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Student teacher tackles classroom bullying

student poster
2/24/2012 —

As a student teacher finishing up her final year at Penn State Brandywine, Elizabeth Panos is combining her acting experience and teaching skills to show her first graders at Upper Merion Bridgeport Elementary School that bullying is never the answer.

Panos found her love of theater (she left college briefly to study acting in New York City) is a valuable teaching tool. She’s using role-play to challenge her six- and seven-year-olds to find better ways to handle peer conflict.

“I don’t use the word ‘bullying,’” she said. “They think everything is bullying, even accidents. I just talk about treating each other with kindness. I know it’s an anti-bullying lesson but they don’t know that.”

Her method is simple.

She began by using peer mediation while student teaching at Aronimink Elementary and in the William Penn School District over the last few years. “I had students talk out their problems, apologize, explain what they would do differently next time and then shake hands or hug. Furthermore, I had them role-play simple and complex situations in the classroom. Simple means someone stole my pencil or called me a name. Complex means hitting,” she explained.

Elizabeth Panos holding a poster
Elizabeth Panos

After going through this same exercise with her students at Upper Merion, where she’s been teaching since the fall, Panos began asking them, “Is that a simple problem or a complex one?” every time they tattled on each other. She then had them work in groups to discover and role-play solutions for each.

Her method is working.

She recalled a few times when a student ran up to her and said, “Miss Panos, Miss Panos! … Wait, it’s ‘simple,’ I’ll do it!” They then go back and say to the person who was mean to them, “‘That’s not nice, don’t call me that.’ Then the other student apologizes and they go back to what they were doing,” she said. “Tattling still exists, but they’re becoming aware of it and sometimes solving the problems on their own, which is where I think it all begins.”

To tackle the issue of peer pressure, Panos came up with a role-playing scenario where a student is pressured by a peer to steal a pencil from another student’s desk. “Three volunteers demonstrated the bullying scenario and then the students broke into groups to brainstorm and practice better ways to handle the situation. Two groups then acted out the right thing,” which was asking to borrow the pencil instead of stealing it. “Another girl just ignored the peer pressure. I prompted one of the students in the role-play to goad her to steal the pencil and she said ‘NO, it’s not nice!’”

As a reward for solving their problems respectfully and on their own, Panos awards stickers. “Ten stickers earns them a V.I.P lunch with me. I bring in a table cloth, some music, a palm tree center piece,” she said. For 20 stickers the student becomes a special helper for the day and so on. Turns out, they love one-on-one teacher time.

“It’s been working so far!” she said excitedly. The other day “was the first day I gave everyone except two kids a sticker.” That’s 21 stickers compared to the more typical three per day.

She said the full-time teacher in her classroom is embracing her lessons and use of arts and theater, but at first she was “a little iffy due to the scripted nature of the curriculum, but she’s on board because she also feels it’s something important they need to learn. We work out ways to fit it in without interrupting mandatory content areas. We co-teach. We really work together and help the kids.”

Panos is hoping to reach teachers and administrators beyond her classroom.

“I want to spread this around. I want to meet with the principals and explain what I’m doing because then they can incorporate this into their schools.”

After coming up with much of the anti-bullying curriculum and role-playing on her own, Panos connected with an organization called Stand Together, a global community against bullying.

“I was noticing that my ideas were working, but these are proven to be successful,” she said of the Stand Together’s anti-bullying curriculum for K-12.

At the end of January she embraced “No Name-Calling Week,” created by Stand Together with the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). Her students brainstormed messages to give to other students to stop name-calling. Then they created posters with nice words to replace bad names, and Panos displayed the posters on the bulletin boards outside the classroom.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for a really long time,” she said. After graduating in May, Panos hopes to “work somewhere where I can be creative and use my skills. I can do it in my classroom but it’s nice to get to do it for other kids after school, too. I really want a place with after-school programs.” Then later down the road, perhaps a principalship. “Then I’ll have the authority to incorporate these programs. But you know, baby steps. I need a teaching job first.”

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