Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Anti-Bullying Lesson? Really?

A couple of nights ago as I was tucking in my youngest for bed, her face took on a serious expression. I've been around the block with this expression with both kids now, and when it happens at bedtime it inevitably means that there is something very deep on the mind of the child wearing the expression, and it also usually means that she needs to talk and unload and dialogue about it. And it inevitably happens at bedtime. :-) I used to be irritated at the delay in sleep for them and in "me/us" time for us parents, but I've come to love the close times and the thoughtful discussions that they seem to be most open to at these times, so I usually try to roll with it.

The week before, Monkey Child had been putting in a fair amount of time on a self-portrait that had been assigned by her third-grade teacher; one day the basic drawing, then some details, then some clothing, finally some color. And since Monkey is a very detail-oriented kid when it comes to her artwork, she put in a LOT of time over those few days to make it just so. She took it off to school and I didn't hear about it again until Monday evening at bedtime.

"Mom, we did something with our portraits in class on Friday," she said, quietly and seriously in the mostly-dark room, illuminated only by the rainbow that shines for 10 minutes after the main light goes off.

"Oooh, really?" I replied, curious to know how they'd been used.

"We used them for a lesson about bullying," she continued. "Each person in the class got someone else's picture to hold...." and suddenly my heart sank, hoping that I was NOT about to hear what I did indeed hear next.

She rolled over onto her side away from me and her voice became choked and muffled as she described a lesson in which each child's portrait was crumpled up into a ball by another student, and then opened up to show the wrinkles - and to show that the wrinkles were permanent and that the person in the portrait would never be as good as new again. I couldn't tell what bothered her more: seeing her own picture being destroyed in front of her by another child, or being directed to destroy another child's portrait (she told me she didn't want to do it.). She also said that "a lot of kids in the class were sad and some were crying. I was crying too!" Tears ran across her face as she lay there, and eventually she turned around and snuggle into me, holding me as tightly as she could, and I held her right back and stroked her back while my mind raced with some extremely uncomplimentary thoughts about the lesson. There were so many things wrong with what I was hearing that once the cat came visiting and began purring at Monkey and helping her settle for the night, I headed to the computer to vent - and to look for answers.

To a person, everyone who commented on my Facebook note describing what I'd just been told responded with shock, horror, and outrage. Once my blood pressure went down, I decided to email the teacher the next morning. To be fair, I'd been told a story of a pretty highly-charged lesson, but I also couldn't be 100% sure that it was the whole story; it was certainly possible that there was more to it than I was hearing, so I went looking for answers.

The next morning I recounted to the teacher, via email, what I'd been told, and emphasized Monkey's reaction. In response, the teacher replied that Monkey's reaction in class hadn't at all been what I'd described and that she had been just fine. I was also told that there was discussion and some written response after the activity, so I made sure to ask Monkey about that when she got home from school that day. I also asked the teacher where the lesson had come from, whether it was part of our district's new Common Core-based curriculum, and was told that this lesson had come from the curriculum website and had been done by 2 of the other 3rd-grade classes. (I'm left wondering about that 4th third-grade class now.) I went to look on the website and after two days of searching I have yet to find it, but really, that isn't the point (although if and when I work out who thought this was a good lesson for third-graders, I will be hard-pressed to not go Momma-Bear on him or her!).

 When I had the opportunity to ask her later about the talk and writing after the activity, Monkey re-iterated that many children were sad and some were crying, including her. When I asked what she wrote, she replied that she wrote that when her picture was crumpled up, it made her feel like *she* had been crumpled up. [Sorry, I need a moment here, because it's stabbing me through the heart - AGAIN - that my child was made to feel this way on purpose.] This. Is. Never. Ever. Okay.

There are so many many things WRONG with this lesson as it was presented:

Firstly, and to me most horrific, was that students were asked to destroy other students' work. In other words, students were MADE to hurt other students, ON PURPOSE. Monkey is a sensitive soul who feels things very deeply; I can only imagine that she needed the intervening weekend to process what had happened before she was ready to share it with me. How could anyone who works with children for a living possibly think that this was a remotely good idea? If my kid needed a weekend to process it, I'm left wondering how other children reacted. Did anyone else's child need to build a protective wall to protect their feelings, to de-sensitize them to the pain? If that's not a way to enable children to BEGIN bullying, I don't know what is. In my view, this is damaging to the children at the deepest psychological level, essentially asking them to commit violence on another, even "only" through representations of other children.

A close second is that children put time and effort into their portraits, which were destroyed right in front of them, without warning, at the direction of their teacher. At no time do I EVER want my child to think it's OK for an adult in charge, or for a student leader either, to condone destruction of another person's hard work. I want my children to feel safe that the work they invest themselves in for any reason, whether it's for their own pleasure or for an assignment, will be kept SAFE by the adults in charge.

Thirdly, this sends a message to young children that if they are bullied, they will not be able to heal themselves. I don't WANT my child to believe that, not for a moment! I want her to know she is STRONG. I want her to know she has avenues of help and support if she is being bullied, and that she CAN not only heal but come back STRONGER. I want her to learn to advocate for herself. I want her, if she ever has to participate in a lesson like this again, to feel confident enough in her knowledge of what is right and wrong, to stand up and say, "No, I will NOT do this. It's wrong, and it's hurtful, and that's not how I roll!"

Fourth, there is the possibility that there will be students who take pleasure in the destruction of others' work, in damaging others; in this scenario, this behavior is not only condoned but encouraged. Students weren't just permitted to damage another child's work, but were directed to do so! This is a confusing message to send to a young child who may still be old enough to reach in a much more positive way that would be much more likely to present other ways to deal with whatever causes/caused that child to enjoy hurting others.

As it turns out, there are a number of anti-bullying lesson plans online that include the paper-crumpling component; it's been around for a while and I've seen it before. After two days of searching, though, I have not found a single one that includes portraits. I did have another teacher mention that she's done the activity but with neutral faces (in my head I see a basic smiley face on a piece of blank paper). But I've been through pages and pages of Search results and found no other lessons that went this extra step.

Now, to be clear, I don't think that anyone in the school had bad intentions; I want to believe that everyone who created, approved, and implemented this lesson had in their hearts and minds the prevention of bullying down the road. In my opinion, though, it was utterly inappropriate for kids this young, who don't yet all have the emotional and psychological capacity to handle it the way those in charge probably visualized. Third-graders are NOT small adults, or even small fifth-graders!

But CrunchyMama, you may be imploring, Don't we WANT our children to know how bad bullying feels? Don't we WANT them to avoid it like the plague?

Of course we do. But I believe there are many far more effective and far less harmful ways to accomplish this, especially in Early Elementary grades. I *might* see the point of this lesson in middle school - MAYBE. But for 8-year-olds? Nuh-uh.

But what alternatives are there?

How about starting with the obvious: set up situations where children are KIND to each other and call attention to how THAT makes them all feel. Seriously, can there BE a situation where a child is not uplifted by the experience of kindness, whether as a giver or a recipient of the kindness? If we reinforce this, if we give multiple opportunities for this to become the norm, how can we not help students to begin to make kindness the default behavior instead of the bullying?

Some other lesson plans I found online included reading some short scenarios and discussing whether or not they constituted bullying, and whether any of the participants, or even the onlookers, could have helped - and how. A few had children acting out basic scenarios, followed by class discussion. I'm not too fond of this option, for the same reasons as above: I am very uncomfortable with the idea of having students in positions where they are even pretending to hurt others.

Still other lessons were focused on empowering children who were being bullied to stand up for themselves, or to seek out help, and on encouraging students who were witnessing the bullying to intervene or to get an adult to do it if necessary.

But to instead use a lesson where children are "crumpled up" - I cannot fathom it, I cannot condone it, and I don't EVER want another child to go through that. And I *will* get to the bottom of this, one way or another, and do my best to see that this lesson is retired. Perhaps it needs to be "crumpled up."

[Update: I now have a copy of the actual lesson - and it's BAAAAD.]

[Final update: Contacted the curriculum office and the lesson has been removed - see here. YAY! :-) ]

1 comment:

  1. A number of people have contacted me on Facebook to tell me that they aren't able to comment here. I'm not sure why the blogging platform won't let commenters comment - I've deleted my fair share of Spam! LOL - but so far none of the comments I've gotten on my Facebook page have been complimentary of the lesson. I've had people suggest calling the school and giving the principal an earful, I've had people suggest contacting the teacher - which I did do, and which, were I the teacher, I would want as well - I've had people suggest that counselors and child psychologists should have looked at that before it was actually used on students (and I'm hoping that those parties did NOT see it and sign off on it, because to me, that would be WORSE!). There were countless expressions of outrage, of anger, of sadness, of shock and consternation, but none who thought that this was a good lesson. Not one.


Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)