Play is training for Anoka-Hennepin teachers

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2012 - 9:29 PM

Anoka-Hennepin collaborates with theater group to tackle bullying.

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CLIMB Theatre, here featuring Pamela Brown, works with schools to combat bullying by presenting scenarios that teachers suggest and discuss.

Photo: Jennifer Simonson, Star Tribune

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On Tuesday, teachers in the Anoka-Hennepin School District will be the audience for a play they helped to write.

The play, performed by CLIMB Theatre Company, is the district's newest tool to help teachers combat bullying and harassment at school.

The north metro district has been under fire over the past year or more for how it has responded to complaints of bullying. The school board voted last week to expand its bullying and harassment policy; this will be teachers' third training on the topic this year.

The training will be given concurrently at six middle schools and five high schools on Tuesday morning. The final bill has not been tallied; funding for the program comes from federal Safe Schools dollars, along with Legacy funding to the theater company. No general funds were used.

At the first training, during prep week in August, teachers were asked to share the situations they find most challenging. That information and the results of bullying surveys given to students were compiled by members of the district's Bullying Task Force and then passed to representatives of CLIMB Theatre, an Inver Grove Heights-based company that combines data and drama to create training sessions for teachers and students.

"One of the large pieces of feedback was staff asking for scenarios," said Jinger Gustafson, the district's associate superintendent for middle schools. "We were able to work with CLIMB and basically tell them what our policies are, and here's the feedback we're getting and here's the scenarios we'd like acted out."

CLIMB executive artistic director and CEO Peg Wetli described the process.

"The task force identified those [key issues] for us and we did a really good job of listening, which is the very first thing we always do," she said. "Once we were done listening, we came to a set of educational objectives, things we wanted the teachers to leave with.

"Then we crafted scenes that were situations the staff described to us as being challenging for teachers."

A dress rehearsal Saturday revealed a series of heart-wrenching and sometimes knotty vignettes. A troupe of four actors, along with director-writers Buffy Sedlachek and Julie Janus, took on roles as victims, bullies, bystanders, teachers and administrators. The actors are among 30 who will be performing Tuesday.

What made them heart-wrenching: The face of the girl a bully is trying to pull into the action; the cracking voice of the boy who says he hasn't felt safe at school for a long time.

What made them knotty: bullies who turn their anger on the teachers; victims afraid to report abuse; angry kids who drag conflict from the football field to Facebook and to school; the colliding demands of a full classroom; students in need of discipline or support.

The narrator acknowledges the difficulty, and that teachers often feel underappreciated and overworked, and that it's unlikely that everyone will agree on each outcome.

Several scenarios were played out with breaks for discussion, and tie-ins to the district's anti-bullying practices.

There is no mention of the district's controversial Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, though there are scenarios around bullying based on sexual orientation. The district has been emphasizing that the bullying and harassment policies "trump" the so-called neutrality policy, which says teachers may not take a stand when those issues come up. Rather, the training contained several references to "creating safe and affirming schools."

In one of the last skits, student Alex thanks teacher Mrs. Richardson for her help. It's no problem, she tells him.

"It's our job to keep each other safe," she said.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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