My 22 year old daughter called from college to say that she was dropping a course in history. During our conversation, she revealed that, in addition to having difficulties understanding the primary sources that were required reading for the class, people snickered when she asked a question.
As a mother, hearing that my child is snickered at when she is asking questions to understand something difficult for her deeply affects me. It makes me question the values of the learning environment she is in, and makes me wonder what defenses she has or needs to deal with peers laughing at her questions.
I wonder why the behavior exists in a college classroom and what skills my daughter will need for her future. Obviously, dropping the course is one option, but it is not the preferred choice for a young adult who will soon be entering the workforce.
For the educator in me, it reinforces the need to make each classroom a safe learning environment, regardless of the grade level, and the need to teach students the skills to positively communicate and stand up for one another.
In Massachusetts, the consequences of bullying were national news when a student committed suicide as a result of bullying last year. Legislation regarding anti-bullying curriculum was passed, teachers in the middle schools where I worked were mandated to teach a scripted curriculum designed to:
- improve student awareness of bullying,
- develop students capacity to become upstanders, and
- educate students about the legal ramifications of bullying
All of this was important, admirable, and helpful… from a policy perspective. However, in the reality of my classroom, student role plays and signing anti-harassment policies, were not impacting student behavior.
In my group of students, who came to eighth grade with perceptions of one another shaped by painful elementary experiences, bullying and harassing one another were the norm. One student was a “known liar.” Another student “always stirred up trouble.” Other students were determined “not to put up with it anymore,” or “not to allow his/ her trash talking anymore.” Students had built up years of anger and resentment toward one another that they demonstrated in blatant (stealing from one another) and subtle ways (making references to song lyrics which meant nothing to me but were a clear and public insult to another student).
Despite collaborative work with the guidance counselors—we wrote positive messages on posters on one another’s backs, and practiced voicing our frustration with “I” messages— students struggled to change their behavior. So much so that one student reported, “Mrs. DiGisi, I don’t think that people can change, we may be polite in here, but we will keep hurting one another.”
Clearly a stronger intervention was needed.
And so the principal moved my classroom closer to the center of school activity so that my students’ wouldn’t be walking in isolated areas to get to my classroom. Teachers were alerted to “catch my students being good” and award them stickers on a chart for for random acts of kindness. (Yes, sticker charts still have an impact on eighth graders, and when we later went to write about our work, it provided concrete data on the results of our efforts.)
We also changed our curriculum, so that all of our literacy work focused on understanding bullying; voicing our frustration in positive ways; learning about the roles of bullies, victims, and bystanders; and learning to communicate in a positive manner.
We began by reading excerpts from two books that provide perspectives of both the bully and the bullied from the male and female perspective. The first book, NAMES WILL NEVER HURT ME by Jaime Adoff, features a boy whose head is being pushed into the water fountain by other boys. The second, FREAK by Marcella Pixley, features a girl who is being tormented by other girls.
I divided the class into halves, and each group was assigned a passage. They had the responsibility of reading the section, summarizing the events, and then determining how the bullies, victim, and bystanders felt. Then, they presented their analysis to a group of students who had read the other passage.
These discussions opened the dialogue about bullying. Students were able to openly discuss how and why students act the way they do. They were able to listen to one another’s conjectures about how the bullies felt, and why they acted that way. They were able to bring personal experience to how the bystanders, responded, and why the victims were chosen. Thus our work began.
We moved from this discussion to the informational text, BULLYING AND ME: SCHOOLYARD STORIES by Ouisie Shapiro, where students tell their stories and an expert on adolescent bullying, Dorothy Espelage, responds to the students’ stories. My students read excerpts, and shared their own viewpoints on the student’s descriptions and the expert advice. Interestingly, students often did not sympathize with the victims, nor did they agree with the doctor’s recommendations.
Fortunately, around this time, the Boston Globe published an article on Susan Callender, who through her firm, Oh My Gauche!
, teaches etiquette classes for children and corporate executives. This article articulated the importance of manners and appropriate communication for corporate employees and children.
We also explored formal social competency curricula such as Open Circle
. While students were involved in this work, they were also reading NIGHT by Elie Wiesel in their English Language Arts class and discussing FREEDOM WRITERS, the movie based on the work of Erin Gruwell, as part of a curriculum by Facing History and Ourselves
. This movie so impressed the students that they asked for journals that they could invite me to read or not, based on what they saw in the movie.
Still behaviors persisted, and the state assessments were going to be administered in one more week. After a particularly challenging day, a colleague sent me the poem “The Gift”
by Li-Young Lee, which I shared with my students. I was amazed that my students were able to interpret the essence of this poem, and encouraged that we were breaking beyond the anger and perceptions that they held of one another and into common discussions of the human condition, and these discussions were pushing all our thinking.
Further, I was relieved that our reading and writing about our emotions and creating an improved communication within our community, was transferring to skills that would enable my students to analyze poetry, a requirement on our state examination.
Finally, after three months, we had over 100 stickers on our “Acts of Kindness Chart.” Students were now charged with writing a convincing argument to the principal that they learned enough about respecting one another to return to our classroom. Student responses for why they had earned the right to move back to our classroom included statements such as:
- “We have been promoting constructive behavior, been doing a lot of acts of kindness and we even learned to work with people out of our element. Especially when their behavior impacts our class.”
- “Being kind to others is good because when you’re kind to others, there is something positive that you can be happy about. Took me a long time to realize that there is more to life than being mean to others and being immature. Life is too short to talk back or argue or do bad things so that’s why you have to try your best at everything you do. Of course we are probably going to mess up in the future because, hey, after all, we are just humans, but I ask you to give us another chance to go back to our classroom.”
- “One of the things I can take into my high school academic years is tolerance. I’ve learned to work with people that I didn’t think I would like, but when I looked at them from a different point of view, I saw that they were not as bad as they seemed.”
- “I think we should go back to our classroom because we have all grown and even if we didn’t, we all learned our lesson—bullying and teasing each other over things that are not important. So, we have all grown emotionally and physically, and I will remember this experience for all my years in high school.”
The principal was invited to our classroom, and each student read their letter aloud. He responded to each student after they read their letter, commenting on the personal growth they described. It was determined that the class could return to our original classroom, and we returned to our original literacy curriculum. Behaviors continued, but we all had a language to deal with them, and a commitment to keeping our classroom a safe environment.
The introduction of the Common Core State Standards states that the literate person of the twenty-first century “actively seek(s) the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experiences, and broadens worldviews.”
Sometimes, as literacy teachers, we can provide access to quality literary and informational texts that expand the world views that students need most. Sometimes, the educational community we work in will support our efforts to give students not just literacy skills, but the communication skills they need to navigate their lives. For an annotated list of the books mentioned here and other books on bullying, see http://massreading.org/resources/booklist-for-%20MSLA-anti-bullying-MRA.pdf Lori DiGisi serves as an educational specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Previously, she worked as a literacy specialist at Fuller Middle School, in Framingham, Massachusetts. She's a past president of the Massachusetts Reading Association, the current president of IRA's Secondary Reading SIG, an active member of the Legislative Action Team, and August's Member of the Month.
© 2011 Lori DiGisi. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.