By Dr. Dorinne Dorfman, Principal /
At Champlain we listen and talk all day. The whole of teaching and learning from each other stands on the relationships we build, mainly by talking. School begins with Morning Meeting, when teachers and students greet one another, discuss day’s activities, and address matters affecting their class. Sometimes a whole grade level meets for Town Meeting to celebrate their community or learn about special topics, or the whole school meets to watch student and adult presentations. These activities from the Responsive Classroom and Positive Behavior Intervention System models teach Champlain students Common Core speaking and listening standards:
SL.1.1 Participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups. Third grade adds this component: building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
Moving conversations along to get to the heart of the matter is necessary for addressing concerns about student behavior. Children know right from wrong, though sometimes we need a few conversational rounds before recognizing their role in a conflict. When we engage in moving conversations, children often express their shock, embarrassment, and regret. If their behavior is repeated, we create plans to support better choices in the future, and involve Mr. Greg Kriger, Champlain’s school counselor. In the principal’s office, usually a parent, teacher, guardian, peer mediator, friend, or frenemy join us.
Hearing right from wrong from a parent/guardian is among the most moving conversations that happen. The deep bond between parent and child stands on a foundation of faith and trust of which every educator dreams. In our conversations, the opposite poles of “should-have vs. shouldn’t have” melt into the complexity of a school’s social-emotional environment, set against the backdrop of our society. We are not only ourselves, but products and representatives of our history. We adults remind children not to get overwhelmed, but to remember that the only actions we can control are our own. Every day in elementary school, we have the chance to make things better than before.
Starting in kindergarten, Champlain educators teach about diversity, equality, and the right for everyone to learn. Our motto, “Be Safe, Be Respectful, and Be Responsible,” allows all to thrive academically and socially. Yet we inherit inequalities that are hard to understand and block out. For example, a student had teased another for his clothing. In a moving conversation, her parent admonished, “That’s not her fault. Maybe her parents can’t afford anything else. You can’t make fun of people for things they can do nothing about.” Another time a parent questioned his child, “If you talk to teachers like this, of course they’ll be mad at you! Why would you deserve respect when you don’t show it?” At times like these, students are 100% present. Meeting with the parent and principal together was not in mind when they made less-than-best choices.
Peer mediation (PM) allows students to facilitate and support moving conversations outside of class. Those in conflict have learned to trust the process of talking, listening, and problem solving, as if walking across a bridge back to friendship. A student too embarrassed or distressed to talk with peers can be very moving. The facilitators and I describe PM, predicting a positive outcome. “If you don’t tell what happened, we can never know your point of view,” a peer might say. “We’re all being affected by this, and that’s not fair. We all want to put this behind us.”
Since April 2017, a staff-member of Spectrum Vermont has begun working with Champlain students. Yuol Herjok Yuol (BHS and Lyndon State alum) mentors a student group by meeting once a week and discussing issues that matter to them. Our school counselor Greg Kriger and many teachers host similar groups (oftentimes called Lunch Bunch) to strengthen connections and improve their experience at Champlain. One of the most challenging topics brought up is race. Our students learn about the equality of all people and the importance of cultural competency. Nevertheless the outside world of demeaning stereotypes and epithets trickle in. In our school community, students have found space to explore these issues. For example, in a fit of anger, students of any ethnic background might shout fighting words that divide people by race. They know these words, soaked in meaning and history, instantly grab all attention. Some statements are crueler than others and require different responses from the principal, based on Burlington’s Harassment, Hazing, and Bullying Prevention Policy F29. Oftentimes a moving conversation is needed instead. In every case, the student goes to the principal’s office right away. I call parents, and we all talk together. Every time, the parent’s words make a huge impact and the tears come. The student can’t explain why such terrible words came from her/his mouth, but s/he is full of regret and wants to apologize to whomever had heard.
One time a student did not accept the other’s apology. He said to his classmate, “I need to see your apology in your actions, not your words.” That gave the harmer much to think about, and we talked about kindness and respect for differences. Afterwards the harmed student and I debriefed the conversation. “Your classmate will remember your words for a lifetime. You made a huge impact, and we can expect positive changes for now on.” We had all been moved by this conversation.
This is among our toughest work as educators. This was not a theory or storybook about “stars upon thars.” This practice could only happen in an ethnically-diverse school, where educators show sensitivity and tenacity to directly face problems. This was the real life of children grappling with America’s painful legacy and practicing ways to change their world.