It’s Project Hero to the Rescue

Anti-bullying program for middle schoolers fosters self-awareness, empathy
Joanna Howard, seated at right, a teaching artist with Project Hero, oversaw a group session with East Hampton Middle School students on Friday. Barbara Jo Howard

“I believe that theater can save the world,” Kate Mueth said at Guild Hall on Friday after wrapping up a three-day anti-bullying program with fifth and sixth graders at the East Hampton Middle School. “That may sound a little Pollyanna, and I’m okay with that. If you don’t have an element of hope, you don’t have that element of caring to make a difference.”

Ms. Mueth, an actor, director, and choreographer, develops the curriculum and directs the teaching artists for Project Hero, a collaboration between Guild Hall and the Hamptons International Film Festival. The program uses film, theater exercises, vocal and physical warm-ups, and improvisation to get students thinking about their fears, their insecurities, and how both relate to the issue of bullying.

They start on day one by watching and then talking and writing about a movie with bullying as its theme. For the session at the middle school last week, David Nugent, the festival’s artistic director, chose the 1980 film “My Bodyguard.”

Over the next two days, participants break into smaller groups led by teaching artists to do improvisational exercises, play theater games, and do writing and movement exercises that build on the foundation they established that first day. At the middle school last week there were seven teaching artists. The goal is to foster empathy for fellow students, and theater is a perfect medium for such a message, Ms. Mueth said. When you work in the theater, she said, you work with all sorts of people from all different backgrounds with all kinds of stories. Some are confident. Some are shy. Some have been through war or abuse. You realize, she said, “that everybody has a story to tell and it’s all valid.”

That’s an important life lesson, too, and one that comes across in subtle ways over the three days of Project Hero.

In one exercise, students stand along a line of gaffer’s tape on the floor. One end represents “strongly agree” and the other “strongly disagree.” Students are given a series of statements and questions and asked to position themselves along the line according to their responses. It starts out easy — a statement like “I like pizza” — and then gets more challenging — “I am usually nice” or “I am sometimes a bully.”

“We tell them, ‘Notice each other, don’t judge,’ ” Ms. Mueth said.

The curriculum doesn’t only addressthe easily identifiable bullies, the ones who shove kids in lockers and make fun of them when they walk down the hall. “That’s the extreme, but how do we get to that point?” Ms. Mueth asked, and then, “How do we prevent that from ever happening?”

Bullying, she believes, grows from a “lack of empathy, a lack of identification, a dislike of ourselves.”

“Project Hero is about strengthening our self-awareness and our self-knowledge,” she said. The theory is that the better students can understand themselves and their feelings, the better they will understand others.

During the program with middle schoolers, “we talk about ‘red flag words,’ ” words that hurt you or make you angry.

“Sometimes with kids, this is happening in their house,” Ms. Mueth said.

Students explore how their bodies react initially to those words and the emotions they evoke, and then the teaching artists talk with them about choosing their words and actions when “the brain kicks in,” so they “don’t feel hopeless, they don’t feel powerless,” Ms. Mueth said. “We tell them, ‘You have the power to diffuse the situation.’ . . . We’re getting them to be aware. It’s freeing.”

They talk also about the power of positive behavior and how important it can be to say even one nice thing to someone else, even if it’s as simple as “That’s a beautiful dress.”

Project Hero, which is funded through grants and earmarked donations to Guild Hall and the film festival, began four years ago and has been offered at the Montauk School and the Springs School. This was the first time its teaching artists have visited the middle school, but the organizers hope it can be an annual offering at all the local middle schools, ideally in the fall so that the skills they develop can be carried on throughout the school year.