I spent all day yesterday curled up in a blanket reading Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. It is an older book, but I had never read it before and wanted to read it before the movie came out in November.
I cried about a dozen times. I didn’t make dinner or clean my house. I just read and read and cried. It made me think about several things.
- Kids have been cruel since the beginning of time
- Bullying usually happens under the radar of a teacher
- Many bystanders often don’t stand up to the person bullying for fear of reprisal
I have heard so many people saying that cell phones are banned at their school because of “cyberbullying”. And though I am not saying cyberbullying does not exist (it is so much easier to torment someone anonymously), I know that so much cruelty actually happens in person first.
I know this.
I lived this.
I was recently given the picture below by my mom. I have very few other photos of me from elementary school. If you look carefully, you may notice my eye is slightly off. All I remember about this very important day (In Catholicism, your first communion is an important sacrament. In an Italian family apparently you are supposed to look like a bride), is the hours the photographer had me pose until my eye looked somewhat “normal”. My dress was itchy and it was hot and because we didn’t have digital cameras back then he just took picture after picture hoping one would turn out ok (talk about sharing an edited version of yourself even back then).
I really didn’t stand a chance at fitting in or being popular. Although my face wasn’t “deformed” like the fictitious August Pullman, in the story Wonder, many people would often ask me what was wrong with me. Or “Why are you looking over there when I am right here?” It didn’t help that I entered junior kindergarten not speaking a word of English and that I wore glasses with ultra-thick lenses. It also didn’t help that we didn’t have a lot of money and that my mom made many of my clothes.
So it’s no surprise that I spent many a day sitting by myself, the butt of every cross-eyed joke, taunted and humiliated for many, many years. My teachers’ responses over the years? Mostly teachers urged my classmates to “be nice to Jennifer”. That really helped. I remember one day in particular when a teacher urged people to play with me at recess. That was the day when my classmates invited me to play hide and go seek. I was “it” and it wasn’t until the end of recess that I realized that they were off secretly playing another game. Another incident that stands out in my memory is when our class got smelly markers for the first time. Remember those smelly markers? Do they still have them? I was invited to sniff a marker . “Julia” went around a group of students inviting everyone to smell the blueberry marker, only when she got to me, she “slipped” and it went up my nose. An unfortunate accident which was utterly humiliating and had me sneezing blue for a week. The glint in her eye and the snickering of everyone around me showed me that there was nothing accidental about this incident. I could recount dozens of other stories which are etched in my memory.
All of those memories came flooding back when I read the book. Then I read the Professional Advisory put out by the Ontario College of Teachers: Responding to the Bullying of students which tackles bullying (both face to face and online), and includes a self-reflection assessment which poses some good questions. These points resonated with me and can be applied to both online and offline situations:
Research shows that bullying stops in fewer than 10 seconds – 57 per cent of the time – when someone intervenes.15 Adult supervision and increased presence can prevent bullying. Intervene early and often so that students understand social responsibility and the importance of standing up for themselves and others.
How do I detect bullying?
How do I recognize power imbalances among students of all ages that might lead to bullying?
How do I spot behaviour occurring outside the classroom or online that affects students?
How do I respond to smaller, subtle acts such as verbal slights, use of derogatory language and cutting humour that may lead to more harmful behaviour?
How do I encourage students to safely disclose bullying behaviour?…
CAN YOU SAY THIS WITH CONFIDENCE?
My words and actions show that I treat students with care, respect, trust, and integrity and that I expect the same from them.
You can teach whatever content you want, but if students don’t feel safe and valued, it won’t matter. Taking time to create a culture of kindness in your classroom will help you save time in the long run.
A few ideas
RJ Palacio’s Precepts from the book, Wonder
The teacher in the book, Mr. Brown, asks his students to free-write based on precept prompts. Here are a couple of examples:
- When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” —Dr. Wayne Dyer
- “Your deeds are your monuments.” —Inscription on ancient Egyptian tomb
- “Fortune favors the bold.” —Virgil
- “No man is an island, entire of itself.” —John Donne
I really like this idea. Students could use Canva, Google Draw or a paper sketchnote to extend their idea and share and comment on one another’s ideas. They can share these via the school and/or class social media accounts. They can find their own to share. This could become a weekly or monthly routine in the class.
My friend, Robert Cannone, uses the idea of Classroom Committees. That is, student teams have responsibilities in the class on a rotating basis. They range from eco-team, to public relations team, to classroom design team. What impressed me most is how one of his students, Catherine, describes the experience based on the way Rob :
“Teams are like a puzzle, every person is a piece of the puzzle, and everyone is needed to complete the puzzle.”
Creating a culture in your classroom where everyone feels valued, can go a long way to supporting students who might be on the fringe of being accepted.
Compliment Wall, Kindness Cards
When I met Matt Soeth, from #ICANHELP he shared the power of a compliment wall which serves to create a positive culture in a school or classroom. The idea is that students create a physical board with post-it notes with compliments which students can take and share when they feel like someone needs it. You can extend this idea by creating kindness cards which students anonymously give each other; making note of which students are not receiving one. Extend both of these ideas virtually by inviting students to engage in kindness challenges online through their personal accounts or class social media accounts. If you posit social media of a place where you can “improve the lives, well-being, and circumstances of others (Couros, 2013), then that is the behaviour you will begin to see there.
Check out the resources I created to complement Chapter 10 of Social LEADia: Instil Empathy, Justice, and Character . where there are lots more ideas about creating a culture of kind in your class or school.
What are your ideas for creating a safe community within your classroom?