I always have a visceral reaction when I hear of bullying in schools; any story about bullying brings back memories of all the years in which my own Elizabeth was bullied from elementary school through middle school, years in which we lived the consequences of bullying every single day. Once a child becomes a target, it sticks. And once a child becomes a target, learning in school becomes secondary to surviving school. I remember all too well driving Elizabeth to school every day and catching glimpses of her tense face in the rearview mirror – I knew what she was worried about. And I remember driving her home from school, too, and catching glimpses of her worried and sad face – I knew what she must have endured.
In those days, especially in those schools, bullying was simply not taken seriously. I have vivid memories of conferencing with teachers and principals, and I can recall some of those conversation verbatim:
- the principal who suggested that Elizabeth needed “to develop a sense of humor”
- the sixth grade teacher, child-less and just out of school but full of arrogant “advice”, who thought that “Elizabeth was over sensitive and had a tendency to “miscue”, perhaps a result of over protective parenting?”
- and, most memorably, the gym teacher who felt that Elizabeth “kinda asks for it”
In the end, after many such fruitless meetings, we just packed up our stuff, sold our house, and moved to another school district. It was the best decision we ever made.
But, I learned a lot about bullying as a consequence of those years, and one of those lessons was a realization that bullying is systemic: if we want to truly make our schools “bully free zones”, it has to be a philosophy and a practice that is embraced by every single teacher in a building, and it has to be grounded in something much more meaningful than posters, a school handbook position statement, and empty phrases. Which brings me to Bullying Hurts: Teaching Kindness Through Read Alouds and Guided Conversations by Lester Laminack and Reba Wadsworth. I saw this book at the Boothbay Literacy Retreat and was drawn to it mainly because I had just heard Lester Laminack’s brilliant and moving keynote about the power and importance of the read aloud. I was also drawn to the subtitle – teaching kindness, after all, is a lasting antidote to bullying.
I loved the way Lester and Reba opened the book with a metaphor that was positive and (as a classroom teacher) do-able:
Perhaps it is useful to think of the classroom/school community as a garden. And, as in any garden there are occasional weeds that find a way in. To d nothing could result in weeds growing out of control, taking over the garden, and destroying the flowers you have so carefully nurtured. To poison the weed(s) may endanger other healthy plants. Instead, lets work to keep the garden lush and healthy, leaving the weeds no chance for the nourishment they need to thrive. To be clear with this analogy it is the bullying behavior and not the student who bullies that we view as the weed. So we are not suggesting the removal of the student; rather that we focus our attention on nurturing the positive aspects of all students, to empower each of them to recognize and support one another in ways that build community for all to thrive.
To create a community of kindness, Lester and Reba posit, we need a thoughtful, consistent, systemic approach built upon an essential component in all our classrooms: the read aloud and discussions based on those read alouds. Guiding students to an awareness about kindness and bullying, the authors write, is a journey through five layers of thinking:
*the outer layer involves “discovering how people on the globe are more alike than different…developing a conscious awareness of those things that make us human.”
*the second layer “is focused on recognizing that within the family of humanity there are differences.”
*third, understanding how we respond to our differences in a humane and thoughtful way
*fourth, to develop an understanding that for all our differences, we have more in common with people – more bonds that connect us.
*and fifth, at the core of it all, an acceptance of our common responsibility to and for each other .
Each layer is addressed through a series of text specific read alouds, with an emphasis on guided discussions and analysis. With each read aloud, children are asked to dig deeper into all the issues that lie at the heart of bullying – the fear of the “different”, the need for acceptance, acknowledging that being part of the human family involves taking on responsibilities. I loved seeing how beloved read alouds could be foundational texts for the building of a community of kindness, and I was especially appreciative of the thoughtful way in which each part of this process was linked together. It was fascinating to read through the transcripts of guided conversations to understand the intentionality behind each. It was such a brilliant and imaginative way to address an issue we all know is critical to our school communities…and to our larger communities as well.
Bullying Hurts: Teaching Kindness Through Read Alouds and Guided Conversations is an important book – reading it, and forming school wide plans around it, would be a wonderful way to begin the new school year!