As school bullying continues to make the nation’s headlines, our school has looked for opportunities to open up the dialogue and take a pro-active stance on bullying. In my own 2nd grade classroom at Russell Byers Charter School our “crew” (as we call them at RBCS) had daily Morning Meetings and Closing Circles, but there were still times when a playground incident or classroom behavior issue necessitated non-planned crew meetings.

While I sometimes worried over lost minutes of instructional time, I found that these spontaneous, responsive meetings were often the most powerful tool against bullying. It was from one of these very same meetings that our crew created the Telling Box.

In the spring, I attended a Town Hall Meeting on bullying. I was shocked to hear a parent mention that her child was sometimes unwilling to tell an adult when she experienced or witnessed bullying at school. How could this be? Like the other teachers, I had spoken to my students often about how we are a school family and need to stick up for one another if we see something happen. I had told them they could trust any adult in the building with their worries or fears about someone picking on or hurting them. I knew that I dealt with many issues of classroom behavior on a daily basis. Why would there still be situations that caused my students to feel uneasy or unable to tell me about bullying?
The day after the Town Hall Meeting, I called a crew meeting. I was straightforward with my students. I asked them: Why would you be afraid to tell an adult if you were being bullied? Hands went up in a flurry: you don’t want people thinking you are a tattler, you’re afraid the person you told on might get back at you, sometimes it’s your friend who is bullying you and you don’t want to get them in trouble, the teacher is busy with something else, you don’t want the other person to know. I stopped to let this settle in. They were right. All of these things were possible. As a classroom teacher, it is impossible to see every problem, argument, or incident, but if students don’t tell you what you missed, how can you fix it? How could we solve this problem together?

I had an idea. A box where you could write down your problem without anyone seeing it besides the teacher. A hand went up: “Like a telling box?” Crewmates nodded in approval. I began to facilitate a conversation about how the Telling Box could work. What types of problems should you use the Telling Box for? What types of problems shouldn’t you use the telling box for? Who can look inside the Telling Box? When should we read what’s in the Telling Box? How are we going to fix the problems people put in the Box? As a crew, we collaboratively decided on answers to all of these questions.

The first day we used the Telling Box, I noticed things were a little quieter. Kids would walk half-way to where I was standing, and then suddenly turn toward the Box and write it down. About 15 minutes before dismissal, I opened the Box and emptied its contents. After reviewing the ground rules (no arguing, only the facts, save the excuses, stick to solutions), we started in on the cards. Leaving names out, I read each card. If the person who wrote the card wanted to address the issue, they were given the time to do so. If they wished to remain anonymous, we discussed solutions the person could use and moved on. Students were eager to help each other come up with ideas to solve the problems and in many cases, “I’m sorry” was immediately offered or apology letters were planned for the next day. After all was said and done, I asked both parties, “Are you cool?” and if they both said, “Yes”, we moved on. If not, I offered to discuss it with them privately after the meeting is through. Throughout all of this, I remained a facilitator while the crew worked out each other’s issues, but I gained a lens into some of the problems that may have otherwise gone unnoticed or unsaid.

After we had been using the Telling Box for a few weeks, a student had the idea to start including positive cards in the Box. Students began watching each other, eagerly awaiting the right moment to catch someone acting compliment-worthy. I directed them to our Design Principles to look for examples of empathy and caring, collaboration and competition, respect for nature, great ideas, responsibility for one’s learning, service to others, success and perseverance through failure, reflection and solitude, learning about oneself, and responsibility for one’s own learning. Eventually, I found myself reading more compliments than “tattles” and these compliment cards became prized possessions to take home and show the family.

The Telling Box was a tool my students had essentially created to solve their own problems, and to my surprise, it had also become a means for giving praise. I had given them a forum to take ownership over their feelings and actions. If someone treated them in a way they didn’t like, they could let the other person know without the fear of being further hurt or teased. If someone treated them in a way they did like, they could acknowledge that, too, and perhaps reap the rewards of positive reinforcement. The students had bought-into what they could do with the Box and that is what made it powerful.

Christie Kapothanasis
2nd Grade Teacher