While Bullying Awareness month may be over, the need certainly is still with us. In today’s podcast we continue our conversation on the resource, Bullying Hurts. In part 2 of our conversation, co-author Lester Laminack says that the term bullying is in danger of being overused which could cause it to lose its effectiveness. He says there’s a difference between a student who is being rude and bullying. We started our conversation on the need to work towards kindness not only in our classrooms, but in the world.
See below for the full transcript of the conversation:
Lester: Let's think about working towards kindness in general. If we try a certain type of thing to do in the classroom versus a certain type of thing to do outside the home, if you make those differentiated, I think we're missing the point. Kindness is kindness, and I think we've reached a point in the country where we need to just be conscious of our actions and our words, the things we post on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. It appears to me that we've reached a place where lot of people, adults and children, respond in a knee jerk fashion to an issue or an idea in a very one sided kind of way.
I think that the place we need to start is just being mindful, being conscious of ourselves and how our actions and reactions either make the life of another person more stressful or less stressful. I mean this for everything, not just in our teaching lives, but also in our daily lives. Our moment by moment existence, just being conscious and mindful of our own behaviors. I don't think it's that difficult to be conscious, to be present and aware of your own thoughts and your own feelings, your emotions, and when an issue comes up.
Mr Rogers told us you're entitled to feel any of the human emotions, that's part of being human. What we have to guard against is how we react to those emotions. It's fine to feel angry or indignant, but to behave, speak without reflection is dangerous. I think the idea of being kind, and how we worked towards being kind, is to help children be conscious of what they're feeling in the moment, to be conscious of the notion that what they say and how they act has an impact on the other people around them. It helps build the notion of who they are in the minds of the people they interact with. It's building your identity, and I think just being conscious, and then helping everyone work toward that. That makes seem trite, but I think it's true, that if we just simply pause and ask ourselves, "Will this help another? Will it harm or hinder another? Is it necessary? Is it something I would want everyone else to do?" then I think that's like the first, and probably most important step.
Brett: Throughout Bullying Hurts, you write about the importance of Read Aloud. Can you talk a little bit why they're such an important part of the process?
Lester: Years ago, Rudine Sims Bishop wrote about literature as having the power to do windows, mirrors or doors. Read Aloud is an opportunity for us to hold up examples of kindness and unkindness, conscious choice and unconscious actions so that we can see ourselves in situations that perhaps we don't see ourselves in in the moment. We may not actually be conscious that our actions are harming another person, we're simply reacting on the gut level in a visceral way, just out of impulse, without being thoughtful about it.
Using Read Aloud allows us to take a situation and look at the situation, not look at what Brett did so that it's personalized and then Brett gets defensive. An idea of looking at, "Let's look at this story? What was the situation here? What was the decision made? What behavior did that lead to? How did that impact the other characters in the story? Who became the target in this situation? Who was the bully in the situation?" The persons who were standing around, those bystanders are the people with power, and if we can help them be conscious of what's taking place, then I think we can change that.
The Read Aloud is a place that allows us to look at all of those situations, through all of those lenses by visiting that same story 2 or 3 times, and looking at it in different places, and then having conversations about how those actions could have been different with a different decision. Giving us a way, just a venue to stand on and have those conversations that perhaps we wouldn't have otherwise. If we waited and had those conversations in the midst of the action taking place inside our own classroom community, then it had become very personalized, and we can't take the distance that we might need in order to be objective and reflective.
Brett: Taking on the issue of bullying can be very daunting. How do we approach it with effectiveness and not get overwhelmed by it?
Lester: It is daunting, and let me say this as a precursor to my thoughts about, I think the word bullying has become a real popular term, to the point that we are overusing the word. When we do, it'll lose its effectiveness. We need to go back and look at definitions of what bullying means, so that if a child reaches over across the table and takes another child's pencil, he's being unkind, he's being selfish, he's being rude, but he's not bullying. If we throw that word around with too much ease, then we invite children and their parents to issue complaints, "This child's being bullied," and then when a child is truly bullied it's diminished because it's being compared with all of the other minor things that are taking place in the room.
To take on annoyances and unkindness, it's just classroom management. To take on bullying, we need to be looking at some of the causes and the roots of where that behavior is coming from. Some of that, back to my response to your first question of, how do we do that every day? I think it's just being conscious and being aware, and the place we begin with that is by looking at the person in our mirror. I want us to stop and think about where children learn the notion that it is okay to treat someone else with disrespect, and to do it over time repeatedly in ways that may appear to be with malicious intent.
Picture yourself in a car driving down the interstate, and you're in a hurry because you drop one kid off at soccer practice, you've got another kid who needs to go to Scouts, and you need to get across town and pick up another kid that's in gymnastics. You see a sign up ahead of you, lane in, traffic merge, 1500 feet. Do you A, speed up to see how many car lanes you can gain before squeezing in up ahead, do you B, merge over immediately, knowing that that is a safer thing to do, do you C, merge over as soon as you can safely and then ride the bumper in front of you to prevent people from behind you trying to pass and get in that lane, and then point out their unkindness and rudeness? Whatever you do in that car, whether you mean for it to be or not, is a demonstration to your children of what you believe you're entitled to.
When your child then goes to school and is pushing people out of the way in order to get to the water fountain first or is trying to cut in line to get out on the playground and climb on the monkey bars, if there's a rule where there's only 3 people here and your kid pulls a kid off of them so he can be one of the 3 on the monkey bars, and you're shocked, because your child has this behavior, then you need to stop and look in the mirror and realize, "Some of the things I do give my children the impression that they are entitled to be unkind and place themselves in front of others." I think in this case, one of the things we have to do is really carefully examine our own behaviors, our own attitudes, our own sense of entitlement and think through what we want our children to be doing in this world with other people, and then making sure that our words and our actions in our homes model it. We're in the midst of a very aggressive and ugly political season, where children consistently see models on television of tearing people apart in order to advance oneself. We've got to look at where the home has the opportunities to help children learn that civil behavior is something that is within your own control.
Why aren't we working towards helping kids develop stability, a sense of manners, an understanding of how their actions and behaviors and words impact others? What I see right now is more and more pieces being written in terms of professional development, some programs on television, TED talks, even the way Ellen DeGeneres signs off from her show, "Be kind to one another," there seems to be a glowing interest in promoting kindness. If we can make that a conscious effort I think that would be good.
Since we wrote the book there are clearly some new pieces of literature available for children. I'll lift out 3 picture books, and a few chapter books that I think offer us opportunities to explore what it means to be conscious of your actions, to be conscious of what you have. One would be a book by Jacqueline Woodson, entitled Each Kindness. A picture book that demonstrates a little girl having a missed opportunity to be kind, and then living with their reflection on that behavior and being conscious a little too late.
The second one, a book that was available but I think perhaps we missed is How To Heal a Broken Lead, by Bob Graham. A large book, an oversized book with really great illustrations and very few words that demonstrate the kindness of a child towards a pigeon who has collided with a building, and it's broken its wing, and is doing so in a busy city where all of the adults scurrying about are not even looking down. It's almost a visual metaphor for how busy we get sometimes to the point that we fail to notice the struggles that other people around us are having, and we miss the opportunities to be kind and helpful. This child reminds us how to do that.
Last Stop on Market Street, Matt de la Peña's new book, a picture book that shows a young boy spending his Sunday after church on the bus going to serve in a food kitchen with a grandmother. All along the route, we see a constant place where the little boy is noticing what he doesn't have, and the grandmother keeps reminding him of what he does have. When we get to the soup kitchen, we get this opportunity to be of service to others who have even less than we do, even when we don't think we have what we need. It's a beautiful illustration of that.
For novels, chapter books, Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff gives us an opportunity to look at a child with learning differences, and the struggles he's facing, and the way that classmates interact with him. Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is a story that looks at a student who has significant learning differences, and the impact a single teacher can make in terms of not only helping that child find a pathway into learning, but also find a pathway into understanding yourself better, and being the kindness of that one person.
The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner, offers us an opportunity to explore some deep, troubling situations within a family. This particular one with an older sister who goes off to college and gets involved in drugs, and the impact of how the dynamics of a family can shift and how the energies within that family can shift, and the priorities for the younger sister might get shifted, but recognizing that sometimes we let go of things that might matter to us on one level, maybe in order to help someone in another place, and learning to grow a little bit inside in order to make things better. That book has met with some controversy because the topic involves drug abuse, but it is prevalent, and it is something children face, and it's not talked about, and it impacts the way they feel about other people. It offers a great deal of opportunity to have these conversations.
The fourth book is called Wish, by Barbara O'Connor, where a little girl is now living with an aunt and an uncle because her mother has mental issues, the father is at the moment in prison, and she is on her own. A young boy in that rural community in North Carolina, where she feels there's nothing to do and no-one to be around, a young boy up the road demonstrates what kindness looks like, sort of an unconditional love, a non-judgmental kind of friendship, which changes her in many ways. That and the love of a dog. Those books are not about bullying, but they are texts that allow us to look at the power of being selfless and being kind, and being thoughtful, and being reflective, which I think are essential to what we're trying to do with this book, Bullying Hurts.
Lester L. Laminack is Professor Emeritus at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina where he received two awards for excellence in teaching. Lester is now a full-time writer and consultant working with schools throughout the United States and abroad. He is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English and has served three years as coeditor of the NCTE journal Primary Voices and as editor of the Children’s Book Review Department of the NCTE journal Language Arts (2003–2006). He also served as a teaching editor for the magazine Teaching K–8 and wrote the Parent Connection column (2000–2002). He is a former member of the Whole Language Umbrella Governing Board, the Governing Board and Secretary of the North Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children, and the Board of Directors for the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking. He served as the Basic Reading Consultant to Literacy Volunteers of America from 1987 through 2001 and is a former member of the Board of Directors of Our Children’s Place. Lester has served as editor (2017) of the Writing Department for the ILA Journal Reading Teacher.
Lester currently lives in Whittier, North Carolina with his husband Steve and their two dogs, Bailey and Sora. They are the proud grandparents of an adorable little girl named Everette. You can connect with Lester on his website, LesterLaminack.com, or on Twitter at @Lester_Laminack.