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Designing an in-school conference that "clicks"

Looking for a way to approach bullying, both to be proactive in addressing a new state law and "because it's our passion," the Woodstock (Vt.) Middle School decided to create a half-day, in-school conference that would cap an all-school read-aloud of The Revealers, said student-assistance counselor Vali Stuntz.

"That whole day came out of this book," Stuntz said. "I read it and I said, 'How can we get everybody to read this, and really use it as a springboard for a schoolwide discussion?'"

A school committee dedicated to addressing this issue decided to engage every teacher in reading the book to their class during the same 20 minutes, every day for six weeks.

"A lot of kids said, 'This is not an issue in our school,' Stuntz said. "Schools can believe that, too. But this age group has this issue—it's part of growing up. In my work, I was seeing bullying all the time—especially the more subtle forms, like teasing and excluding others from a group. This was an opportunity to educate them that those behaviors are just as damaging."

As the read-aloud got rolling, said Stuntz, "Teachers started to say, 'The kids are on the edge of their seats. They don't want me to stop!'"

The project committee included Principal Dana Peterson, Stuntz, the school nurse, the school counselor, and a life-skills teacher. They followed up the read-aloud with a half-day program that kicked off with a visit from Doug Wilhelm to an all-school assembly. Next came a selection of hourlong workshops, led by community service providers and visiting experts.

To start the assembly, a language-arts class did a dramatic reading of several anecdotes from The Revealers. Each brief tale was read by a student who stood backlit behind a white fabric screen, so that the audience saw, and heard from, only dark silhouettes. That dramatic start set the tone for the author, who spoke to the students and then answered questions.

Each student had earlier signed up for two of the follow-up workshops. Topics included cliques, leadership, stereotypes, nonviolent communication, stress management, relationships, Native American talking circles, and writing about difficult experiences. Leaders came, among others, from the Green Mountain Prevention Project, the Vermont Peace Academy, and a local crisis center. They also included a local therapist, a community member with a degree in public health, and the former director of a local middle-school mentoring program.

"We tapped into our community resources, in every way we could," Stuntz said.

The day sparked much engagement and follow-up talk among students. Key to its success was that the committee engaged a student prevention coalition to promote the day.

"They got on the intercom and talked about it for weeks," Stuntz said. "The kids came up with the name: REACH UP Day, for 'Respect Each Others' Actions and Choices to Helpfully Understand Peers.' I thought that was great! The kids said, 'Anti-Bullying Day—that sounds really stupid.'" Students also helped prepare, distribute, and tally a schoolwide survey on bullying at WMS.

The day itself was "modeled after a regular adult conference, with a keynote speaker and follow-up workshops," Stuntz said. "And even though the majority of the work was done by adults, the perception among the students was that the kids did it. They said, 'We're sponsoring this event.' They were my front line."

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