Shawnee Mission, KS

Middle Schoolers Stand Up to Bullying Through Theater

Shawnee Mission School District has brought together drama, social–emotional learning, and middle schoolers to create a perfect recipe for preventing bullying in their elementary schools.

The Kansas school district uses the Second Step program districtwide, and the district leadership wanted “an intentional opportunity for middle school students to educate our elementary students in bullying prevention,” Jamie Wolfe, Shawnee Mission’s PBIS facilitator, says. To that end, and with sponsorship from the Shawnee Mission Education Foundation and the Target Corporation, they commissioned a play from local playwright Stephanie DeMaree, with the directive to “embed the concepts and vocabulary taught through Second Step within the script.”

Great Advice from Gran

The resulting play is called Gran’s Guide to Taking Down an Ogre, and depicts bullying and bystanders, respect, empathy, and assertiveness skills. The cast, which is made up entirely of middle school students, has performed the play for over 3,200 K–6 students. They have also conducted 30-minute follow-up workshops with over 1,500 first- through third-graders to further explore the concepts brought up in the play. The workshop was also a collaborative effort developed by Wolfe, the play’s director, and Shawnee Mission teacher Jason Coats, and SuEllen Fried of BullySafe, USA. Wolfe says, “Using middle school students to lead the production and mentor elementary students had the potential to positively impact the culture in our elementary buildings. The production fostered a cultural norm as modeled by respected older students that does not tolerate bullying.”

“Stand Up and Make a Difference”

The beauty is that the production has a positive impact on everyone it involve—performers, audiences, and educators alike. One actor, for example, observed, “I thought it would take a group of people to really make a difference, but it really only takes a belief in yourself and one person to stand up and make a difference. I saw that in both the little kids and me. They can do a lot more than they think they can. I also found out how much change I can cause to make the world a better place.”

Role Models in Roles Onstage

A fourth-grader who saw the play noted that now he had a plan ready for next recess to rally his friends to join him in being assertive with a student bullying him. And one whole class asked their teacher to write the characters’ assertive statements on the board so they could remember them for recess. Coats explains: “For the elementary students, the message carries more personal and emotional weight. They see the middle school students as role models, and have a more intrinsic desire to emulate the skills and behaviors modeled for them in the play and the workshop.”

But the positive effects don’t stop with the kids. Wolfe says, “We are still getting emails from teachers and principals about how professional the quality of the performance was, and how the kids are still talking about the experience—days and weeks after we’ve left. They really listen when the message comes from older students.”

The Most Rewarding Part

Coats isn’t remotely surprised at the big difference his middle school cast has made with this play: “So many people shortchange middle school students, assuming they aren’t yet old enough to act as young leaders or discover their full potential. Nothing could be further from the truth. For me, seeing these young people discover their inner leaders and begin thinking about their own future stories has been one of the most rewarding parts.”

If you’d like to produce Gran’s Guide to Taking Down an Ogre at your school, please contact the playwright, Stephanie DeMaree.