Monday, April 13, 2009

Debbie Dunn is a Conflict Resolution Specialist. What Does That Mean?

Recently, I was asked to share my experience in being a Conflict Resolution Specialist. I started my response with, "My answer is complicated rather than a simple answer. Isn’t that true of most things?

In the summer of 1998, I was hired to teach a related arts class for an East TN Middle School. The state of TN had recently mandated that participating schools teach some form of the “Peaceable Schools” program.

Creating the Peaceable School: Program Guide: A Comprehensive Program for Teaching Conflict Resolution (Paperback) by Richard J. Bodine (Author), Donna K. Crawford (Author), Fred Schrumpf (Author)

They hired me one week after the teacher training in that program took place. I bought a copy of that book for myself and spent the summer studying that book and many, many others. I also began thinking back through my life when I was in middle school. I wrote some stories about that time period. I interviewed friends and family members for conflict situations they were involved in and wrote stories and role-plays about that. I looked through story collections and folklore collections and found stories that would lend themselves to a conflict resolution story that might be relevant to middle school students. That first year was quite a year of learning.

The principal, a real man of vision, knew that one of my greatest area’s of expertise was in creating curriculum. He knew I was a professional storyteller. He knew that I had previously taught elementary school for seven years. I was certified to teach K-3 and 1-8. He asked that I come up with a class that would teach conflict resolution, peaceable schools, character education, and public speaking. We finally decided to call my class COMMUNICATION SKILLS. I taught this class through the use of role-plays, storytelling and story-reading (reader’s theater), and Bloom’s Taxonomy discussion questions (6 per story). I always did a week-long storytelling/public speaking unit as well. This class was such a joy and honor to teach.

By the way, this was his second of his only two years being our principal. Then they hired on a woman principal who was also a woman of vision. I taught this class for five very happy years until a budget-cut forced our district to cut out almost all special programs. During that five-year period, I had 150 6th, 7th, and 8th graders a day for a 9-week period. I taught about 500 kids a year these topics. Some of my students the following year were repeat students. It was truly a dream job while it lasted.

As for the Peaceable School program, it was a pretty good program if you were an elementary school kid. As for our hard-nosed middle school kids (over 50% of them lived in trailer parks), most of them being street-wise and tough, that program was far too wimpy. The kids would look at me, roll their eyes, and say, “Miss Dunnnnnnnnnnnnnn, give me a break.” In my head, I had to agree.

An example of one of the stories:

Two 12-year old fraternal twin brothers were fighting over the one orange that was in the house. One wanted to make orange muffins. One wanted to have a glass of orange juice. Half an orange was not going to be enough for either boy. The two boys argued and cried. Their mother came up with a unique solution. The brother who wanted to make orange muffins got the outer part of the orange. The brother who wanted a glass of orange juice got the inner part of the orange. Both boys were happy.

That spring, I went through a peer mediation training along with one guidance counselor and several hand-picked kids. We started a peer mediation program at our school. I did this for the rest of that year and the following year. Once they hired a second guidance counselor, I only acted as a consultant and helped with the training from that point forward.

That spring, the school shootings happened at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999. That event galvanized me. I realized that I was going to have to do much, much more if I was going to get through to these middle school kids and make a real difference in their lives. I spent those last few weeks of school interviewing about 200 kids. I used my planning periods to visit other classes. I also interviewed my own classes. I brought in a tape recorder. I promised them that as long as they didn’t tell me a story that I must report by law, everything they said would be entirely anonymous. There would be no consequences for the anecdotes they shared. In the interest of helping others and improving my class, I asked them to share with me what kind of things they had to deal with on a regular basis at school, at the community center, at home, and out in the neighborhoods. Those kids poured out their guts to me. I spent that entire summer re-vamping my whole program. Since I was no longer required to include the Peaceable Schools stories, I deleted all but the basic concepts about peer mediation and a few other topics that were still of definite value.

I wrote the most overt, in-your-face, hard-nosed stories that I could based on the true events these kids shared. The kids were my teachers. They taught me what did and did not work. I refined my program over and over again. I researched book after book, looking for the best that I could bring to this class. I also did a lot of praying before writing each story as I so longed to write it in such a way that I could positively impact the lives of these students given into my care. I realized that the story had to touch their heart. In those brief seconds between an overt action that would galvanize them to react in either a negative or positive fashion, I wanted to plant a seed and give them a set of tools that they could use to steer them toward a more positive reaction and response than a negative reaction and response. I also had to learn to release the outcome of what I taught. I realized it was going to be more the spiral effect of teaching. Even if the kids didn’t allow themselves to step down or turn away from a fight the first time or the second time, … perhaps eventually, the concepts I taught would get through to them and they would find more positive methods for dealing with themselves, their friends, acquaintances, family members, teachers, etc.

Those kids poured out their hearts to me. I gave my very best and my heart to them and that program. I eventually came up with over 3000 pages of curriculum. I had a totally unique program that I taught to each grade. A man from the Central Office came up with a grant to print my 7th-grade curriculum called “The 3 C’s: Conflict Resolution, Character Education, & Communication Skills.” It was composed of a step-by-step teacher’s manual and a student manual.

I eventually taught workshops and teacher in-services on that subject in my last year before the budget-cut took place. It was five of the happiest years of my life. It was truly heart-breaking to have to become a regular teacher after that. I stuck it out for 2 ½ years as a 7th-grade English teacher. But it was just not the same. So I turned in my letter of resignation and left the school-teaching profession. In the meantime, my curriculum gathers dust in my storage building.

The process I used was as follows:

  • I would introduce the concepts. We would discuss vocabulary and terms.
  • I would read the story that addressed that topic.
  • We would pass out the role-plays that were a reproduction of that story in reader’s theater form. We would get volunteers to play the actor roles. They would sit up front and share one microphone between them. The rest of the class took turns reading the narrator parts. They passed a microphone from desk to desk. My class was set up like a double-horseshoe to keep the microphone cord from getting tangled.
  • Afterward, I would lead the class in a discussion of the story by asking six Bloom’s Taxonomy Questions. Often, I called these questions “candy questions.” I always had runts, skittles, or some other-type candy on hand. If they shared an honest answer and tried their best, they had the option to come up and get a piece of candy as a sort of reward. I had stickers for those kids who didn’t like candy.
  • We also had a time where students could share the real problems they were facing with teachers and with other students. We would “lab” this in on-the-spot role-plays. The class and I would help brainstorm how they could deal with this in a more win-win fashion. The kids would then act out this situation, trying on various solutions like you would try on an outfit. The kids would sometimes report back on whether this new response helped.

Eventually, I hope to get portions of my curriculum published. I also hope some schools of vision will find the funding where I can once again teach that class.

In the meantime, I am writing a non-fiction book on bullying. I have finally set up an anonymous survey on one of my websites: I have a STORIES OUT OF A TRUNK program called “Be Bully Free” ready to start presenting to interested elementary schools around the USA in the fall: My passion continues to be conflict resolution. As long as the schools will pay my travel expenses and a reasonable fee, I would like to bring my “Be Bully Free” program to schools anywhere in the Continental United States.

Any suggestions or comments would be much appreciated from any of you. Do you think schools in your area would like to have that program at their schools?

As far as my survey, do you have groups of kids that could fill out that anonymous survey?

So what do the rest of you do in the way of conflict resolution? I would love to hear your story.

Best Wishes to you,

Debbie Dunn, Professional Storyteller & Conflict Resolution Specialist

Phone: 423-422-9728


Storytelling Website:

Bell Witch Book & Shows Website:

White Reindeer Book & Shows Website:

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