Miller Elementary School builds a ‘Fence of Friends’

Teacher Krista Jewett and Principal Aimee Bell at Miller school lead an anti-bullying assembly

USING VISUAL AIDS TO PREVENT BULLYING: At a Miller Elementary School assembly, teacher Krista Jewett (left in gray sweater) and principal Aimee Bell (at right) work with groups of children to discuss the best responses when bullying arises.

Hundreds of children agree:
Bullying Is No Laughing Matter

By DAVID CRUMM, Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“I was lonely, when I first came to Miller as a teacher. I didn’t know anyone! I was new here. I didn’t have any friends,” music teacher Mary Manier told hundreds of children in two assemblies at Miller Elementary School in Canton, Michigan. Behind her was a huge screen displaying the simple outline of a picket fence. Inside that outline were sketches of smiling people holding hands.

Miller teacher Mary Manier shows how to form a Fence of Friends

‘FENCE OF FRIENDS’ BEFORE & AFTER: In this photo, Miller Elementary music teacher Mary Manier talks about arriving at the school and meeting her first new friend. In the photo below, Mary Manier’s story ends with a long ‘Fence of Friends.’ (Photographs by Becky Hile for www.ReadTheSpirit.com)

“But do you know what happened on my first day? Someone greeted me and that made me feel a lot better,” Mary Manier said, inviting that first friendly teacher to walk to the front of the assembly, stand beside her and link arms to show their friendship. Then, Manier recalled a series of simple, kind actions by other teachers—and invited them to stand side by side. Soon, teachers had formed a long “Fence of Friends.”

Then, Manier turned to the hundreds of children sitting in rows on the gymnasium floor. “You all have people who care about you, too. You all have friends. Who is in your Fence of Friends?”

The school is racially, ethnically and religiously diverse, posing an ongoing cross-cultural challenge to the school staff. This year, the entire school—children, teachers, office staff and even janitors—are helping the children to understand how to build safe relationships at Miller. A school-wide survey of students alerted the staff that some children were anxious about the possibility of bullying. No major incidents have surfaced, but Principal Aimee Bell and her colleagues want to be proactive.

In early October, Bell, Manier and 4th grade teacher Krista Jewett invited me, as the head of ReadTheSpirit Books, to brainstorm ideas for engaging children in the effort. ReadTheSpirit publishes two helpful books: Michigan State University’s The New Bullying (for parents and teachers) and also Bullying Is No Laughing Matter (for adults to use with kids).

Miller teacher Mary Manier completes her Fence of FriendsThe Miller team especially liked the “Fence of Friends” activity, based on the Dennis the Menace comic strip. That activity guide is one of many that we provide in the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter website.

Last week, Miller held two assemblies, separating the students by age. The assembly for older students was longer and involved more talks by teachers, student skits produced by Krista Jewett’s students and brief videos on the big screen. The assembly for younger kids was geared for a shorter attention span. The high point for both groups was Mary Manier—with help from the school’s faculty—demonstrating the Fence of Friends.

“In the next week or so, you’re all going to get a chance to draw your own Fence of Friends,” Aimee Bell told the students.

The staff has duplicated hundreds of fence outlines on 8-by-11 paper, awaiting these student drawings. Teachers know that some students immediately will fill their fences with sketches of friends. Other children will sit quietly with a nearly empty fence. That’s when teachers will encourage students to look at the drawings that are emerging around the classroom—and students will be invited to “draw themselves in” to those fences that are still quite empty. In doing so, children commit themselves to being good friends for others throughout the school year.

During the assembly, Aimee Bell and Krista Jewett often turned the microphone to the children to get their responses. They asked: “Why is this so important?”

A boy named James said, “If somebody wants to bully you—you have someone to guard you.”

A girl named Julia said, “You know someone will stand by your side—they’re part of your fence.”

Through their short talks, student skits and short videos, the Miller staff stressed the nationally accepted definition of bullying (that definition is included in the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter book), then they demonstrated several strategies kids can use for quickly responding, and also they emphasized the need to alert adults if bullying persists.

Aimee Bell closed the assemblies by encouraging the students: “We’re going to talk a lot about how to respond to bullying this year. Now, we all know what bullying is—and we all know what to do when we see it.”

As children make their own Fence of Friends drawings in coming weeks, Miller teachers plan to post those drawings side-by-side to form a very long Fence of Friends around the walls of the school.

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