In this podcast, Franki Sibberson chats with Lester Laminack about bullying. Lester is the author of beloved books for children and teachers, including Saturdays and Teacakes and Unwrapping the Read Aloud.
You learn more about Lester’s work by browsing his website:
A full transcript of the podcast is available below the player.
Franki Sibberson: Lester, you’ve recently been talking and thinking more about bullying. Can you talk a little bit about your thinking?
Lester Laminack: I’ve been interested in the topic for years, and some of that’s personal, and some of it is that I just see a greater — an increase of the tension in schools. I’m not sure that there is actually more bullying happening, but I think there’s more attention to it. And recently in the news, when a freshman, a young man in college, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide, then it just sort of was a pivotal point in the media for attending to all the bullying that’s taking place.
And I started addressing the issue before that took place, but it became a real focal point in my thinking and in trying to pull some work together, because schools started just asking. You know, when I was doing stuff, development on writing and reading, people would ask me if I knew a book they could use to support the work. So that’s where it comes from.
Franki Sibberson: So do you think bullying’s a bigger problem now than when we were kids, or do you think it’s just getting more attention, or do you think it’s different, or what’s your feeling on that?
Lester Laminack: Oh, I do think it’s getting more attention. And I do think it’s probably more prevalent. And this is what — I think it — and I know this sounds like such a condemning statement — but I think the world is so much less civil. I think as a society that we have become so much over-focused on competition — and you could look at it from everything from the extreme attention and pressure we put on test scores to, you know, the competition to be the best, to have a winning football team, to the money we pay to superstars.
You see it bearing out in things like the schemes and scandals that are taking place or that took place on Wall Street and were part of the demise of the economy in 2008. I just think there are places where what we’re doing, then, is we’re modeling that winning and being the best and trumping everybody else is what’s valued. And that seems to me to open the doorway to children treating other children that way; that we seem to value kindness and courteous behavior and good manners and civility far less than in the past. I do think bullying clearly took place when we were children.
I was a victim of bullies, so I know it took place. It was more isolated. I think it was more covert, in some ways. And for me, it was more physical. I think people just punched you, and, you know, did things to you and let it go. Now I think bullying takes place on so many kinds of levels — and some of it has to do with all the venues we have for being in touch with each other. The world has shrunk because of all the technological connections we have, and you see new emphasis on cyber-bullying, and it’s, you know, every kind of bullying you can think of.
And it can be the most popular kid in school who’s getting picked on because someone’s not happy with their position. And it can be some kid who’s got glasses, or a kid with braces, a kid in a wheelchair, an LGBT kid, overweight, too skinny, too popular, too athletic — it doesn’t matter. There seems to be no one who’s exempt from being a target.
Franki Sibberson: So what do you think teachers or what do you think we could do as educators to really help kids and students understand these issues that you’re talking about around bullying? How do we kinda work around to get them to see those bigger issues of kindness and civility and all that that you talked about?
Lester Laminack: Well, there’s some places already in existence, and one publication that’s clearly been around for a long time is Teaching Tolerance, that I would encourage people to get subscriptions to and begin reading and supporting the work of the organization. The other part of that, I think, is just placing greater emphasis on collaborative learning, where the point is to know something; not to be the first one to know it, but to know it.
And, you know, you think about the work that we have done for years, and literature circles and reading response groups and inquiry cycles and altering cycles, where the point is to get a more robust understanding of something, and not to get the right answer. That comes through dynamic interaction with people, and that comes through working together to build understanding, and not necessarily to be the first one. One little thing that I’ve put a lot of emphasis on in the work I’m doing right now is in every classroom I’m in, I refuse to allow children to raise their hand.
I mean it’s a simple little thing, and some people think I’m crazy, but I’m trying to work on this notion of “you need to learn self-discipline, not external discipline.” And raising your hand in a country that advocates the First Amendment, that everybody has a right to free speech as long as you don’t trample on the rights of others – how will I learn to exercise my right as a citizen in a free democratic participatory society if I spend my entire developmental history raising my hand for permission to share my thinking? I don’t learn to respect anyone else’s thoughts that way.
I learn to wave my hand more vigorously; to grunt, to moan, to pant, to stand up to get your attention, because I’m, again, in competition for the teacher’s approval and the teacher’s permission to speak. As a teacher, you and I both know that any teacher in North America could take a five by eight index card and write down the names of the five children who dominate talk in a classroom, yet we’re raising hands. We’re still calling on the same five kids, instead of working on what are the ways we work on getting everybody to have some voice in the conversation?
So what I do with kids is I ask them, you know, to not raise your hand. What we’re gonna do in here is use our mouths and our manners. Kindergarten children, I can say those words and then say, “Do you understand what I mean?” And then I’ll get them to give me examples, and they just go, you know, “We’ll use our manners, and what that means is when somebody’s talking, we don’t talk.” Now, do they execute it well? No, but the same effort we spend in pre-K and K getting kids to learn to raise their hands, we could get them to learn to listen to someone and then respond.
We could put the same effort with fifth graders into raising hands; we could put it into, “All right, let’s create a system inside the room for how we enter and exit a conversation.” How can I disagree with somebody without going, “Nuh-uh, that’s stupid?” You know, how can I have a conversation to say? And so I think some of the bullying — you know, I’ve been reading some work from Barbara Coloroso. She did a book called The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, and she has an article in a recent issue of Teaching Tolerance that has the same name.
And one of her points in that article is that bullying is not so much about power, who has the most power; it’s the notion that occurs when we devalue another person. If I get to the place where I find myself being more important than you, and you being less important or less valuable, then what I do to you is treat you somewhat like subhuman, and it doesn’t — there’s not an ethical dilemma in my head, because I don’t even see you as being important or worthwhile. And if you think about the bigger picture of the culture, you know, we’ve done that with the Holocaust.
We did that with the Japanese internment. We did that with slavery in this country. We’ve done it in humanity all over the globe for thousands of years, so to change it, I think, is going to take a conscious effort for us to help children learn to value all human beings, regardless of difference. And our focus has to be on the notion that as human beings, we are more alike than different, across the globe, so a book, like Whoever You Are, to help them see that piece.
And then we have to also have them understand that it is not abnormal for differences to exist — as a matter of fact, it makes us more interesting. But the differences don’t make us better than or less than; they just make us different.
Franki Sibberson: So you mentioned the one book. You’re such the expert on picture books — do you know of any other picture books that you use to start discussions with kids about this kind of thing?
Lester Laminack: My favorite book to use for discussions on bullying is, unfortunately, out of print. I use it everywhere. It’s called Dog Eared. It’s written by Amanda Harvey, and it’s illustrated by Amanda Harvey, and I am encouraging teachers everywhere to write that publisher and ask that it be reprinted, or encourage some other company to pick it up and reprint it, because I think it has tremendous value in opening conversations around bullying. And we’re working on a book proposal right now to write a book on using children’s books to address bullying.
Franki Sibberson: Oh, good.
Lester Laminack: And I’ve got a little framework that I’ve developed and have tried out with some places, and I’m talking with an editor at the moment to get that together. So I’m hoping, if that project gets off the ground, then making that book one of the key books in the process would help generate enough interest to bring the book back into print. And if not, then at least we’d be able to do it. But Dog Eared is a book that I like using. I also like an older book, but still around.
It’s been reprinted by Scholastic and it’s been in their book club, so I know it’s around in that format, if not in the original format. And it’s called Hey, Little Ant, by Phillip and Anna Hoose. It’s a father and daughter team, and it’s done as a readers’ theater script, and it’s a conversation between an ant and a boy, and the boy has his sneaker raised up and is gonna squish the ant, and the ant is pleading with him, basically, in a debate of why you should spare me. And the boy’s peers are standing behind him urging him on to squish the ant.
And the book closes with the shoe raised up and the reader has to decide did the shoe come down or did the ant get squished or, you know, how was that gonna end? So I like that book. There’s a newer book called Bee-Wigged, by Cece Bell. I like that book a lot because the main character is a very enormous bee, and he wants to go to school and have friends, but everybody’s afraid of him because he’s a big bee, and if that bee were to sting you, then, boy, it would hurt, so no one will be his friend.
And then one day he finds a wig on the sidewalk and puts it on and is walking down the sidewalk, and the school bus driver stops and says, “Hey, boy, you’re gonna be late for school. Get on the bus.” So he goes to school and becomes the teacher’s pet and everybody’s best friend. There’s a parade and he’s the grand marshal. Riding along in the car, the wind blows his wig off, and everybody starts to scatter. “Oh, my God, it’s the bee.” And even after they knew him as a person, the label became what they feared — even though they had come to trust him as an individual.
And then the wig speaks up — lo and behold, it wasn’t a wig after all – it was a hairy guinea pig. And the guinea pig starts speaking up, going, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. You have no reason to fear him. I’ve been with him all week long.” And this reminds them of what they already know, and I like the book to open up this notion of, you know, sometimes we let labels influence our opinions, even though we know the character of the person. And, you know, it gives us an opportunity to have those discussions as well.
And there are several picture books that depict bullying, like Hooway for Wodney Wat, and others, that I think are out there and available. And if you were to put them together and just read them and open some conversations and dialogue — in the first ten days of school, if you read a stack of ten of those types of book, and choose books deliberately so that the types of bullying we typically see are featured in the plot line of this story, before it occurs in the classroom.
Then when the event occurs, we go back to the story so we can objectify the behavior rather than personalize it, and talk about what happened in the story line. How did that make those people feel, why did this bully behave this way, how was that person feeling about these characters? You know, what about those guys over here who just watched it and did nothing, so that we identify in the book the bullied, the bullies, and the bystanders, and begin to look at their behaviors. And then pull back and use that as a lens for looking at our own classroom.
And, you know, not resolve the problem, but open up the conversation and get people to think about it. And then there’s a little book that my friend Heidi Mills gave me once, when she and I were both crossing paths at Teachers College when I’m doing a calendar day. And I was doing some work with this type of book on bullying, and she had a little book called Not My Fault, and it is a very simple little black-and-white book, about the size of both your palms open together.
Little, simple line drawings, and very basic text, until you get to about the last four pages, and then there’s some photographs of some atrocities. And the question, the sort of repeated line coming through those, “Not My Fault,” and it’s about this idea of, “I’m not responsible; therefore, I’m not accountable.” And it kind of highlights the attitude of apathy that occurs with bystanders, and so you kind of absolve yourself of any responsibility because you didn’t participate, yet you did nothing to stop the behavior. And so is it your fault or is it not?
And it opens up another dilemma which makes an opportunity for wonderful conversation.