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School Safety and Climate: Mirrors, Tubas, and Notebook Paper

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By Dru Tomlin, director of middle level services for the Association for Middle Level Education

 As I read M. Kristiina Montero's article "Literary Artistic Spaces Engage Middle Grades Teachers and Students in Critical-Multicultural Dialogue" (Middle School Journal, November 2012, pp. 30-38), I thought about student voices and how critical they are to school safety and climate. Our journey to better school safety involves tentative steps and uncertain landscapes. We have safety plans, crisis teams, and protocol notebooks--and thank goodness we do.  Maybe our next steps to improve school safety and climate should include other items on this new path; items that connect to the middle grades student.

 Step 1: Mirrors can help us create safe schools. Before buying convex mirrors for our hallways, we need the mirrors we always carry: the reflective mirrors of remembrance. Unfortunately, remembrance is the forgotten "R" in school safety planning. We talk about rigor and relationships with admirable authority and adult sensibility. That dialogue is vital. However, remembrance is missing. We should find that reflective mirror and remember what we were like as middle schoolers. As adults, we wonder, "What were they thinking?" Students' concepts of time, humor, nutrition, organization, socialization, behavior, and safety can be puzzling. But our concepts were puzzling at that age, too.  How organized were we?  How adept were we at socializing?  How often did we make goofy, or even risky, decisions?  How did we feel about safety in school?  That kind of self-reflection is not just a therapeutic act; it is essential to school safety planning. 

 Step 2: Tubas can help us create safe schools.  Before walking briskly to our band rooms, we should think about what buoyed us in the tumultuous waters of middle school. For me, it was my tuba.  I moved a lot, always trying to fit in and find a home in school. Band became that home. Each day began with a huge brass tuba perched on my blue chair.  I blew my heart through that instrument--and made big, beautiful music. What does that have to do with school safety? Everything. As adults, we often scratch our heads when students disengage and wonder, "What's up with that kid?"  But do we know why they're disconnected?  Do we know their interests?  Do we have activities for them?  School safety planning is also about deliberately creating "homes" in our schools; homes where kids can feel connected, secure, and special. 

 Step 3: Notebook paper can help us create safe schools.  Before raiding our school's supply closets, we should think about notebook paper and how students use it. As a middle school student, I used paper to take notes, write essays and stories, and doodle. Drawing cartoons and writing silly captions in the margins of my papers gave me space to express myself. But when Mrs. Meekins, my seventh grade teacher, drew back, I realized I wasn't alone in the margins. Her cartoons and comments on my papers made me happy to be at school. She created a relationship by responding to the voice in the margins. What does that mean about school safety? We care about what students write on the lines of their papers--and we should. However, when it comes to school safety, we also need to see what's written outside the lines. When students write in the margins, or post on Facebook, tweet on Twitter, even scribble on the bathroom wall, they are trying to find a space to be heard. The drawings, poems, and thoughts that end up in the margins can help us understand our students, and create relationships that show students that we hear and care about them. Therefore, school safety planning also means listening to all of our students' voices and creating safe opportunities for them to express those voices in our middle grades schools. 

 While school safety and climate planning is much more complicated than mirrors, tubas, and notebook paper, those three student-centered steps can walk us in the right direction, especially for our middle grades students.

 More School Safety and Climate Resources:

The Effects of School-wide Positive Behavior Support on Middle School Climate and Student Outcomes


 Reduce Cyberbullying through Climate Control


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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