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Grace School eighth graders pledge to respect differences and stand up for one another

“What kind of school do you want Grace to be?”

This is the question Grace School teacher Lisa Wolfanger asked her eighth graders to consider at the beginning of the school year as she split them into small groups to brainstorm.

It was an exercise designed to develop leadership skills, a step towards helping them to understand their role in creating a positive school culture. What did they value? What values did they want to encourage in others?

“They don’t like to brainstorm,” said Lisa. “There are no right answers in brainstorming, and that’s hard.” They agreed on basic principles, worked on language, and as a group wrote the Grace Lutheran School Student Pledge. It begins “We believe that Grace Lutheran School should should be a place where all students feel welcomed and respected.”

Many schools have an anti-bullying pledge. Lisa asked her students to write a pledge that addressed the school’s Christian culture, not just bullying. The eighth graders embraced the idea. Several of them had attended a leadership workshop at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie last spring, led by former college athlete Hudson Taylor, where they had learned to recognize how demeaning and negative words hurt everyone, including the people who use them. Taylor’s organization, Athlete Ally, encourages athletes to sign a pledge “to lead my athletic community to respect and welcome all persons.”

As they talked about what should be in their Grace School Student Pledge, they brought the school year theme into the discussion. That theme, “United in Christ: One body, one mission,” reminds students to be inclusive, to respect and honor one another’s differences.

Students’ own life experience also influenced the development of the student pledge. Dan Johnson, who came to Grace School, as a fifth grader said he had been bullied at a previous school but found the atmosphere at Grace was different. “I was overwhelmed with how people were accepting. I could be a little crazier because people accepted me. Grace Lutheran School is one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Sophie Kerr brought ideas from her summer camp experience, where the camp theme had been “You are more”—more than other people’s ideas of who you should be.

“I didn’t anticipate it would turn into such a big thing,” says Lisa. “But they’re a very thoughtful group. It’s become a big deal because they did such a good job.”

Teams of eighth graders have visited the other school classrooms, asking other Grace School students to sign the pledge. Students who agree to abide by the pledge get a paper cutout to post on the bulletin board in the atrium, around a copy of the Grace Lutheran School Student Pledge.

Explaining the pledge to younger children has been both exciting and challenging. In lower grade classrooms they had to explain some of the big words, such as “individual.” Katarina Robinson’s group visited first grade, where they asked students to put their heads down on their desks and close their eyes while they asked them to raise their hand if they ever felt picked on. Every student’s hand went up. But when they asked if anyone had ever picked on a fellow student, there were no hands in the air—until they modified the question to include sisters and brothers.

One of the most difficult jobs was explaining the pledge to seventh graders. “It’s hard to step up to be a leader to your friends,” said Dan Johnson.
What will happen when students break the pledge? The eighth graders recognize that it’s important to hold one another accountable. Five students are currently studying with Pastor Faulstich, training to be peer mediators or “peacemakers.” Teachers will ask these peacemakers to step in and guide younger students to solve recurring conflicts or problems.

Lisa Wolfanger has encouraged the eighth grade class to think of the pledge as part of the legacy they will leave behind when they graduate in the spring. This means being good examples throughout the year. As Kersten Brayton noted, “I have to carry out what I actually said.”