PITTSFIELD — Keeping up with coursework, getting good grades and making and keeping friends in school is challenging enough. But when a kid is taunted, mocked or shunned because of the clothes they wear, the accent they speak in or their lack of social or athletic abilities, going to class each day can be a nightmare.
To help remind students to be respectful and teach them how to help others, not hurt them, the seventh grade English language arts honors writing teachers at Reid Middle School brought back the "Express Yourself" project which was piloted last year.
Teachers Debbie Guachione and Deb Roloson presented reading, writing and film viewing assignments to help them study and understand the theme of transformation — why individuals, real and fictional, change over time and what influences these changes.
Over the course of two weeks students watched the 2007 film "Freedom Writers," a drama about a high school teacher placed in a school struggling with integration and other social issues, like gang violence and poverty, which affect student achievement. They then created posters, journals and presentations sharing with classmates and their families, their ideas for promoting ways to positively connect with peers and create better supports for kids.
"We believe that these topics are important to the overall morale in our school building and to improving climate," said Roloson. "We are proud of the depth in which students addressed these tough topics."
Journal writings about overcoming obstacles detailed the disparities between the few dozen students who participated in the project: A few students wrote about working hard to improve their performance in their favorite sport. One girl wrote dealing with a father's alcoholism and abuse. A boy wrote about struggling with coursework and feeling like his parents and teacher hated him.
A couple of students, during last Tuesday's presentations, overcame their fear — public speaking — right in front of everyone.
Seventh-grader Calie Champoux, who completed a poster board with her assigned group of Ashlynn Healey, Kiarra Berkeley and Zach Donovan, said the project taught her that she could make friends with other people she wouldn't have necessarily picked on her own to work with. "It made me think more deeply about our school," Champoux said.
Students suggested that there be more classroom and club activities that get different students to interact with and talk with each other.
Other project groups focused on ways individuals could reach out to other individuals to make them feel more welcome at school and feel like they have friends they can trust and adults they can rely on.
During the presentation, as inspired by a scene in the movie, the Reid students offered up a personal "toast for change," making a personal commitment to change something in their own lives for the better.
One boy talked about doing more to raise awareness about people who are homeless. Another girl, Aiyanna Bellefeuille, said one thing she would not tolerate anymore is bullying; she described how both she and her brother had been victims of such harassment. "I can't tolerate those people, but I can push aside the intolerance and remember that they are just human," she wrote.
Principal Linda Whitacre lauded the students, teachers and families for supporting the projects and messages that the students, "can take out of the building and apply to their life."