Tag Archives: bullying

I Swear: Thoughts about Bullying, Lane Davis’ novel, and a New Year’s Resolution

In the past I have posted a booklist on the topic of bullying, reviewed The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso, and shared my thoughts on how books can help to open up dialogue on this sensitive topic.

This year, with No Name Calling Week coming quickly (January 21-25), I am thinking yet more deeply about why the issue of bullying is something I take so seriously as an educator, a parent, and as a human being.  Some life lessons came hard and fast over the past couple months and I think I’m still reeling.   Between the experiences I’ve had and the reading I’ve done, cyberbullying, slut shaming and the limits of free speech are all on my mind.

Particularly when verbal bullying is involved—as I have learned firsthand—too many people, including teachers, school administrators and parents, are uncomfortable with the word “bullying.”  They are reluctant to identify problematic behaviors for what they are, downplaying the victims’ feelings, giving the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the victims are crying “wolf.”  In a culture in which people are so quick to defend their right to free speech, what happens to the rights of others to be free from verbal violence?

Last fall, I read I Swear, the debut novel from writer/actor Lane Davis.  Narrated alternately by four friends, the novel explores the fallout of a bullycide tragedy:  Leslie Gatlin, after enduring years of relentless bullying and systematic humiliation, kills herself in her parents’ garage.  Jake, perhaps Leslie’s only friend, is the last person to see her alive.  Jillian, Jake’s twin sister, is best friends with Macie Merrick, the mastermind behind the schemes, pranks, and cyberbullying that targeted Leslie. Katherine and Beth, Leslie’s classmates, each played her own part as well.  With Leslie’s parents pursuing a wrongful death suit, everyone is forced to confront an uncomfortable reality:  even if the truth comes to light, will it bring justice?

While all the expected characters round out the cast—the queen bee and her sidekicks, the wannabes, the love interest, and the bystander-turned-heroine—Davis does a remarkable job developing the standard players and in the right hands this fascinating novel could become a powerful screenplay.  As the events unfold, the narrators reflect on their reasons for going along with Macie’s cruelty to Leslie—what is it about Macie that compels both girls and guys to crave her approval?  How can any teenager be expected to find his or her own voice when so many others—peers’ and adults’—are quick to speak for them?

Unfortunately, some of the Macie Merricks we knew in high school are now adults who continue their vicious, brutal behavior in the workplace or other communities, always managing to come out on top because they’ve crushed the people in their way.  Recognizing this, Davis ends the story with all the complexity and ambiguity that suicide demands—and the novel is all the more successful for it.

As a teacher and parent, I swear, I will be vigilant in raising awareness of the realities of bullying.  To this end I’ve decided to study—concurrently with my library science work—character development.  I hope to integrate my background in morality and social justice and my extensive reading of young adult literature with strategies for teaching character and values.  I am excited to see what comes of it all.  My official New Year’s resolution is inspired by One, presented here by author Kathryn Otoshi:  I am only one educator, but one student, one classroom, one school at a time, I will help build communities that foster compassion and respect.

Upcoming:  a few more recommended titles on bullying.

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Battle Bullying with Books

Starting Young

Last week, my daughter told me about a troubling recess incident at her school:  apparently, a game of “Lego City Police” devolved into the playground version of police brutality.  Teachers were alerted and intervened but not before one of my daughter’s kindergarten classmates was punched and scratched by another kid.

In her responses to my “casual” questions, my daughter revealed that the boy who was punched/scratched is not well liked among his peers.  She says the other boys don’t like him because he doesn’t brush his teeth.  The only girl police officer in the game, my daughter backed away when the punching started and didn’t know what to do.  The boy who did the punching/scratching has often been sent to the principal’s office but my daughter thinks he is silly and says funny things in class.

Wow.  All this just in time for No Name Calling Week.

Bullying Statistics

Some parents may feel it is an overreaction on my part to be concerned that the Lego City Police incident could be a precursor to bullying.  However, the statistics are alarming:  160,000 students per day skip school in fear of attack or bullying; out of 37 studied shootings, 66% of them were led by individuals who felt bullied; and 20% of high school students say they’ve considered suicide within the past twelve months, mentioning the triggers as bullying, teasing, and social rejection.  (These figures are borrowed from a library colleague; I didn’t ask for her sources).

The messages sent to my daughter and her classmates about this incident matter.  The time to address these issues is now, and the time to lay the foundation for the prevention of future bullying is now.

Don’t just read.  Discuss what you read.

My way of addressing issues typically involves books and I am familiar with the skepticism toward my approach:  can books really change the world?  Can reading really change lives?

Jenny Betz, Education Manager for GLSEN, suggested a different spin on these questions yesterday in “Battle Bullying with Books,” a webinar sponsored by Booklist.  Betz says that perhaps not the books themselves but the conversations around those books are what truly have the power to change lives.

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is listening to young people talk about issues of importance to them.  With civil discourse eroding before our eyes and disturbingly venomous speech flying around, it feels increasingly important to teach youth how to engage in respectful conversation with others.  I think using literature to open up dialogue is a great place to start.

Alone, the act of reading will not teach a child how to recognize and understand his emotions, will not create empathy.    But coupled with discussion, reading can help foster sensitivity and healthy relationships.

The thing to remember with discussion is that being “right” isn’t the point.  It’s more important to understanding what the other person is saying.  We adults are so eager to impart wisdom to young people that sometimes we talk too much.  We want young people to listen to us, but we often fail to reciprocate and truly listen to them.

All It Takes is One

In the past decade, innumerable titles have been published that deal with the subject of bullying for kids of all ages.  Last year author Mitali Perkins compiled a list of great titles for young adults (ages 12+).  For emergent readers (ages 5-8) the recent Benny and Penny in the Toy Breaker by Geoffrey Hayes is a good one and the upcoming The Three Bully Goats by Leslie Kimmelman seems promising.  James Howe, author of Bunnicula, published The Misfits in 2001  for middle grade readers.  Loosely based on his daughter’s experience at the hands of middle school bullies, The Misfits is the book that launched No Name Calling Week.

My personal favorite is One by Kathryn Otoshi, published in 2008 by KO Kids Books.   This profound picture book is accessible for very young children but has an elegant, Zen flair that makes it appealing for tweens and teens as well.  Every preschool and elementary school library needs a copy of this book, and it would make a terrific teacher gift as well.  (Coincidentally, I had given my daughter’s teacher a copy of One earlier this month.  She read it to the class this week and the kids’ response to it was very encouraging.)

Summary:   Generally, Blue feels happy and life is good.  Except when Red gets mad and takes it out on Blue.  Those are the times when Blue feels, well, blue.  And Red sometimes makes Orange, Purple, Green, and Yellow feel blue too.  Red is a bully but the other colors don’t quite know what to do about it until One comes along and teaches an important lesson—that everyone counts!

Counting by ones may seem like a slow process—one book, one teacher, one kid, one parent—but we never know which one moment can be a turning point.  I, for one, don’t want to allow a single opportunity to slip by.

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Chris Crutcher

After years of reading the works of dead people (both literally and figuratively—Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” anyone?), I finally made the incredible discovery that a living author who is accessible to readers can contribute an amazing new dimension to the dialogue about a story, offering a layered experience of reading and understanding.  When I was coordinating a research project on the works of Chris Crutcher last semester, I was thrilled to correspond with him about his work as a therapist and an author and to get his take on recent incidents of “bullycide.”

Next week—January 24-28, 2011—is No Name Calling Week and because Chris Crutcher’s books usually deal with themes of bullying and harassment, I am going to post summaries of some of his books over the next several weeks.

Some info about the author:

Crutcher has been writing for young adults for three decades and is therefore a fixture in the genre of the young adult problem novel.  His writing is witty and sarcastic and particularly appealing to the reluctant adolescent male reader.  He incorporates sports into every one of his stories, delving deeply into the mind of the athlete, and within the entire body of his work, Crutcher features every major high school sport.

Crutcher’s books are frequently challenged or banned primarily for their religious perspective, homosexual content, sexual content, offensive language, or suicide.  Crutcher calls these “human things” and he continually expresses his concern about the ways in which these human things are avoided in conversations with young people.  He writes these elements into his books for the purposes of opening up dialogue.   He believes that talking about stories, talking about a character’s issues is a great way to start conversations with young people.

This video in which Crutcher talks about censorship reveals why he is such an articulate advocate for the the freedom to read.

What is truly awesome about Crutcher is the way that he personally gets involved when his books are challenged.  He writes letters, works with teachers, and even makes personal appearances.  On his own website, Crutcher provides information about challenges to his books as well as his responses.

This article discusses the most recent challenge concerning Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  I’ll put that title up first.  In the meantime, check out this short booklist for other titles that deal with bullying.

 

 

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The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander

By Barbara Coloroso
Classification
:  Non-fiction
Genre:  Education/Parenting
Subjects:  Bullying, school violence

Summary:  Subtitled, “From Preschool to High School – How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence,” this book offers a psychological profile of the three characters in a tragedy.  Coloroso explores the emotions and rationalizations experienced by the bully, the bullied, and the bystander.  She also discusses the three main types of bullying—physical, verbal and relational—that occur “in person,” and she explains the ways in which cyberbullying is an even more invasive and poisonous form of bullying.  Throughout the book, Coloroso emphasizes the need for parents and educators to take bullying seriously, so as to change the attitude that it is “part of growing up.”  Numerous cases of school violence from around the world are cited as examples. 

Notes:  Coloroso has created an invaluable resource for individual parents/families and educators.  The emphasis on reconciliation, healing, and on-going dialogue are sound.  While her suggestions regarding reconciliatory justice are idealistic, schools are in need of strong leadership on the issue bullying and school violence.   This book offers excellent guidance for navigating treacherous waters and for keeping kids safe and thriving at school.
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Buddha Boy

By Kathe Koja
Classification:  YA Literature
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Age Level:  10+
Subjects:  high school, bullying, friendship

“’They’re called pretas,’ he said.  ‘Hungry ghosts.  Big big bodies and little tiny mouths, they eat all the time but they never get full.  Like when you have a lot of stuff, you have everything, but all you want is more.’” ~ from Buddha Boy

Summary:  Jinsen is a new kid at school, tormented for his oddities which include oversized tie-dyed tshirts with dragon motifs, his shaved head, and his serene smile.  Justin is less than thrilled to find himself paired with Jinsen for an economics project, but quickly discovers Jinsen’s remarkable artistic talent.  As Justin gets to know Jinsen and the reasons for his behaviors, Justin finds himself inspired by his new friend’s equanimity—a result of Jinsen’s understanding of Buddhist philosophy.  But when classmates go too far, both Jinsen and Justin find out how hard it is to stick by one’s convictions in the face of extreme provocation.

Notes:  A very spare amount of Buddhist philosophy is introduced in this story.  In fact, the Buddhist elements seem contrived—a reader looking to glean anything insightful in regard to the Four Nobel Truths will be disappointed.  Koja does little more than toss out these concepts in a thin attempt at character development.  On the other hand, the issue of bullying is highly relevant.  Young readers will likely relate to any number of characters as the increasingly malicious taunting plays out and adult readers can use the plot to frame dialogue with tweens and teens about the subject.
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Booklist: Bullying

I’ve been following the case of Phoebe Prince, the 15 year-old Irish girl who committed suicide in January of this year after enduring a months-long bullying campaign staged by her Massachusetts high school peers.

Certainly there are numerous articles containing “tips” on how to identify, cope with and prevent bullying.  This booklist is intended to open up dialogue at various age levels on the subject.

For 4-8 year olds:

Hugo and the Bully Frogs
Written by Francesca Simon
Illustrated by Caroline Jean Church

Hugo is a little frog with a little croak.  He lives in a deep, muddy pond.  And he’s constantly tormented by Pop-Eyes, the biggest, meanest frog Hugo has ever met.  Pop-Eyes snatches Hugo’s toys, calls him names, and drops him head-first into the pond.  How will Hugo ever stand up to such a bully?
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The Recess Queen
Written by Alexis O’Neill
Illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

Mean Jean dominates the playground.  She goes first at swinging, bouncing and kicking, and no one risks challenging her.  Then a new kid arrives at school.  Katie Sue doesn’t know that Jean is the reigning recess queen.  So what will happen when Katie Sue decides to swing, bounce and kick first?
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For Ages 9+

Buddha Boy
by Kathe Koja

Jinsen, known around school as “Buddha Boy,” is increasingly targeted in mean-spirited, violent bullying by the popular crowd.  Read the full review here.
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For Ages 15+

Twisted
by Laurie Halse Anderson

After years of being bullied, Tyler considers using violence to make himself heard.
Read the full review here.
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For Parents and Educators

The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander
by Barbara Coloroso

Coloroso discusses in depth the parts enacted in each incident of bullying (including cyberbullying):  the perpetrator, the victim, the bystander, the adults, and the community context.  This book emphasizes ways in which the cycle of bullying can be broken.  Read the full review here.
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For Deeper Reflection

Tikkun Passover Supplement 2010 (Click to link to the full text.)

“As we sit at the Seder table we need to discuss how ancient liberation for the Jews can inspire liberation today for all people.”  So begins the Passover supplement.

How are the Seder and Jewish liberation relevant for non-Jews?  Why is this Passover supplement included on a reading list about bullying?

This piece of reflection from Rabbi Michael Lerner calls the Jewish people—indeed, all people– to open “their eyes to the suffering of our brothers and sisters, the Palestinians,”  to “the ways in which we…have been acting as Pharoah to another people.”  Clearly, bullying is not a problem contained on school grounds.

In fact, bullying occurs on school grounds precisely because it happens on a larger scale in our communities.  Prosperous nations bully developing nations, and powerful companies bully smaller businesses.  Certain adults bully those weaker than themselves.

In all its manifestations, bullying is nothing less than a serious form of oppression.  And so discussion of liberation can move us forward, closer to “communal vision of what messianic redemption would look like,” no matter what our particular faith tradition might be.

As Rabbi Lerner writes, “Instead of relying on domination, we know both from our holy texts and from our real-world experience that it is generosity, kindness, compassion, and caring for others that will be the key to our success and survival.”

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