I could see the hurt in the students’ eyes. They were so often excluded by the gaggle of girls by the lockers, left without a seat at lunch, trying to find a game to join at recess. These events happen regularly in middle school, but this year was especially painful. After exhausting my usual methods, I decided to use writing as an attempt to rebuild our classroom community.
We were dealing with bullying and exclusion. We talked about the issues as a class, but only a few students spoke up. Most were quiet and too hurt or embarrassed to speak. I struggled to improve the situation; if I couldn’t get them to share what was really going on, how could I make things better? I decided to write the kids a letter. I wanted to convey what I was seeing in the classroom, how much pain was being inflicted, and how I remembered experiencing these same feelings in middle school. I handed the children copies of my letter and asked them to respond in writing. Here’s what I wrote:
On the first day of school, I mentioned some of the things that are most important to me as a teacher. At the top of the list was “building a strong community.” I always want this classroom to feel like a home away from home. Many friendships have been built, and we’ve had some amazing conversations as a group. Just the other day, some of you suggested that I come up with an adjective to describe each of you. It was fun (and easy) thinking of positive things to say about you. When I read the adjectives aloud, you all smiled and nodded, not just about your own, but about your classmates’. This shows me that you know each other, and that even though you may not all be close friends, you recognize the positive qualities in one another. This leads me to my first point: You don’t all need to be close friends, but you do need to be kind to one another. Recently, I don’t think that’s always been the case.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed an increase in cliques forming. As most of you know, cliques are groups that exclude other people. They are always together and will sometimes act superior to others. Sometimes this just means that they are huddled together all the time, at lockers, desks, etc. Sometimes, it goes beyond that, and leads to eye rolling or making frustrated faces when they are asked to work with different people. This may seem like no big deal, but people can be (and are being) hurt by this behavior. Mean stares and gossip can cause deep wounds and make people feel badly about themselves. This is another serious form of bullying.
Unfortunately, this is happening in our classroom and in our hallways. I cannot force you to be friends with someone, and I don’t want to make you feel as though I’m doing that. But, I would like you to see the good in everyone, even when you have little in common.
Sometimes we want to be a part of a group so badly, we start acting like someone else. We lose ourselves and end up making decisions that go against our own beliefs. This is uncomfortable. It happened to me when I was in 7th grade, and I lost some really good friends, just because I wanted to be part of a more popular group. Fortunately, when I was in high school, I stopped trying to be like others, and went back to being myself. I was lucky enough to regain the trust of my true friends.
I think this class can work together to repair our community that is struggling a bit right now. I’d like you to take a minute to write me back. Please use the attached sheet (you can get more if you need to) and share some of your observations. Here are some things I’d like you to write about. Feel free to add other thoughts, if you come up with anything.
- • Have you witnessed cliques that exclude certain kids?
- • Have you ever felt excluded this year? If so, when?
- • Have you excluded others this year? Why do you think?
Everyone, please answer this question:
- • What is one thing you could change about your behavior this year that would make our classroom a stronger community?
No one will be asked to share their letters with anyone other than me. Their purpose is to help improve our classroom community. Later, we may have a discussion about your observations, but you won’t need to share anything unless you’d like to.
Expressions of Healing
After reading my letter, the students wrote and wrote and wrote. After the better part of an hour, I collected their work. I couldn’t believe the honesty, hurt, regret, and healing that came from these letters. They opened up more than I ever anticipated. Here are some of their responses (edited minimally, for clarity):
“I have noticed the cliques, and I am sad to say that I belong to one. Every single time we exclude someone (which we do way too much), I notice that hurt expression on their face, and a part of me wants to cry.”
“A lot of people don’t like me. I feel so small around them, like they are better than me.”
“People call me dumb a lot, but I never try to give dumb answers, so it hurts when people call me that.”
It was clear that these problems were not new; the students had been dealing with them throughout elementary school.
“I have seen a lot of cliques, not just in our classroom, but in every grade and every classroom.”
“I hate acting like this, because all through elementary, I was the one the cliques excluded. I can still remember how I would cry myself to sleep some nights wondering why they didn’t like me.”
“Thank you for writing us this letter. I have been waiting for this injustice to stop since 4th grade. I have always seen cliques that exclude kids, not directly to their face, but with looks and just walking away. I think with one look at a person you can see if they are part of a clique or not.”
Some were upset that their actions might be causing others pain and were searching for ways to change.
“I absolutely do not want anyone to feel left out and I respect everyone in this class no matter who they are.”
“Sometimes people don’t realize that they are excluding other classmates, but they are. I hope I’m not one of those people. I know some people in our class are feeling left out, and I want to change that.”
“I have been trying to make the people I hang out with the opposite of a clique, but it keeps getting harder and harder.”
“Yes, I have done inappropriate things to impress others or get attention and fit in and it worked. But I didn’t like the guilty feeling I got later. It felt wrong and I hated it.”
A few students shared how desperately they longed to be part of the popular group. For example:
“I always wanted to be with the popular groups, so I started to dress differently. In my eyes, I was always a fatty, so I tried to look different. I started buying clothes at A & F or other popular clothes shops. Look where that got me: nowhere.”
And this student articulated (possibly what everyone was trying to say) in a powerful, heartfelt snapshot of middle school cliques:
“I fear that my urge to fit in will win out against my own personality. There are the girly-girls, the half-in half-out girly-girls, the ‘cool’ sporty guys, the half-in half-out sport guys, the video gamers, and many other minor cliques. Then there are the outliers. I consider myself to be an outlier. It can be a good thing, in the sense that you don’t hurt anyone, but it is also bad: You get almost no social credit at all. But for some idiotic reason, in each kid’s soul, there’s a part that burns to fit in. I hate it. I think I have not been overcome by it yet, but as you grow, this section becomes larger and larger. And before long, it becomes you. You scramble to become popular by any means necessary.”
A Change in Climate
One student broke down while writing and asked if she could just speak with me. We talked during a break later in the day, and through tears, she explained that cliques were on her mind every second of the day. She’d been excluded from lunch tables and recess groups, and generally ignored by most of her peers throughout the school year. I was angry with myself for waiting as long as I did. Even though this particular child preferred to voice her opinion rather than write, she admitted that without the letter I’d written, she wouldn’t have been comfortable opening up.
Most of the students held themselves accountable for their behavior in ways they never would have in an oral discussion. After this writing experience, there was a noticeable lifting of tension. Students vowed to make changes, and many did. Issues still surfaced—the problems did not disappear—but the climate of the classroom changed for the better. I saw more smiling, more laughing, more inclusion.
I’ve always believed that classroom meetings are crucial to maintaining a positive environment. However, I’d never considered using writing as a tool to expose bullying or relieve hidden tension. This year has taught me that I don’t always know the kids or the classroom dynamics as well as I think I do. Though some are willing to open up about concerns, many wouldn’t dream of doing so in a whole-group setting. Still, they want to express their concerns in a safe manner. Writing offers that opportunity.
I’d like to say that we all talked about the letters afterward, and that everyone understood one another’s concerns. But we didn’t talk about them at all. Through the writing process, through their honest and contrite acknowledgment of mistakes, they were all aware of what needed to change.
And really, that’s the best we can do as teachers. I believe it’s our instinct to hold students to a strict set of rules and deliver consequences when those rules are broken. But we can also help students become aware of their actions and how their behaviors affect others, guiding them toward real accountability—the kind that comes from self-examination, reflection, and an intrinsic desire to make better choices. Sometimes the impetus for such change begins quietly, on paper.