ALAMEDA -- Everyone has a story.
It's a simple truth, but in teaching tolerance at Lincoln Middle School, Chris Hansen has found giving students the space and time to tell and hear personal stories evaporates bullying and discrimination.
On Oct. 4, the Alameda County Office of Education honored Hansen as the county's "Teacher of the Year" for his groundbreaking work, placing him in line for consideration as California Teacher of the Year. In addition to teaching English and history, he guides eighth-grade students through a trajectory in his tolerance class that begins with trust building, forges empathetic bonds, and ends with a unified creative effort he calls the Wall Breakers Project.
"I started out to teach students about historical injustice," Hansen said. "I started thinking we needed more social action. I had each student talk about their experience, knowing other students could learn from them. From there, we decided to build a website with student podcasts."
Some students revealed experiences of being victimized, or of victimizing others. Many talked about being a bystander while someone else was harassed or bullied.
"When students enter the class their guards and filters are strong," he said. "They fear the potential consequences of opening up. It needs to be sequenced in such a way that you don't have them delve too deeply too quickly."
Hansen asks them to complete sentences that begin, "If you really knew me, would know ... " and "One thing I don't share with other people is ..."
He brings in materials -- some from the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Teaching Tolerance" curriculum. He plans an upcoming lesson on the film "Mis Representation," and students will discuss how media helps shape stereotypes.
In the second half of the class, the students engage in the Wall Breakers Project. Some create videos to post on YouTube, some produce newsletters, some craft artwork.
The YouTube video, "Wall Breakers: Bystanders Stand Up," posted in February 2012, includes the following descriptor: "We are the Wall Breakers, and we strive to end bullying and discrimination among the youth. Our first video project was centered on victims, but our main goal for this video was bystanders. Bystanders are crucial in the process of minimizing bullying, and everyone is a bystander at some point in their life. This is why it is so important for you to stand up, speak out, and be an ally to those in need. "
The first video begins with students telling why they think others single them out for harassment:
"They make fun of my English accent" ... "They harassed me every day because of every aspect of who I am. And because I was different" ... "I am Hispanic" ... "I am Muslim" ... "I am from the West Side" ... "They called me names like 'gay' and 'loser.'"
Then they reveal why they didn't act to protect a student who was being bullied. Others assumed they lacked the power to stop bullying, or feared reprisals. In the third segment, they describe taking action -- mediating, speaking out, teaming up with other students to condemn bullying.
A colorful poster closes out the video: "Every day, 160,000 kids are bullied. You can be their voice. Stand up. Speak out. Be an ally."
The new Wall Breakers website will launch later this month, Hansen said. "I've had a lot of support from my colleagues -- the assistant superintendent, other teachers. And I would like to begin to involve other schools," Hansen said.
The Alameda County Office of Education released a statement praising Hansen for fostering a school environment in which students feel safe, accepted and supported.
"Chris Hansen is an outstanding teacher who helps his students and our entire community through his excellent work," said Alameda Unified Superintendent Kirsten Vital after the award ceremony. "He is a great representative of all the caring, dedicated teachers we are fortunate to have serving our students every day in the district."
Hansen said he hopes to "open windows" into the tolerance classroom and " build the infrastructure to help us learn from one another."