By Melinda Rogers
Dianne Cunningham stood in front of a room full of sixth-grade girls at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Salt Lake City, some who met the teacher’s enthusiastic start to a lesson with a bit of quiet
skepticism. That didn’t stop Cunningham from moving forward to deliver the lesson of the day: Respect.
“What is it? How do we build it?” prompted Cunningham, a lecturer from the University of Utah College of Social Work. Leery of offering much at first, Cunningham probed with questions until she’d found a way to break the ice with the students. Soon, some girls who hadn’t before interacted much were asking questions to each other, an exercise that found them changing perceptions about people in their own class.
“We’re building respect for each other by learning about each other. We’re not making assumptions. We’re not listening to gossip,” Cunningham told the students. “What you just did was ‘pair share.’ You found out something about your partner that you didn’t know before.”
For 12 years now, Cunningham and the U’s College of Social Work have been traveling to area schools to help girls find more breakthrough moments and build confidence, like the group who recently participated in Cunningham’s lesson at Our Lady of Lourdes.
Called the Dixon Girls Forums, the school-based programs help girls in grades 3-12 learn about and develop a range of leadership skills. Cunningham has brought Dixon Girls Forums to more than 30 schools across Salt Lake County with support from the College of Social Work’s Katie L. Dixon Women & Girls Leadership Endowed Fund.
“We have wonderful girls in this state. To raise them not to be bullied is an important and wonderful task,” said Cunningham. Cunningham, with the help of student volunteers, visits the classrooms for varying lengths of instruction. The program provides mentoring, skill development and encouragement for girls to self-identify as leaders throughout their lives.
The curriculum was developed based on the findings from the Leadership Skills Inventory by researchers Frances Karnes and Jane Chauvin, who classified the skills necessary for leadership development into nine categories: written communication, speech communication, character building, decision making, group dynamics, problem solving, personal and planning. The Dixon Girls Forums bring together young female leaders at a school, including those elected to student government, girls who ran for an office and were not elected, girls appointed to or elected to head social or activity clubs, captains of sports teams and more informal leaders as identified by school administration. The forums provoke ongoing discussion by the girls, heighten their awareness of what type of leaders they are, and help them identify which skills need improvement.
The forums have helped to unite the cohort of sixth-grade girls at Our Lady of Lourdes, said one student interviewed during one of Cunningham’s recent lessons.
“I think it has helped us to appreciate our differences more,” the student said. “It’s helped to get us talking.”
A consistent theme among the girls at the schools was an interest in finding ways to bring different groups of girls together to overcome “cliques” and exclusion. When multiple forums are held at a school, girls attend the initial leadership program, including interactive exercises among the girls, and then select subsequent Forum topics from a wide-range of options such as positive attitude; communication skills; how to reach out to new students; body image and self-esteem issues and other character building lessons.
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Melinda Rogers is a communications specialist at University Marketing and Communications. If you have an interesting story idea, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.