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students in gymnasium mimicking teacher who has her hands in the air
Photos by Christine Cousins
Feature

The Hero in Us All

Barbara Cogan
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How do you celebrate an inclusive, diverse, welcoming school community whose students love to perform? How do you share the message that respect and caring, helpfulness and heroes are part of our school culture? How do you recognize the growth and learning that you see in your school’s ongoing Pink School initiative? Our answer was to create “Planet Pink” – a choreographed, school-wide video – and wait for it to take off!

When the climate committee at our Peel elementary school sat down to look at the “Your Voice Counts” survey data collected over three years, we were surprised. In a school rich with extra-curricular sports, clubs and activities approximately 25 percent of students indicated they still felt they lacked a voice, they were concerned about bullying and they didn’t feel safe.

Our response was to find a way to personalize the board’s goals within our learning community. Our school has approximately 555 students, enrolled in kindergarten through Grade 5, and includes ELL, ASD and special education students. Families from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds live within the setting of a local heritage district and span a wide socio-economic range.

Over time, we worked to create a culture that was meaningful, authentic, intentional and transparent, and that preserved our strong traditions.

Building a Positive Climate in Our Schools

Initially, the climate committee started with a few simple changes. Rather than once a year, monthly Pink Days were designated for the second Wednesday of every month and a Pink Pledge was recited and posted in every classroom. The students worked with a board media expert to create a video of the pledge that was shown at assemblies.

As our work began to grow deeper, we wanted to extend the focus from bullying to inclusion and acceptance. Classes began to meet monthly with their Pink Day Buddies partner class. Different grade level classes were paired to work on activities that promote inclusion, while at the same time, building capacity for staff as teachers worked collaboratively on ideas for their shared lessons.

Hero Programs

After a year, the climate committee was ready to move to the next phase. A year-long Hero program was developed under the leadership of Vice-Principal Paul Anderson to introduce and reinforce the Peel board’s six stated attributes of character – caring, respectful, responsible, honest, cooperative and inclusive. Each character trait had an influential young person, or hero, attached to it to provide a relevant and inspiring role model, e.g., Terry Fox, Shannen Koostachin, Craig Kielburger. Students learned about each of these character traits, one at a time, through a chosen hero at each of the six student-led character attribute assemblies.

Longstanding school traditions were incorporated into the assemblies: invite parents, wear school colours and sing the school song. But there have been spontaneous innovations as well. When a video from the popular YouTube Kid President series was shown at the first assembly and he said, “Something that we should say more often – Let’s Dance,” Principal Jane Marshall was inspired to include a “dance out,” our newest tradition.

During each assembly, students highlight the featured character attribute through performances such as skits, artwork, poems, raps and songs. Students are encouraged to live up to the trait that has been presented in two ways:

  1. They can receive a Gotcha ticket when staff catch them modeling a character attribute, which enters them into a weekly lucky draw.
  2. They can be nominated for Hero Awards, which are presented to two students from each class who have been recognized for demonstrating the highlighted trait. Their parents are invited to the next assembly to see their child receive a Hero Tag necklace that identifies them as a school hero.

Our students were very fortunate when our Inclusion Hero, Jeremy Dias – the founder of Jer’s Vision: Canada’s Youth Diversity Initiative – spoke at an assembly and visited classrooms to share his story, engage students and answer their questions. Jeremy told the students that it wasn’t just about wearing a pink shirt to show that we were working together to prevent bullying, because bullies can wear pink too.

Enhancing Our Inclusive School Climate

Each school day begins with entry music that has a positive or motivational message, and our unity is affirmed with our school song and school anthem that open the morning announcements. Those announcements also feature the sung tag line, “I am safe, respectful and responsible at school,” and a weekly O Canada Idol student soloist sings the national anthem over the P.A.

We use songs from different countries and cultures in the music program to teach diversity and celebrations. Our primary grade school musical, Once Upon a Lily Pad, was specifically chosen to reflect our work on inclusion; Freddie the Frog searches the pond for a place to fit in, and in the end discovers his own unique talent. Our junior musical reinforced our everyday heroes theme The Hero in Us All featured songs and raps about community heroes, sports heroes and immigrant heroes. Our kindergarten students performed a concert on the theme of Caring.

Inviting professional performers to the school has been another significant means of reinforcing the school’s messaging. We included visits by Jack Grunsky, who performed his show Sing and Dance with Jack, and we also hosted Baba Williams’ Ubuntu Drumming, the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company’s Wise Monkey, Foolish Crocodile and The Acoustic Opera: Canada’s Most Positive Bullying Prevention Program. In addition, our junior students were bused downtown with their recorders and song sheets to participate in a Toronto Symphony Orchestra student concert.

Planet Pink Inclusion Video

In the midst of all of this ongoing work, I headed off to the Ontario Music Educators’ Association fall conference. While there, I participated in a workshop by composer choreographer John Jacobson. Totally engaged in the singing and dancing, I was especially intrigued to hear that he had been featured on Ellen with his “double dream hands” routine to Planet Rock. Ellen’s staff had all dressed to match John in his yellow polo shirt and khakis, to perform the routine for her birthday. John said that he didn’t understand, that it wasn’t about the shirt. That comment echoed the one by Jeremy Dias telling the students that preventing bullying wasn’t about the pink shirt. The wheels of inspiration began to turn. Perhaps Planet Rock could become Planet Pink.

By Monday morning, I was in the viceprincipal’s office pitching a whole-school choreographed video, and within minutes the principal had joined the meeting. As the vision grew, my teaching partner Laura Mehta and I created a plan. We brought the staff on board at a meeting where the choreography and enthusiasm for our pink project were shared.

We needed parental support for permission covering the student body in order to have the music video posted on YouTube. This was achieved through open and transparent communication and a clear legal permission form.

We nurtured student ownership by doing the groundwork together. We were able to build excitement and commitment for the project in a number of ways.

  • Each class was asked to reflect on their Pink Day work; what key words did they think needed to be in our song?
  • Students were asked to think about the message: What does someone new see and hear when they walk through our doors?
  • What could we say that could be a model for other schools?

With each class brainstorming ideas for lyrics, the students felt that their input was valued. The lyrics were arranged into Planet Pink and rehearsals during music classes began. Using the Double Dream Hands video, students learned the choreography, and using the accompaniment track that was purchased, memorized the lyrics. Teachers dropped in at recess or during lunch hour to learn the dance moves so that they could be part of the project.

Finally, we accessed board resources, including the legal and communications departments. We brainstormed with the team from the board’s media and technology support service, and they did several rounds of filming and audio recording, as well as editing the final cut.

Launch

From its inception in early November to recording and filming at the end of February, there was a Planet Pink buzz in the building.

While the editing was underway, we decided that our world premiere would be on the National Day of Pink, the second Wednesday of April. It was important to us that our event be inclusive and authentic and so parents, trustees, superintendents, coordinators and resource teachers were invited to our Pink Day event.

It began with an assembly. The gym filled with a sea of pink shirts as excited students and adults filed in. The school song was sung, welcoming remarks made and then it was time: Planet Pink! our own highly produced music video to promote inclusion and acceptance! Cheers filled the gym – and then we watched ourselves again. Students were awarded a Planet Pink silicone bracelet, and headed out to meet with their Pink Day Buddies. Parents and guests were guided through an “Open Hallways – Buddy Work and Sharing” tour to highlight the breadth and depth of the work done throughout the year.

Moving Forward

This year, we have chosen six different heroes to illustrate Peel’s character attributes and provide a wide variety of role models for the students. Our monthly Pink Days are continuing, and on Day 10 of each cycle, classes meet with their buddies to continue this important social justice and equity work.

Planet Pink (search Planet Pink, Meadowvale Village Public School on YouTube) is at nearly 8,000 views and climbing. One of the most rewarding moments occurred months after the video was released when a student who was new to the school was exhibiting inappropriate behaviour toward another child. As we tried to problem-solve the recess incident, a classmate said: “He wasn’t here when we did the Planet Pink video. I think we should show him Planet Pink so he can see what it’s like here.”

Planet Pink – Welcome to Our School!

Barbara Cogan is a member of Peel Teacher Local.

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