Linden High School students being filmed for the TV show “Classroom Close-up NJ” after their presentation of the “Pass the Message On” anti-bias program to younger students.
By Gary Miller
Sometimes the messenger is just as important as the message.
That’s part of the principle behind “Pass the Message On,” a bias- and prejudice-reduction program at Linden High School in which juniors and seniors find creative ways to teach freshman and middle-schoolers about bias and ways to stop it. The younger students take the message to heart better if it’s coming from someone closer to their own age.
“We give the message and training to the older students, they have some open and honest dialogue, and then they take it and pass the message on,” said Karen Positan, co-chairwoman of the Union County Human Relations Commission, which started the program seven years ago along with Linden Public Schools, the Linden Police Department, and sociologist and anti-bullying expert Paula Rodriguez Rust.
There is an added bonus this year. When the students presented the program to freshmen last week in the Linden High School Media Center, the TV program “Classroom Close-up NJ” was on hand to film the presentation and interview participants. The program will air in mid-March on NJTV public television. The students will make their presentation to middle-schoolers in the spring.
The older students don’t simply stand up and lecture the underclassmen about bias. They are encouraged to design creative presentations that will make their audience think about the subject and take the issue seriously.
“In terms of what they develop for the younger students, they might read their own poetry or a short story about something in their life that explains prejudice or bias and how it impacts people, or they might develop a play or a skit for the younger students,” said Rodriguez Rust. “They ask themselves, how will we take this message and communicate it to younger students in a way that will make sense to them?”
Students in the program are part of Monica Goncalves’ social studies class. She also brought in students from the LHS drama club, who are advised by Nicole Fetter.
“They’re amazing people who have brought me along this journey and I appreciate it so much,” Goncalves said.
She was there overseeing the program last week, but it was the students who were front and center.
“What impresses me the most is that this is a student-led activity,” said Superintendent Danny Robertozzi. “Mrs. Goncalves, who is an exemplary teacher, allows the students to take a leadership role and adapt the program each year so they can best pass the message on to their high school peers and middle school students.”
The students started off with an exercise in which everyone in the audience took a sheet of paper that was perfect and uncreased. They were told to crumple it into a ball, then try to straightened it out again.
The paper was meant to represent a person who was bullied or a victim of bias; once the damage is done, it cannot be undone.
Students also stood one-by-one and told how they think they are perceived and how it affects them. Another group read essays about personal experiences with bias and prejudice. No one read their own essay, and some were written by former students, so anonymity was preserved.
They also handed out cards on which they asked the audience to write something complimentary to give to someone during that day.
The drama club students put on two moving skits. The first was titled “Her” about a girl who is bullied and ridiculed, until she commits suicide. The second was called “Send,” about a student sending an inappropriate photo of his former girlfriend. The girl ends up ostracized and the others end up charged with a crime.
As “Pass the Message On” continues each year, it builds a natural momentum.
“What’s great about this class – we’re in our seventh year – so some of them were exposed to it in middle school,” Positan said. “Then they were exposed to it as freshmen.
“It’s interesting to me because you feel like you have something you want to say, but when you give it them, they say it so much better. What we envision, they take it to that next level. We’re trying to empower them and teach them, but they’re teaching us at the same time.”