Step 1: Getting Started
Habits of Mind and Heart
Cultivating the habits of mind and heart necessary to create and support an Allies group cannot be understated. Because the group is dedicated to supporting your most diverse students and to raising awareness and sensitivities around issues related to GSD, it is critical for teachers to dig in and personally reflect on not only why they would like to start this group but also what their biases might be around the GSD community and the purpose of doing this kind of diversity work in schools.
We will explore particular habits of mind and heart that, if cultivated, are likely to support both students and educators through the process of starting an Allies group and allowing it to flourish. Becoming an Ally with students takes consistent personal work that may even create a paradigm shift in how educators think about their role in the school and their students’ lives.
We recommend finding a faculty partner as you delve into this important work. Leaders from the five Colorado schools where Allies in Diversity was piloted said having a thought partner and co-leader for the group appeared to lend itself to enhanced lesson planning and fruitful co-facilitation.
“I was the sole sponsor of the Allies Club this year, and organizing the logistics of the club and planning instruction by myself as a first-year teacher was daunting. It was absolutely, definitely worth the work, as I do think it made a huge impact on Allies Club members and helped to raise awareness in the school at large. However, my No. 1 piece of advice to other potential sponsors of Allies clubs is to find another supportive adult — parent, administrator, counselor, teacher, super supportive friend, anyone — to do this work with you.”
–Allies group leader
Erie Middle School
Starting an Allies group is about taking responsibility for kids’ lives and caring about what they may be going through on a daily basis. Therefore, the “why” of this work is a consideration worth fleshing out ahead of time. Motivations will undoubtedly be different for everyone, but we suggest that educators take time to articulate and discuss their reasons with colleagues, administrators, a few parents, and perhaps a small core group of students.
Key questions to consider:
- Why are you personally interested in helping to start an Allies program at your school?
- What about your current school environment suggests the need for an Allies Club?
- What school and district level policies might support or hinder your efforts?
- What are the goals of an Allies program and the student Allies Club specifically?
Creating and sustaining an Allies program involves vulnerability, personal reflection, and acknowledgment of fears and needed supports surrounding such work. Many educators have not had the time or space to deeply reflect upon their feelings and thoughts about GSD communities and what it truly means to talk about safety and inclusivity in schools. Many schools offer diversity training that encourage such processes, but it may be up to the educator to seek support.
To do this reflective work, we suggest that you:
- Examine your own assumptions about all non-dominant students.
- Acknowledge your fears and the risks of doing this work.
- Examine your willingness to educate yourself — to be comfortable perhaps having knowledge gaps of your own — about diversity, including sexual and gender identity, GSD experience, disability, autism, other ethnic cultures, eating disorders, and other information that will make the work rich and meaningful to students.
At the core of this work is a shift in thinking about the role of educators and students who are Allies. Because the process must start with students and their needs, supporting an Allies program should not only have students at its center, but oftentimes allow them to be the experts on the topics that emerge. This means truly believing that students who represent various types of diversity and have diverse experiences to share should be encouraged to become strong voices among other Allies. It also means encouraging a constant process of learning from all students about what they need from their peers and teachers, and the questions they have about the work of being an Ally or, generally, LGBTQ or other issues. Effectively, this work requires educators to learn with students rather than expect to be the expert on all diversity issues.
Key questions to consider:
- How do you typically think about the role of students and teachers in terms of knowledge production (that is, who has legitimate knowledge to share)?
- Who are the students who are teased and bullied in schools? Marginalized students in school? Why are they bullied?
- What can you learn from these students?
- What can you learn about the environment and how it affects these students? In other words, what needs to be done (education) with the students who make these students feel unsafe?
Before starting an Allies group, educators need to become very clear about what they mean when they use the term “Ally” and what skills students would need to have to be effective members. Miller uses “ally” as a verb and, with students, continually returns to what it means to respect self and others, have empathetic understanding for those who are different from them, and raise awareness about critical issues affecting the lives of their peers. It is an iterative process that she and her students must revisit to determine their shared understanding of what it means to be an Ally.
Key questions to consider:
- How do you define “Ally”?
- What experiences can you share that help others come to a shared understanding of this role?
- How can you allow students to take the lead in defining this term?
- What does an Ally believe?
- What does an Ally do — for whom, how often, and where?
- What discussions and activities would you lead with students in the very beginning to get them thinking about the role of an Ally? (See sidebar.)
What Kids Say…
Why do you want to be an Ally?
“I have gotten bullied all my life, and I never ever want anyone to ever go through what I had to go through.”
“I want to be an Ally because I’ve seen bullying words like ‘retard’ being used. But I’m scared to tell people who are saying these things to stop.”
What can you contribute to the Allies in Diversity program?
“I think I would be a good Ally because I believe that everyone deserves to be themselves.”
“I’m going to try to stand up for our Manhattan community, and I won’t be a bully and will not say things like ‘That’s so gay!’”
“I can be one of the many people who encourage other people to be Allies, and they will encourage others to be Allies, and it will just keep going.”
How will Allies help you?
“Allies was, and still is, a place that made me feel more comfortable in school. It is one of the places where I can go and totally be myself.”
“My brother is having people pick on him and calling him gay, and I want to understand how I can help him look to the sun instead of the clouds.”
“All of my friends say offensive words and I want to spread awareness about these words.”
Activity: Are You Ready to Be an Ally?
DISCUSSION (15 minutes)
Ask the group:
- Who has ever seen someone being bullied?
- If you saw someone being bullied, how might you respond?
- Have you ever used the word “gay” in a derogatory manner or heard others use it in a negative way?
- Do you think this could be considered bullying?
CONTEXT SETTING (10 minutes)
Read the following to the group:
Everyone knows that we all need to do our part to put an end to bullying, but it’s not always as easy to know how and when to get involved. Here are some ideas to help guide your actions and efforts.
Keep the following three goals in mind every time you consider getting involved:
- Be sure that your intention is to always attempt to de-escalate the situation. Don’t ever try to engage in behavior that could also be considered bullying.
- Always support the target.
- Keep yourself and others safe from harm. To keep yourself safe when defending a target:
- Never put yourself in danger. If it is a case of physical bullying, get an adult.
- Make sure everyone keeps their dignity. If the bully is ridiculing the target, don’t ever agree with him or her.
- Don’t bully back. Just keep the target safe.
DOING NOTHING IS NOT AN OPTION!
Have the class brainstorm things to say in a bullying situation, such as:
- Verbal bullying (derogatory comments or verbal harassment).
- Social bullying (exclusion from friend groups or social situations).
Show the two videos titled “That’s So Gay!” (30 seconds each):
BE AN ALLY HANDOUT (10-15 minutes)
Read the header of the handout aloud. Then ask students to read aloud one of the sections and have a short conversation about what was just read. Try to leave the conversation with a sense of hope — hope for ways we at XXX Middle School can combat bullying and hatred. Together we can achieve more!
Step 2: Getting Support and Buy-In for an Allies in Diversity Program
“Find the people who you know are allies to you and then you get them involved.”
Librarian, Manhattan Middle School
Establishing and supporting an Allies group require not only dedication to creating safe and inclusive spaces for all kids, but also gaining support from fellow educators, administrators, parents, and community members. While there are people who will initially support the effort of creating an Allies group, fears about how parents or community members might react to the content of an Allies program may prevent them from lending full support until others show they are willing to take reasonable risks. Having the support of your administrator and a group of other educators is critical before presenting the idea to the entire staff.
While fears around this work in schools often stem from fears related to talking explicitly about gender and sexuality in schools (and assumptions around what this could mean), there are productive and supportive ways to address their apprehension:
- Take care not to let the GSD content hijack the entire conversation.
- Focus on building a foundational understanding with what makes up their individual identities, developing upstanding skills and character traits such as courageous decision-making, respect for all individuals, fairness, and equity.
- Explain that being an Ally involves stepping in and stepping up to defend the inherent respect all humans deserve, regardless of whether they are your friends.
- Talk about building student leadership skills and student ownership in creating a schoolwide positive climate.
While some may resist, getting broad approval and buy-in for these larger goals rather than allowing specific content pieces to dominate from the beginning will allow space for reasonable discussion of those thorny content issues. Use data that indicate clearly that students outside the gender and sexuality norms — and often perceived to be gay regardless of whether that is true — bear the disproportionate impact of mean, cruel, and bullying behavior at the hands of other students. For this reason, GSD must be addressed as part of the instructional practice of the Allies Club as well as communicating schoolwide that there is a safe and supportive space for all students.
“We focused a lot around understanding our own identities instead of judging the differences in others. Students really enjoyed learning about the seven aspects of identity (education, age, gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, religion, and ability). It was incredibly inspiring to see students struggle through understanding themselves first and foremost. We also ran a community meeting with the entire middle school where the students were able to tell their peers about what they were learning about themselves and then they led advisories for all middle school students where kids could choose which part of their identity they wanted to work on identifying. This was empowering for our students and opened the door to a lot of amazing conversations.”
–Allies group leader
- Communicate with the principal throughout the process. He or she (like you) must trust in the process and the inevitable ups and downs.
- Be transparent about the group’s purpose, activities, and direction.
- Know school and district policies about cultivating safe and inclusive environments.
- Use research to support your reasoning and decisions behind forming an Allies group.
- Make connections between the Allies’ work and the social and emotional development of students — a professional practice principals are responsible for demonstrating.
“Overall, the most striking thing that I have noticed this year is that I have never received any discipline referrals or harassment reports from students or teachers regarding discrimination for LGBTQ issues. Not one. I have received a few reports for racial issues, but very few.”
Principal, Centennial Middle School
Part of the grass-roots nature of this work is to encourage other teachers to engage in courageous conversations in schools and, ideally, to participate in helping to form and support the program. Here are some ways to encourage their participation:
- Invite them to help in determining the “lay of the land” at the school in terms of GSD as well as other challenging diversity issues at your school (such as refugee populations; Middle Eastern or Muslim students; tension between rural and urban students; poorly treated non-athletes; or band, choir, or drama students).
- Invite them to observe Allies group meetings or to share personal stories that are helpful, instructive, and inspirational.
- Listen to their fears and experiences with this sort of work.
- Provide or recommend professional learning opportunities and resources.
- Make connections between the Allies’ work and the caring, diverse, and inclusive classroom communities teachers are responsible for creating as an element of professional practice.
- Tap into the librarian for support in providing high-quality texts that encourage new understandings and ways of talking about diversity, stereotyping, gender norms, and different cultures. Get to know your district’s policies about the approval and banning of books. Then do what you can to include books about the experience of being outside cultural norms and that have lead characters who exemplify these alternatives.
- Check out CEI’s resources for educators for potential activities you could do with your colleagues.
No two Allies in Diversity programs are going to be the same. These groups will each take on their own characteristics, depending on the school need and areas of school climate that need to be addressed. Consider asking teachers to nominate older students who are recognized school leaders to help recruit younger students to be part of the group. This will provide you with an opportunity to share your plans to have an Allies in Diversity program at your school with other teachers and will involve your colleagues in the initial stages of the group.
“Ten eighth-grade students were selected for the Allies Club based on nominations from teachers. These eighth-graders were viewed as leaders in the school and were invited to a pizza lunch informational about the Allies Club, where they were given the opportunity to join. These eighth-graders went on to recruit students by setting up a table in the lunch room and handing out fliers. These fliers provided information about the Allies in Diversity Club and had instructions for applying to be in the club.”
The success of your Allies in Diversity program also relies on engaging parents. To gain their support:
- Communicate early and often.
- Provide educational resources and research for support.
- Be transparent about the goals and commitments of the Allies group, perhaps using a Back-to-School Night to explain the goals of your club.
- Involve parents and family members in activities such as movie night or Diversity Day.
- Consider having a Multicultural Night to celebrate the diversity among your families. AXL Academy’s Allies group hosted one such schoolwide event and included food, decorations, recruitment, materials, and performers. Its Allies group members led an activity about the seven aspects of identity with the 200 people who attended.
Harness your community assets by bringing in community groups and members who represent, support, research, assist, or advocate for different populations. These adult representatives facilitate great discussions with students and answer questions that students may have that you may not be able to answer. They can act as role models and provide new ways of seeing and thinking about the issues at hand. Also consider bringing in high school students to connect around various issues of diversity, or set up times for your students to go into elementary schools to facilitate discussions about diversity.
Key questions to consider:
- Where can you find/who can you talk to about school and district policies regarding safe and inclusive classrooms?
- In your school, who would you consider your allies in doing this work? How can they support you?
- What kind of research do you need to support the purposes and goals of the Allies group?
- How can you connect school-approved curriculum and standards to the group’s purposes and goals?
- How can you involve parents in the group’s processes?
- What community groups could lend their support and expertise?
“The students really seemed to enjoy inviting guest speaker Taylor from OASOS in to discuss the definition and how to be an ally to disenfranchised groups.”
Allies facilitator, Centennial Middle School
Step 3: Setting Up for Success
Recruiting Students for Your Allies in Diversity Program
Once the Allies Club was established and popular with students, Manhattan Middle School developed an application process that was made up of three questions (see below) and required one teacher recommendation. The advantage of an application is to see in the student’s own words what his or her motivation is for joining and to get upfront buy-in from the recommending teacher. All of the five pilot schools had an application process, most of which were based on the questions below.
Students may not have a great understanding of what an Ally is or what Allies do until being in the Allies Club for a while. Promoting a schoolwide effort to prevent bullying and harassment and using schoolwide messaging about being an Ally and upstander help make that language commonly understood. Consider the following questions and guiding principles to find what works best for your school.
Suggested Application Questions:
- Why do you want to be an Ally?
- What can you contribute to the Allies in Diversity program?
- How will being in the Allies Club help you?
- Let kids lead the way.
- Engage students to set ground rules for respectful and caring behavior during club time.
- Welcome all kids into the group while considering that it must remain a safe space for all. This means that there must be thought behind letting those who are considered bullies into the group. To make the group effective for the whole school, this will likely mean working with different kids in different ways.
- Ask students to show their commitment to the group. Consider an application process for students.
- Meet every week at minimum and prioritize this meeting time.
- Tell students that membership is a privilege and should not undermine academic work.
Key questions to consider:
- How will you engage students — hook them — in the first few club meetings?
- How will students be consulted about the direction and purpose of the group?
- How will students be invited to and recruited for the club?
- If there is an application process, what information do you want to know about students to gauge whether they are committed?
- What times and places are most promising for meetings?
“I asked my club how they thought the experiences of kids at Erie Middle School would compare (to other schools). The first student to answer has high social capital and said that he didn’t think any kind of bullying happened at Erie and that gay kids felt comfortable being open at school. I thanked him for starting the conversation and then asked if anyone else wanted to weigh in. Kids’ hands started creeping up, and students started sharing language they’d overheard, bullying instances they’d witnessed, and even personal experiences they’d had with homophobia and anti-gay bullying in school. In a classroom packed full of almost 50 typically rowdy eighth-graders, there was absolute silence as students told their stories, and affirmations of love and support afterwards. These students’ ability and willingness to hold the space for others just astounded me.”
Language Arts teacher, Erie Middle School
- Find a welcoming space and provide healthy food options.
- Carve out time during the school day for Allies Club meetings.
- Create Ally buttons and/or T-shirts for members to wear to school as often as possible and always on club meeting days. Engage students in designing their own logo and branding.
- Make sure you have all the supplies necessary for the activities of each club meeting. Consider assigning a rotating group of students to be the helpers and organizers of meeting supplies.
With students, establish the commitments of an Ally and of the group as a whole. Respect and safety are key components. For example, remind students that whatever happens in Allies, stays in Allies. Encourage students to come to club meetings with curiosity instead of judgment and to have an open heart and mind.
“In the beginning, anybody could be in the Manhattan Middle School Allies Club as long as we knew they weren’t a bully. Allies Club meetings were held once a week during our study hall period. In the beginning, we did not have attendance requirements because we wanted students to feel like they had a choice of staying in study hall if they needed to or attending club meetings. The implication of not having an attendance requirement was that students really had to find those first meetings very valuable and keep coming by choice. Offering Allies at the same time as study hall also comes with having to discuss with a few students that the club is about personal passion and commitment, not just getting out of study hall. There are ups and downs in the beginning and you just have to keep thinking about what makes sense.”
Librarian, Manhattan Middle School
It is essential early on to find space and time for your club to meet, preferably weekly and for more than 45 minutes in order to dive deep into curricular activities. Without adequate space and a set time, it might be difficult to get through all of the planned material.
Allies groups have met in classrooms; the school library; band rooms; and designated safe spaces during advisory periods, lunch, and even after school. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so look for what would make the most sense within the constraints of your school’s schedule. Consider scheduling auxiliary meeting times after school for students who are working on schoolwide Allies events, or creating informational materials to be shared with the rest of the student body and members of the group who want to have more in-depth conversations about topics introduced during main meeting times.
“When we began the club, our intention was to meet two to three times a month — on Thursdays during a 35-minute advisory period. I was approached by teachers requesting that we meet on a different day so that students could participate in grade checks on Thursdays. I found that using the computer lab on Wednesdays was more conducive to our technology needs.”
“We met every other week on Thursday mornings from 7:45 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. We met in a room off the library which we bought furniture for or we met in a larger teacher planning room when doing arts and crafts. We have outgrown our library room and will need a larger space for next year. We announced group meeting times and meeting places in the overhead announcements the entire week of the meeting, always inviting new students to join.”
Centennial Middle School
An important step in building community and student ownership of your Allies in Diversity group is to have students design a logo for the club, create informational posters, and design T-shirts to bring the group together and advocate its mission to the rest of the student body.
Step 4: Establishing Instructional Practices with Allies
Once the Allies group is established, the focus shifts to supporting the students to do the thinking and work they set out to do with themselves, with one another, and in their school and community. The first few meetings are critical for setting the tone of the group. Educators can gauge the group’s commitment, where students would like to grow as Allies, and what support they might need to move forward. Various instructional practices enable students to begin looking at themselves and others with curiosity, compassion, and love. Importantly, both teachers and students must go through the process together. Remember to allow sufficient time to participate in activities with purpose and depth.
- Start the meeting with a meditation or silent time to allow students and educators to settle into the space and arrive. In addition, there is ample evidence that practicing mindfulness is a powerful boost for academic performance and that learning the practice of self-calming is important to life success.
- Engage students in rich discussion about what happens in your school — who is bullied, how, where, what scares him or her. Ask students to describe the norms about how girls, boys, athletes, music students, etc., should look and act. Encourage students to share what they perceive are best and worst aspects of the school and how students who are different are treated. Always ask them about language — how language is used to label, to wound, to embarrass. Ask about rumors, gossip, and social media.
- Model vulnerability for students. Share stories and uncertainties. Take risks sharing what you are unsure about with students.
- Determine and address gaps in knowledge.
- Encourage students to do internal work intensively in the beginning before working on upstanding skills. Dive deep into what their values are and how they know. Explore their self-esteem and confidence. Ask them to write about their experiences. Let them ask questions and build character and courage.
- Be aware that some students love to talk, process, and share feelings while others can be hesitant. Engage all students with a balance of hands-on and discussion-based activities.
- Prioritize listening to one another. For example, give students “listening time” where they pair up and each person gets one minute to talk about what’s going well in his or her life and what’s not. The person on the receiving end listens until it is his or her turn.
- Build group cohesiveness, team unity, shared purpose, and trust among members.
- Always end each meeting with a purposeful closing. For example, ask all students to share one sentence about how they are feeling.
- Work with “soft” Ally skills before moving to higher-risk intervention techniques. For example, brainstorm some lower-risk, specific actions students can take, such as scanning the lunchroom and sitting with someone sitting alone, giving kindness tokens or bracelets to other students when they observe them acting with kindness, or starting a social media campaign to compliment other students.
Key questions to consider:
- How will you begin to support and enforce the commitments Allies make to themselves and others from the outset?
- Given the established main goals for the group, what do kids need to know and practice from the very beginning?
- What resources do you need?
- Who can support you in these opening exercises?