2008

Day of Respect

Yesterday I spent my day in middle school. Yes, I know that Ash Wednesday isn’t until next week, but it was, I think, ultimately good for my soul in the same kind of penitential way.

I was there as a facilitator for a Day of Respect. Once every three years, the school spends one day working to instill in the students a greater understanding of each other and perhaps teach a new way of being together. The curriculum for the day was developed by a man who works in social justice and violence prevention at UC Berkeley and a man who worked for 25 years as a teacher and counselor in public schools. These men’s qualifications lend enough weight to the idea that a district intensely focused (not to say “obsessed”) with academic achievement has been willing to do this fuzzy floaty hippie thing for a day.

I’m all over fuzzy floaty hippie things. Also, I am entirely willing to make a fool of myself for a good cause. At least the t-shirt this time around wasn’t yellow; I look like I’m about to keel over dead when I wear yellow.

Unfortunately, I’m also kind of cynical. (The Syd voice in my head is asking, “Kind of?”) I fear that the work was wasted.

For one thing, it’s just one day. Habits grow over time. Segregating this (new) habit of respect into its own day hampers its ability to root into the soil of souls.

The curriculum is about as well-conceived and well-designed as possible. The movement of the day takes the kids from larger, more anonymous groups down to smaller groups. Materials are presented in different ways: through theater, video, art, discussion, games. The presenting teams are made up of a parent, a high school student, an eighth grader, a teacher, and a community member with relevant background (most of them were counselors or therapists, with a smattering of trainers. I was there because of my previous work as a coordinator of a service learning community where I spent lots of Tuesday nights facilitating reflection meetings.). There are younger people to make it accessible and desirable and older people because we have to do something after we turn 18, dammit! And the structure of the groups is modeled on circle techniques.

That last part is one of the difficulties. The circle is an extremely powerful tool because it decentralizes leadership and shifts from a hierarchy in which students are at the bottom to a group where everyone has a key place and can and should learn from every other member of the group. Needless to say, it’s a little counterintuitive in a school setting. Both the students and the facilitator teams seemed to struggle with it. Students played to the “authority” and those “authorities” tended to hold themselves back and out of the circle of chairs, tended to stand when they could sit, bunched together when they could have sat with the students.

In one exercise, everyone sits in a circle and a series of statements are read. If a person feels the statement applies to his or her experience, he or she is encouraged to stand up. We took a moment to notice who stood up, how we felt, and what that means to us. I particularly like the exercise because it points out how all of us have suffered from disrespect and also convicts us of passing along that disrespect to other people, so I volunteered to lead the exercise with our team’s eighth grader. During our team’s training, I practiced on the group of trainers because I had done it before and because some of them seemed confused by how it worked and it was easier to demonstrate than to explain further. I read the first couple statements standing in the mush pot in the middle of the circle. I realized I felt really uncomfortable and decided to take a seat and participate along with the group. Other trainers couldn’t understand why I would do that. They don’t understand why I would want to dismantle, even in a small way, the structure of authority, the illusion that I was outside of this process.

During lunch, two girls who were not in my group felt they needed to hide out in our classroom because other people were chasing them. Talk about things that are the antithesis of respect! (No, they were not innocent victims. I didn’t worry too much about them because clearly they ended up enjoying the attention of the situation, but still: someone wasn’t getting the morning’s message. Sigh.)

However, because of my hippie ways, I managed to have a great conversation with one of the students about football, which has been banned from some of the schools at recess because it is “too dangerous.” The boy pointed out that without football, the students just fight. I talked about shoes with a girl wearing very cool yellow ballet flats. I learned about the teacher’s work as a personal trainer. I listened in on a discussion about service learning programs that some other adults were involved in. I wasn’t stuck in my narrowly-defined peer group and by the end of the day, shy kids were smiling back at me when I smiled at them.

I guess that’s enough. I wish it were more.