Sunday, June 25, 2017

What can I do? How reading can overpower a bully.

Today I was compelled to write after reading a Facebook post about a young lady who committed suicide because she was bullied.

It ended, "In lieu of donations, be kind to another person."

In my heart I'm still hoping that it's a hypothetical situation.  Someone who sees the writing on the wall for another person and wants to jolt the reader into action.

The action of being kind.

Unfortunately, the actions behind this story still happen.  This leads me to wonder why?  and what can I do?

As an educator, I am fully aware of bullying.  It's the repetitive actions that cause others intentional pain where the aggressor has more power than the person receiving the actions.  It's verbal, physical, cyber . . . and exclusion. It's done for many reasons -- and I've evidenced most of them.  The most common three that I've experienced are listed below.

1.  Jealousy -- wanting what someone else has, so you put the person "in his/her place."  By tearing someone down, you belittle the skill in which they excel.

2.  Insecurity/Fear -- a need to find a group to fit in and wondering if the group would accept you if you stood strong in your beliefs.  Many who fit in this group become so self-absorbed in being accepted that others lose their "humanness."

3.  Feeling pain -- some have such a deep pain inside them that they need to make sure others are in pain as well.  I see this when someone who has been bullied turns on others when given the chance.

These categories put a blinder over the bully's eyes.  Instead of seeing the person on the receiving end, they see their own internal motivation.  This allows the person to disassociate with the other person and remove their "humanness."  One perfect example was found in the Diary of Anne Frank when groups of people hated others because of religion -- or in To Kill a Mockingbird when race dictated how one was to be treated -- or in Wonder where a physical disability cause others to hate. This theme is explored throughout literature as well as real life.

Knowing this helps to figure out the root of the cause.

But it still stinks if you're on the receiving end of mean looks, whispered words, rubbing exclusion in another's face, isolating, targeting.

So what can I do to help?

In class we often discuss the concept that once you get to know someone's story it's hard to hate that character.  We often look at the protagonist and antagonist through the same lens.

What has happened to this person to make him/her act this way?  What provides the motivation behind the actions?  Even if you don't "like" the character, understanding him often leads to a different perspective about that person.

We read a short story called "Clean Sweep" by Joan Bauer every year.  At the beginning, the students identify with the fact that the protagonist doesn't like a "mean old lady" who happens to be her customer.  They agree that the main character (Katie) should be put out by Mrs. Leonardo's behavior - until a simple action shifts their perception.  Finding simple items -- a lace tablecloth and an old book -- in the attic lead to the sharing of a story.  It was a story of loss and bitterness.  Suddenly Katie doesn't see the mean, but she does see the lonely.  She sees the treasure in Mrs. Leonardo because she learned her story which in turn helped Katie in her own struggles.

The fact is, we can have a similar discussion in many of the things we read.

You see, reading is powerful.  It gives the reader a safe way to experience these actions without feeling too vulnerable. The act of reading gives insight into the thought patterns of others and uses imagination to fill in the gaps.   It allows people an opportunity to explore motivation without looking at direct actions. It's part of why the teaching and reading of fiction is so important.

Until it's time to look in the mirror.

You see, everyone has a story, much like the ones we read about.  Once we take time to listen and learn those stories, it's so much harder to hate.  The blinders tend to lift.  Enough people learn to step out and support others.

Not because they are forced to.  It's because they see the human on the other end.

In conclusion, I contend that it's important to read and explore fiction. Ideally sharing the same experience (class novels, book groups, etc). Gives people a chance to share, explore, listen, and learn. It provides coping strategies, a common vocabulary, and a safe way to explore inwardly.

I teach 8th graders, and this works.  There is a lot of growth by the end of the year.  Kids figure out who they want to be, and how they want to be remembered in 20 years.  Kids step up, speak out, and make a difference.

Try reading a book with this thought in mind, "It is hard to hate others when we learn their story."  See what happens.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


I think I've started this blog one hundred times -- examined one hundred different perspectives -- considered one hundred different approaches, and it basically comes down to this.

How can we effectively use competition in a classroom to encourage student learning without leaving some behind?

Let's face it, we live in a competitive society.  We place value on sporting events, ACT scores, music competitions and those with high performance get recognition.  Children are encouraged earlier and earlier to make commitments to areas of specialty.  It's not unusual to hear comments similar to "You can't make the baseball team unless you've played travel ball," or "We've got a special voice coach to help her train for these auditions."

This doesn't mean that a voice coach or travel program isn't appropriate, but what about those who don't have the natural ability or means to make those choices.  Is the door closed?  What about the later bloomers who choose a path on a different timetable?

And how does this look in a classroom?

As an educator, I have a lot of "tricks in my bag."  I am constantly experimenting, writing, tweaking, and working to figure out ways to allow all students to find success and grow as learners.  I work hours daily to figure out what motivates teenage humans and ignites a desire to learn.

And competition plays a part in it.

Though it doesn't really look like a typical competition.

You see, it's rarely about getting the right answer.  It's always about the learning that goes into the answer.  In a language arts classroom it's about the ability to think, evaluate, create, articulate, and share.  It's about teaching ourselves, teaching each other, and learning from different perspectives. It's about growing -- and we all start at different points.

So what does competition look like in this situation?

A lot of times it's about setting goals and reaching them.  For example, I have several students who excel at grammar in a certain class.  As a teacher I target different grammatical aspects that are important when it comes to student writing.  I know that these students are weak in sentence structure, these students need help with transitions, others need assistance with capitalization.  All of these concepts will help them grow in communication through the written word.  Other students have mastered these concepts and are learning about more complex construction when writing.  It starts with setting a goal with each student.

The goal setting can be easy -- it begins with a handwritten note card or a click on a Google form explaining areas of strength and weakness.  It continues with a glance at performance.  Who has shown mastery (in class activities and writing) with these topics?  How can they help others and still be challenged?  Finally, groups are set and a challenge is issued.

Those who are working are not alone.  They are working as a group to improve in an area.  There are "masters" in the class who are available to help direct beyond the teacher.  As a community we are all working to help each other be successful.

The conversations you hear as an educator are rich when this type of learning happens.  You hear kids explaining, drawing on resources, and encouraging each other.  You hear answers to the WHY this is a better answer, debates, and strong connections.  You see a community that is working together to grow.

As I listen, I hear things like, "What is this question really asking you to do?"  "Why is this evidence important?  How does it prove your point?"  "Can you read my paper aloud to me so I can hear the transition from your voice?"


Of course I like to treat students along the way.  We have "checks" where students (working on their set goal level) who are showing mastery get their name in a drawing.  It becomes a fun conversation about potential.  "Look at all of these names.  Wow.  Every one of them represents finding success.  Pat yourself on the back."  Then the name comes out, and I don't look at it.  We relish the anticipation knowing that someone will win a bag of gummy bears or a full-sized chocolate bar.

Or there are the days when everyone is a winner -- and they all get something fun.  I like to mix it up.

The key is in the scaffolding.  Working on individual goals, setting up students for success, recognizing that everyone has a strength somewhere gives kids confidence.  It helps them learn about learning together, finding success, and growing.

The reluctant learners get caught up in the enthusiasm.  Often this is enough to help them want to find success.  Occasionally it means that I have time to work individually with them to help meet goals (since we've identified and trained other "masters" of subjects to help while I'm working individually).  Building those relationships can really affect student performance in a positive way.

So that's how I use competition in the classroom.  I'd love to hear your thoughts, stories or successes in this area.  I believe that sharing is an essential part of learning.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A word for 2017 -- authentic

That's my word for 2017.

I've tried out a few -- and this one fits.  Therefore, it's the word I chose to concentrate on this year.

It's not a new concept.  Being genuine is important to me.  I see myself as someone you can count on, someone who tells the truth, someone who believes what I say and puts those words into practice.  My goal is to be intentional and know the words I share are important - especially in my line of work. 

Therefore I choose to be authentic -- true to my own personality, spirit, and character (definition from Merriam-Webster).

You might notice that it's been awhile since I've blogged.  It was a hard year for me last year.  Obstacles kept me away from my passions and forced me to look at things from different perspectives.  I became more introspective and faced battles from within.

If I'm honest, I'm not sure I was the best "me" I could have been.  Everything I had within me when to being the best teacher I could be (because it was my students only opportunity in their lives to have 8th grade English), being the best mom I could be (because I'm it for my own kids), and being a good wife (my husband deserves it).  However, I'm not sure I was the best "me" for me.  In many ways I just felt like I was surviving. 

It was kind of like wearing a mask that covered me.  On the outside I didn't look so different, but I was struggling on the inside facing "the beasts" that plagued me.

I don't regret last year.  I don't lament my health issues.  I don't wish it didn't happen.  I don't think the obstacles were something to curse. 

I see it as a time of growth.  It was a time of honesty and reassessment.  It was a time to look at what I was doing and decide if it was authentic - if it was genuine.  Most importantly, I had to decide if it was true to me.  Every experience helps to define the person you are.

Therefore 2017 is a year of being authentic.

I'm a better person for what I experienced in 2016. 

I spent so much time convincing others that their words were valuable, that I forgot to see the value in my words.  This year I pledge to find my way back to supporting that value. 

My hope is that in 2018 I will say that I've accomplished some of the following:

*  Finished writing my young adult novel (even if no one ever reads it, the story needs to be told).
*  Inspired students to believe in themselves and prepare them for high school.
*  Help my two oldest transition from high school to college.
*  Reawaken my love of exploration.

I hope that I'm seen as authentic - the good and the bad - and someone who is worthy of trust. 

Wishing you all a good new year.  You'll be hearing from me.