How to Erase Meanness in Your School

January 17, 2014
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Sixth-grade teacher Eric Johnson noticed something unsettling. As spring break drew near, the warm, almost family feeling his students had helped build over the previous months was slowly disintegrating. Calls for more counseling, calls from concerned parents, and an increase of hurt feelings and tears characterized what the kids called “drama.” Johnson preferred to call it “meanness.”
Johnson went into action. The kids returned from spring break to a Monday morning classroom freshened up with shampooed carpets and stocked supplies, and one more surprise: A whiteboard that Johnson was cleaning before their eyes, removing all magnets, signs, and instructions.
Tuesday morning, he wrote one word on the pristine surface: Mean.
On Wednesday, the board was covered in meanness. Words such as “put-down” and “unkind” marched along with “malicious” and “malevolence,” providing context for meanings the kids didn’t know. As Johnson said, “[T]he variety of words helped them understand that there is more than one way to describe unkindness.”
Thursday became more personal. Johnson cleared a space among the black and blue words to write, “How do you want to be remembered?” He shared personal anecdotes with his class that illustrated how pain caused by others doesn’t just go away.
On Friday, without a word, Johnson walked to his board filled with meanness. He erased one word and replaced it with Love.
“I handed my marker to one of my students and asked them to help me erase meanness and replace it with a word of kindness or a word that they wanted to be remembered by,” related Johnson. “Over the next few minutes, as the rainbow of dry erase markers were passed around, the words on the board began to represent their aspirations. I was so proud of these young people and the respect that they were giving the process. They . . . watched their classmates slowly transform the black and blue board into one of color and hope.”
While meanness still exists in real life just as it did on the board, Johnson hopes this activity will leave a lasting impression on his students in and out of the classroom.
Are you ready to take action against meanness and bullying in your school? Read more about “Erasing Meanness,” including the full word list Johnson used on his board, and get four more anti-bullying activities to put into action right away.

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