Mike Wilper, a middle school teacher and Master Dignity Agent at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, New York, has written this guest post about his remarkable and inspiring work with his students.
Note: Soon to come will be a blog by Mike’s students describing their experience with the dignity curriculum. Following that, a parent of one of the students will also post a blog on the changes he sees in his child after learning about dignity.
“So long as students must surrender a piece of their dignity to the current system, many will continue to withhold a significant part of themselves from the process of learning.” – Robert Fuller
MIKE’S GUEST POST
It took me many years of teaching before I understood that a major obstacle to education is the fear of humiliation. Once discovered, I changed my approach to the classroom. I vowed to never have an antagonistic relationship with a student, no matter the transgression or behavior. While this approach transformed me into an enormously more effective teacher, I was only able to protect the students from one source of humiliation – myself. Their day at school was still filled with social drama, exclusion, and gentle and not-so-gentle reminders that they weren’t cool enough, smart enough, attractive enough, athletic enough, rich enough, tough enough, social enough, or whatever-else enough.
I watched students walk into the classroom every day carrying this cognitive load. It loomed in front of them every time we openly discussed a sensitive social theme like race, sexism, or classism, or simply when we breaking into groups for an activity. The fear of humiliation restricted their self-expression to a set of bland norms. It kept them from asking real questions for fear of looking stupid, or offering personal connections to a sensitive theme or concept, lest they expose any vulnerabilities. Fear of humiliation took up the lion’s share of their mental bandwidth and relegated much academic work to mere background noise.
I hate to say it, but I was still a pessimist. I knew that I could offer students a small respite through my own attempts at kindness, but I figured that adolescence was a time that evolution required us to be socially hyper-sensitive. It was inevitable. All I could do was give the students some vocabulary to understand it, and hope that they made it through these tough years with more growth than scar tissue.
Enter Dignity. Two years ago, I gave a class a list of the Essential Elements of Dignity outlined by Donna Hicks. We were in the middle of a unit on conflict resolution, and I more or less just threw it on the pile of material we were already using. The result was electric. With little prompting, the students entered into a discussion that laid bare the true dynamics of the room. Many spoke through tears. Only later did I realize that they had been given words to safely express what they were experiencing. They weren’t whining. They weren’t complaining. They were speaking the truth as they saw it. The group rallied around one another from that day forward and insisted that I assign a project that enabled them to spread the message throughout the school.
From that point forward, students burst into the room each day to start class, their writing bristled with intellectual energy, much of the previous material we had covered re-emerged with new relevance, and the regular historical and literary content of the class became vivid and immediate.
Over the summer of 2014, my co-teacher Megan Saxelby and I laid out plans to weave the thread of dignity into the culture of the classroom and through the curriculum. Dignity is now the foundation of every class and every lesson. We found that it offers a resilient conceptual framework to replace the entrenched assumptions of difference – different race, gender, age, body type, status, etc. It has ushered in a paradigm shift in the way students see conflict, interpret narratives, and the positive cultural shift has lifted substantial fear from their respective cognitive loads and unshackled an incredible volume of intellectual energy.
The space here isn’t long enough to lay out a detailed curriculum map, but I’ll offer a brief outline to highlight a few ways we introduced and processed the concept of dignity.
- The beginning of the year
- We pledged to the students that we will never knowingly humiliate them, neither to their faces nor behind their backs.
- Students reflected on their own experiences participating in cultures of humiliation and cultures of dignity. They discussed where our community stood and how we could improve.
- We gave students The Essential Elements of Dignity and asked them to reflect on and discuss which were the most relevant to our class. We did the same for The Temptations to Violate Dignity.
- We gave students a working definition of dignity as follows: The fundamental value of every human; recognizing that each individual embodies profound potential and experiences the full range of human emotions and needs. Respect is earned; dignity is innate.
- Students worked in groups designing a way to measure dignity in the world around them. Subjects included kids’ TV shows, video games, YouTube comments, and our own community.
- Throughout the year:
- Students were offered a wide set of concepts and vocabulary to analyze conflicts in literature, history, and our own lives. Terms and concepts that lead to and exacerbate conflict included charged labels, tribalism, status abuse, value conflicts, revenge, dominance, sadism, ideology, and exclusivity. Terms and concepts that lead to reconciliation and peace included empathy, moral identity (seeing yourself as a good person), reciprocity, utility, self-control, and a long list of common values, including such stalwarts as kindness, comfort, equality, freedom, and success.
- Students wrote formal essays analyzing healthy and unhealthy communities, using the vocabulary above and content from literature and history as evidence.
- Capping the year:
- Students picked a person who is making the world a better place, researched his or her career, and wrote him or her a letter asking, among other things, what the rest of us can do to help the cause.
Megan and I have learned enormously from the class this year, and we’re excited to spend another summer building and improving the curriculum. I am extraordinarily grateful to have stumbled onto a model that has had such a profound impact. I am deeply indebted to Donna’s insight that real work can rarely begin until everyone in the room feels recognized, safe, acknowledged, included, independent, understood, and accountable. Before I gave this material to students, I thought such a standard would be impossibly high, but every day the students prove that it is easily within reach. And I now see why it has been so easy to create a culture of dignity: Everyone in the room wants it.