Laughter fills the halls at Maple Ridge’s Garibaldi Secondary School this Friday morning, and a quick look inside the school’s gym reveals why.
There, more than 150 students are gathered in groups of ten or so, each giggling as they try to complete a different zany task.
One group has linked arms and is trying to turn their human circle inside out. Another group is trying to turn themselves around while holding drinking straws between them with just their index fingers.
“I think it was Plato who said, I can learn more about you in half hour of play than a week of conversation,” says educator Phil Boyte, as he sits on the gym bleachers, surveying the kids.
“Schools spend so much time focussing on test scores, but what we’re dealing with is the heart here,” he says. “The campus becomes a safer, friendlier and more inclusive place, and the kids say, I belong here, I feel safe here, and I can thrive here, and then they can focus on their education.”
Based out of Northern California, Boyte is here to lead his anti-bullying program, Breaking Down the Walls.
The program is designed to improve school culture by bringing students together and allowing them to discover that they aren’t so different after all.
When kids get to know each other, and know what they are going through, they are less likely to pick on them, says Boyte. But first they need to break down the walls between them.
Play is critical to this process. The groups are made of a mix of boys and girls in Grades 9 to 12. At the start of the day, the students aren’t friends and barely know each other.
As the students go through the fun activities they’ve been assigned, they get to know each other, and begin to develop rapport.
“The idea is, how can we build trust, so they feel comfortable talking to each other?” Boyte says. “We get them talking more and more, they see they have things in common, and that’s how friendships get started. It’s just a stupid straw, that’s all it is, but it’s a bridge that brings kids together.”
Once the kids become comfortable with each other, they go deeper.
One game, Called crossing the Line, begins with Boyte asking the students questions ranging from, “Are you left-handed?”, to “Are your parents recently divorced?”
Students who answer yes step forward, only to discover they are others like them.
Convincing kids that they have something in common is the first step to building empathy, and bringing down the walls between them.
“I’ve been on farms where animals will pick on another animal that’s deformed or different,” says Boyte. “People are the same. If someone is different, everyone laughs, and no one sticks up for them.
“But we’re not all that different.”
Garibaldi principal Grant Frend says the result can be emotional.
“The kids are looking around and they realize I’m not the only one going through this,” he says.
Frend began working with Boyte more than 10 years ago, starting when Boyte helped develop a mentoring program for incoming high school students at Thomas Haney Secondary.
Breaking Down the Walls is successful, Frend says, because it allows students to get to know each other, and realize they’re not alone.
“I think they leave with an awareness that other kids are going through the same things they’re going through,” he says. “There’s more empathy. I’m hoping to see that move from the gym to hallways when we’re done.”
By reaching out to students and addressing issues like social anxiety, alienation, and bullying, Frend says the school creates a better learning atmosphere.
“The reality is if kids don’t feel safe and connected, they’re not going to learn as well,” he says. “If they’re worried about safety, if they’re worried about people picking on them, they’re not focussed on learning.”
The response from students has been overwhelmingly positive, says Frend, and the program will heading to Maple Ridge Secondary School next month.
“I’ve been getting calls from parents all week who have heard about the program from their kids, and their kids are using words like life-changing to describe it,” he says. “It’s some of the best feedback we’ve ever got for something we’ve done.”
Student leader Keanna Mason said she was shocked when one of her good friends stepped forward when the question was asked, “Do you think you will be homeless one year from now?”
“I was speechless,” says Mason. “That’s my friend, and I never ever expected that.”
Through the exercises, Mason says the students got learn about each other, and knowing that everyone is through the same things makes things a bit easier.
“One of the kids really opened up and got really emotional talking about how he had been bullied,” she says. “I had no idea he was going through that.”
Frend said he has shocked by some of the things he heard from students.
“Our school is small enough that you get to know most of the kids,” he says. “But then you go through something like this, and you realize, we don’t know them, we don’t know what they’re going through. If I was going through what some of these kids are going through, I wouldn’t leave the house, but they’re here every day giving it their best.”
Mason says she, too, has been the subject of bullying.
“I know how it feels, and it sucks,” she says. “But the important thing is to open up and tell somebody that it’s happening to you.”
She says she also realized how her words can have an unintended effect on someone.
“Bullies don’t know that they’re bullying people sometimes,” says Mason. “They’re not beating someone up, its verbal, they’re saying something, but they don’ realize how much their word might be hurting someone.”
Frend says what kids are realizing here is that they all have the same fears.
“They are all worried about what someone is going to think if they wear certain clothes, or something. But if everyone is worried about that stuff, why is anybody worried? Lets just let people be people.”