Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Teacher Teaches

I received an email yesterday and waited til this morning hoping for permission. It's from a teacher who was responding to my blog post a few days ago about the behaviour of the students and the teacher in the gallery that Joe and I were visiting. The letter has only been edited in so far as identifying information has been taken out. I am not going to comment at the end, I'm just going to reprint the letter. I was moved and excited by what this teacher did. Let me know what you think of her response to Both and Either

Dear Mr. Hingsburger,

I read your blog quite regularly and enjoy the opportunity it give me to be challenged. I found Rolling Around In My Head when a parent of one of the special needs kids in my classroom suggested I read it. At the time I think she was a much bigger fan of yours than mine! Your blog Both and Either about the inaction of the teachers in the gallery at the behavior of their students struck me pretty hard. After thinking about it for awhile and after finding the Creative Commons agreement on the sidebar of your blog, I decided I wanted to use that particular piece as an discussion exercise in my classroom.

I ran out the blog and made it look like a quiz with your article on the top and then several questions on the bottom. The questions were: Do you think that staring at someone or laughing at someone is bullying? Why do you think these students left the tour to stare that this man? The man says that these students terrorized him, do you think what the students did deserves to be categorized as a form of social terrorism? What should the teachers have done, if anything?

Usually these kinds of discussion in my classroom are tepid at best. All my students are just in their early teen years and struggle mostly to be coolly indifferent to their world. Well, this one caught their attention. I want to tell you what happened. I'm sorry that this letter is so long.

Many of the students were really outraged at the term terrorism and suggested what happened wasn't even bullying. The man in the story wasn't hit or struck in any way. I discovered that they all had a very narrow definition about bullying. I realized that some of the anger that was being expressed came because if they accepted your terms, they would have to redefine themselves as bullies. Beyond that the word "terrorist" here in the United States is a strong word and they were furious that it was used towards a student. In a way they were suggesting that you were a bully for using that word!

What I noticed though, and you are right I must admit to being willfully blind to what goes on in front of me, was that the unpopular kids were silent during this discussion. They looked actually frightened. I had noticed that most of them spend a lot of time trying not to be seen or noticed by the more popular students and they seemed afraid that the kids would take their anger at you for writing this and then turn it on them.

I have two special needs students in my classroom both who were paying a lot of attention to the discussion. They didn't contribute to the discussion but they were in their own way quite involved. When we got near the end talking about what should have been done. One of my students, who had Down Syndrome, put her hand up. I was pleased because the discussion had involved only those kids who would have done the kinds of things that were described in your article. The other kids, less popular or more different, had listened but not said anything. The room was silent went I called on her for her opinion.

"They should have done it and the teacher should have stopped it," her answer was short and to the point. One of the students most active in the discussion challenged her saying, "They just stared at him, what's the big deal." Before I could say anything, the response came, "It is a big deal and you know it. I get stared at all the time. It hurts."

The discussion changed it's tone and now more kids joined in. At one point I just sat back and let what was happening happen. It has been a long time since I felt the power of being a teacher. I believe that what happened will change my students. Some for a short while, but some for the rest of their lives.

I wanted you to know that I thought what you wrote was brave. I also wanted you to know that you moved me to action. Thank you so much for the courage you show in telling the truth. I am a better more informed teacher. I am going to take what I did to our next staff meeting and do the same exercise with the teachers as with the students. I'll let you know what happens.


GirlWithTheCane said...

I was moved and excited as well - particularly when she said she was from the States, because discussing any sort of act as one of "social terrorism" could, I imagine, potentially open a can of worms once administration and parents found out was happening. And you never know what you're going to get when you engage young teens in this sort of discussion.

But it's this sort of discussion that's needed, and I love that it was a discussion in which the whole class was involved. My experience in schools has been in ones where there hasn't been a lot of integration, and I think that everyone loses out because of it. I've heard the students with intellectual disabilities that I've work with speak very profoundly about what life is like for them, as the student with Down's Syndrome did in this teacher's letter, and I think, "You can speak so well about this - and you want the chance to speak - but no one will give it to you..."

It's so nice to hear about a teacher promoting an open dialogue among students with a variety of experiences and backgrounds about bullying.

Anonymous said...

To the teacher: Thank you so much! This post made my day!

Bubbles said...

Beautiful! Brought tears to my eyes! What an ingenious use of your post and what a vehicle for thinking and change making! I hope this gets out there and more teachers use this in their classrooms! I LOVE that this teacher recognized what silence meant in her classroom!!! What a reflection of how times have changed and how the right supports to a person with an intellectual disability can mean in terms of them speaking up and having a voice and making their own change for themselves and others!

CL said...

Wow - this is so awesome. I especially love that a student with Down Syndrome was able to call them out and change the discussion. I think it's more powerful when people speak for themselves.

If the teacher is reading this: You did a wonderful thing that is sure to stick with many of those kids for years to come.

Andrea S. said...

I think it's great that this teacher used Dave's article the way he did. My concern, however, is, what if that girl with Down Syndrome had not spoken up? Not every classroom will have someone brave enough to speak out in the face of all those classmates who saw nothing wrong with "just staring" or other behaviors that they refuse to call bullying. I would love to see these kinds of discussions duplicated. But there is a risk that only kids who have a narrow definition of bullying (that conveniently leaves themselves "innocent") could be heard from in the classroom. And kids who have experienced bullying could end up feeling even more intimidated and overwhelmed and fearful than before.

This doesn't mean the discussion shouldn't happen. But it should probably be done by experienced teachers willing to interject other perspectives that some members of the class may be afraid to raise on their own. And I would suggest that Dave's article should perhaps also be supplemented with articles written by young people who have experienced staring, mocking, etc. describing how it made them feel. Or maybe a video of young people talking about their experiences with bullying, including forms of bullying that most of the students in this teacher's class might not have recognized as bullying. The point being to bring in those perspectives and voices of people who have experienced bullying so that their voices can still be heard even if the people in the classroom who have shared these experiences simply don't feel safe enough to interject these experiences themselves.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave (and Dear Teacher, too), I am utterly gobsmacked! What a wonderful response to your Blog . . . and what a terrific outcome! I don't believe this teacher would have allowed the students to sweep the event under the proverbial rug. This is one fine example of great teaching! Thanks for sharing!

Baba Yaga said...

Well done that teacher, and well done that girl with Down's. It's not easy to speak up in a situation like that.

All the same, I'd caution that teacher not to be too optimistic about the results of a single discussion: behaviour changes hard, and most of all behaviour encouraged by the environment. (Most schools are bully-genic environments. I'm never sure whether school-teachers really realise this.)

I still have a tender place in my heart for the one teacher who both noticed that I was being bullied and (dangerously - I rather think that kind of thing could backfire horribly) raised the subject in class, as something being done by the bullies. In a world of refusal to see, victim-blaming, and enthusiastic collaboration, to hear _bullying_ clearly identified as wrong was a novelty.

It did no good, all the same. So far as I could tell, nothing changed, not even one person's contribution to the unspeakable whole.

By next term that teacher had left. It's possible that a more sustained campaign might have made a difference to those on the margins of the bullying (either as bystanders, leser victims, and lesser perpetrators) - one discussion certainly didn't.

It's a good sign, though, that this teacher recognised the flavour of silence. I suggest, though, seeing whether your picture of what was going on changes when you replace "popular" with "powerful".

Jeannette said...

It isn't often that something I read makes me gasp out loud, but this post did.
Even if, as some people suggest, there is no significant change in people's behavior, she did what she could do, she made some kind of difference, even if it turns out to be just a start. And that's all that any of us can do, really, day to day.
And Baba Yaga's term "the flavour of silence" is wonderful...
Thank you, thank you again.

Kristine said...

I have a feeling that this teacher and I would be friends. :)

The beauty of classroom moments like this one, is they often lead to more. In September, this teacher is establishing that her classroom is a safe place to talk about big issues. She's setting an expectation for how people should treat each other. This discussion can easily be referred back to, and expanded on, as the year continues.

I teach ethnically diverse teenagers. The first time a kid in my class starts to make a comment about racism, they tend to quickly stop themselves and apologize, like I'm going to get mad at them. Instead, I try to encourage them and facilitate a genuine conversation. As the year goes on, it happens more naturally. My classroom becomes a place where kids bring their questions, opinions, and experiences about racism, and other big issues. And I have seen, in small moments, kids change the way they treat each other.

Just a thought... Another way to encourage everyone to participate, even those too shy to speak, is through writing. Many kids will open up on paper. Highlights can then be shared with the class, anonymously, the next day. (Anonymity is easier to preserve if you have more than one class doing the activity.) "One of your peers said..." "Many of your peers have experienced..." It seems to have a bigger impact when the words come from the students themselves, and writing can be a safer way to make it happen.

Molly said...

Dave, a friend posted this on my facebook wall and I thought you needed to see it. It's halloween costumes for people in wheelchairs where the wheelchair is incorporated!

What an awesome way to introduce other kids to the idea that a child (or adult) in a wheelchair is JUST like them, with an awesome costume.

Molly said...

oh and here are even MORE

LOVE this.

Anonymous said...

It must be rewarding to see how the blog was used. It was interesting that the kids reacted to the "terrorism" comment - as did I. I couldn't help, as a teacher, wish the teachable moment had been pushed a bit more. Since only 2 students had visible/known disabilities - perhaps the staring and making fun aspects could have been translated into their world. Missed a basket at a game, lost the game for the team? How do people respond? How do you feel when you get looks from angry/disappointed schoolmates? Bad haircut? Clothes? Not tall, not developed, not skinny...things in their world. Ah...yes - that feeling. Now relate it.

Yet - it is a start. And if it can be furthered through the staff - wow!

Utter Randomness said...

To the teacher: thank you for being one of the good ones. It's hard being different in school, really really hard, and it's worse when the people you're supposed to be able to trust to protect you turn a blind eye. I was harassed in high school for being a gay woman (the term I prefer due to the sexualization of the term lesbian) and the teachers either joined in or ignored it until I left the classroom. Bullying is so much more than physical violence and more needs to be said to kids about that. If it would be considered harassment in adults, it should at least be considered bullying in children. "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" is the biggest load of crap I've ever heard, and it's just a means of telling kids that are being harassed that it's their fault for being upset. The truth of the matter is that as bad as they are, broken bones heal, bruises heal, but self esteem isn't as easily fixed, reputations aren't as easily fixed. You can't ignore verbal abuse and harassment, because it's just as damaging, if not more so, in the long term.

Karen said...

I wonder if one of the reasons people don't do anything is the endless criticism that comes when someone does something. Even here on this blog there are people saying that the teacher should have done this, or should have done that or that it won't change anything anyways. I hope that if the teacher reads those comments she will hold true to what she tried to do. For me this is the perfect opportunity for those of us who wish someone had done something when we needed it to say thank you to someone who took initiative and who made change happen.

Belinda said...

I just think it is wonderful that out of something that felt so bad, something so good has come. It gave me back my hope! Way to go to this teacher--you are creative, resourceful and a true teacher.

Anonymous said...

Oh, BRAVO for this teacher!

And KUDOS to that student for speaking up and laying it out for all her fellow students to hear and to know, unequivocally: Staring HURTS. My dear, you are growing up to be a world-changer! Keep on letting your voice be heard--you can and do make a difference.


Becca said...

Just shared this post on Facebook - I wish EVERY teacher would teach this lesson to their students. Non-judgemental, HIGHLY effective. Thank you for sharing this, Dave.

CJ said...

I was so happy that the young woman who has Down Syndrome had the courage to speak up among her peers.

Princeton Posse said...

Oh boy, this gave me goose bumps. Valuable lessons for sure.

Rickismom said...

I am in awe of this teacher. Wish I could share this with Ricki. She HATED being stared at.....