Bullying

Bullying can be so difficult to uncover–such a challenge to prevent. If I was still a third grade teacher, I know one simple, meaningful, and effective technique would be to incorporate selected titles from children’s literature to accomplish a few important things:

  • start an essential conversation in a natural and focused way about bullying, bullies, and those unortunate people who are on the receiving end
  • create an on-going narrative to help guide chidren’s conversations and insights
  • provide a lifelong (at least childhood-long) reference for any child who needed comfort or a reminder about how bullying looks, how it feels, how it can be diffused, or how it can be avoided

Childhood bullying confounds adults. It’s not that we cannot imagine it–heck, plenty of us can recount experiences in our own lives in which we were bullied at school, or at the park, or in Girl Scouts, or in any number of situations. There are plenty of adults who are or have been bullied as adults. I’m a teacher. I taught third/fourth grade for 17 years and then taught middle school science for 22 years. Much of the bullying of which I have become aware at school was done so secretly, so slyly, so far off of the radar screens of the adults that it was embarrassing when it was uncovered or finally revealed by a parent. My colleagues and I would keep asking ourselves, “How did we miss that? How is it possible that this went on so long or at such great lengths or so painfully that we never even suspected?”

I am not talking about the obvious things like the open and occasional taunting of a particular child or the open use of prejudicial, biased, sexist, racist, or homophobic language or comments. I could deal with those up front and straight on–they were right there and obvious, and I made a point to deal with it in a calm, sincere, and assertive manner–with the offender and with the group in which it had occurred. However, I really had little idea of what might have been said or done away from my eyes or ears–in a crowded hallway, in the bathrooms, in the cafeteria, on the bus. And  a good deal of this was before the advent of email and smartphones. Thank God for the brave child who spoke up for himself, or for the ethical, principled child who came to me to report what she had seen or overheard.

Times have changed–a bit. Bullying is finally recognized as a damaging and painful action, one that must be dealt with effectively. This has led to bullying awareness and prevention campaigns, anti-bullying legislation and school policies, disciplinary codes, as well as training for parents and adults who work with children. There are public service announcements on TV and radio, poster contests at schools, student council projects, and celebrity spokespersons. This is all commendable, but I suspect that it may not be as effective as is hoped.

Having spent a number of years with 7, 8, and 9-year olds, I am confident that one good ways to reach both the bullies and the bullied is to read about bullying–not in a textbook or as part of an established curriculum, but through the carefully crafted narratives found in the best children’s literature. [NOT in those books specifically designed to “teach” children about bullying–didactic texts like those are often boring, stilted, and unimaginative. The “message” is there–for sure. But it lacks realism, feeling, and experience–it fails to touch the heart or reach the brain in a meaningful, long-lasting way.

In this week’s The Big Fresh Newsletter from Choice Literacy–an on-line publication that I regularly review, even though I no longer teach reading to elementary children, there are several listings in the free section about Bullies in Books. This got me thinking about this topic, and realizing that good books would be a perfect venue for teaching and learning about bullies and bullying from both sides of the fence.

In one selection, titled Bully Literacy,  Heather Rader tells a wonderful little story about her own child’s instant reaction to a reminder about a particular character in a particular book that changes her daughter’s inclination to exclude a child with a difference and instead warm up to a day-long friendship. That’s a simple demonstration of the power of story. The rest of the piece is a review that highlights a number of books approriate for different grade levels. These are books that would enable teachers, parents, and other adults to help children talk about, learn about, and develop a long-term understanding of bullying–possibly from both sides.

You can reach almost any kid with a good book, read aloud to the group or one-on-one sitting in a big comfy chair.

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