Archive for bullying

New Slide for School Visits

Came across this today and thought it would make a good slide for my Middle School presentations. It basically expresses where I come out on all the tips and strategies for so-called “Bully Proofing” a school. It’s why these students don’t need to be preached to. They already know. They just need to be encouraged to listen, and supported when they do.

When my presentation is over — which is decidedly not about bully-proofing a school, it’s about writing books — I like to keep up a final slide while the students filter out. Most of my slides are just images, not words. But at the end, I think that last slide can have words. This one just might make the cut.

Thank you, Shel Silverstein!

Fan Mail Wednesday #173: Sally from South Korea Asks About “BYSTANDER”

Here we go, folks. Since this letter essentially consisted of questions, I broke format and inserted my answers directly beneath each question. For your reading pleasure!

This is South Korean student reading your book, Bystander. I really enjoyed reading your book. Your book is even used in debate topic in S.K’s book debate. I am little confused with some parts. And I hope you answer my questions. Thanks.

1. Why did Hallenback hate Eric so much? Eric wanted to help Hallenback.

I don’t have all the answers on this, and by that I mean that your insights are just as valid as mine. For me, I think you need to go back to the opening scene of the book. Hallenback has just been terrorized. He is covered with ketchup, scared and humiliated. Who does he run into but Eric Hayes.  At that first meeting, Eric witnesses David in his time of shame. Utterly degraded. In Eric’s eyes, David Hallenback would always be that bullied kid, covered in ketchup, and Hallenback instinctively knew it.

Later on we learn that David desperately wanted to belong to Griffin’s group. He would have been a lot better off if that was not the case. David resented how the new kid in school, Eric, could quickly be accepted in Griffin’s group of friends. I think when Eric tried to show sympathy to David in the hallway, David perceived it as pity, that Eric was “feeling sorry” for him. So that angered David, too. Remember, when David is hurt or rejected or humiliated, he feels anger — but he doesn’t want to direct it at Griffin. That anger needs a different outlet. Later when Griffin whispers into David ear, asks a favor, David is only too glad to accept. Finally he’ll have a seat at the table.

2. Why did Hallenback try to be friends with Griff?

Oops, I sort of answered that above. For a variety of reasons, Griffin held a certain appeal for David. Griffin was smart, handsome, popular, all the things David wished he could be.

3. What did Eric help directly to Hallenback? He just advised him that don’t let Griff to treat himself with sneer. He just said he understand Hallenback. What help did Eric give to Hallenback?

Foremost, I think Eric was basically decent to Hallenback. Not friends, but civil, respectful, tolerant, compassionate. One time (chapter 19), Eric even tried to reach out to Hallenback a little bit, advise him against Griffin. It only made David angry. In the end, Eric tries to show David another small kindness by offering him a seat at the lunch table, a show of acceptance, but David rejects the offer. Oh well.

4. When Cody got angry with ‘Weasel’ and fought, why did Eric smile in the end? He even thinks ‘Hallenback found out the way to be in Griff’s group’ Is this mean Eric understand Hallenback betraying him, and kicking him? Is he that kind?

No, he’s not that kind. Though maybe he has a twisted sense of humor. The smile and laugh came when Eric was on the ground, bleeding and beaten, and he understood at that moment why Hallenback had betrayed him in the cemetery. David had gotten his unfortunate wish. The smile also signaled to the reader that Eric would be okay.

5. Is Hallenback changed in the end? If he does, how??

I don’t think he’s changed at all, actually. He’s still the same guy. But we’ve seen changes in the people around him. Eric has gained in understanding. Mary changed a lot; so did Cody. We also saw that the police had their eye on Griffin, who had been stealing from parked cars. The future does not look bright for Griffin Connelly. I think in some ways that is what is different about the book. Usually we see how the “bully” is transformed in some positive way. He turns into a nice guy, realizes the error of his ways, everybody becomes friends, etc. I didn’t want to write that kind of book. My focus was on the bystanders, the vast majority, the place where I thought the most meaningful change could occur. I’ll leave you with a quote by Martin Luther King: The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.

I have so many questions on this. I am so curious about these to know. I hope you would answer these. Thanks~

You are very welcome!

JP

The Difference Between Empathy & Sympathy

This video is a surprisingly effective means of demonstrating the power of empathy: what it looks like, what it feels like, what it means to connect.

After writing Bystander, visiting schools and speaking with students and educators, trying to think about and understand this whole “bullying thing,” I’ve come to believe that empathy is one of the central keys. It requires the ability to think outside of one’s self, a diffcult task for some middle schoolers.

Literature helps build empathy, for reading is nothing if not standing in someone else’s shoes. I hope that for all the emphasis placed on anti-bullying programs today, that school leaders never underestimate the power and importance of literature to open hearts, to open minds, and make a difference.

Anyway, please check out the video:

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EINSTEIN: The World Is a Dangerous Place . . .

REPOST: Thoughts On Bullying, Bystanders, and Middle Schoolers

Note: This was first posted over at The Nerdy Book Club, a great sight for fans of children’s books. Recommended.

EVERYBODY ELSE IS ALREADY TAKEN

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

After I wrote the book BYSTANDER (Macmillan, 2009), I began to receive invitations to speak at middle schools. I was wary at first of being perceived as anybody’s “anti-bullying program.”

I wrote a book. Not a pamphlet, not a list of discussion questions, not a nonfiction guide to bullying. I could not offer a handy list of ten ways to make your school a bully-proof zone. I didn’t even believe in it.

I wrote a story –- that was the tool at my disposal.

Stories are essential to our lives. How could we live without them? We watch television, go to movies, tell tales to our friends and neighbors, conjure dreams at night, play complex video games, read books. Humans are storytelling creatures. We seem to need stories. Something inside us craves stories, we hunger for them, ravenous.

Why is that?

Stories function differently than nonfiction. The characters have a way of worming inside our souls. Robert McKee, in his book, STORY, claims that “Stories are equipment for living.”

Equipment for living.

Our lives race past us, a frantic blur, and we move from the next thing, to the next, to the next, with barely a moment’s reflection.

Stories give us pause. They give our lives form and shape. And time. We turn a page. We consider. We piece together the meaning of our days through the stories we hear.

And we ask of these stories the same question, over and over again: What is a good life? How are we to conduct ourselves here on this earth?

Well-told stories, as Harper Lee so beautifully demonstrated in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, allow us to walk in someone’s else’s shoes. Remember that remarkable scene at the end of the book? When Scout walks Boo Radley home, climbs up to his porch, and for a moment turns and looks at the world from his perspective?

Scout concluded: “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”

That’s story.

It’s also called empathy, understanding, compassion.

Here’s McKee again: “A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.”

Story isn’t an escape from reality. It is a light that shines upon the dark corners of our world, the secret places, the hidden fears and hopes and dreams.

It is why books matter, and why, I now know, some teachers have embraced BYSTANDER –- among other novels — as a way to explore this complex topic.

I’ve stood on a stage in auditoriums in front of 500, 600, 700 middle school-age children. Or as they refer to them in Ireland, “young people.” I like that. Young people. So much more intrinsically respectful than kids, little lambs eat ivy.

Despite my experience visiting places like Oklahoma and South Carolina, Illinois and Connecticut, Florida and Michigan, I’m still in the process of learning how to talk about bullying. Still growing into my own shoes. Still learning to speak above a whisper.

One of the central ideas embedded in the book – an idea I came to understand only through the passage of time – also happens to be one that’s incredibly difficult for me to directly convey to middle school students. So I don’t try to tell it, per say, so much as hope it leaks out over everything, like sunlight through the edges of a drawn blind. But I think it’s worth saying to you, here.

Research shows that bullying peaks in middle school. Why is that?

Let’s recall Emerson’s quote from up top, and agree that one of the greatest achievements in life is to become, simply, one’s true self. It sounds easy enough, but as we know, it is not. I’m a father, I have three children, including a 7th-grader and a 9th-grader. I watch their awkwardness and insecurities and struggles.

To be content in your own skin.

To not look to others for your cues.

To accept and trust who you are, to follow your own inner compass.

These are not easy things.

At no time in life is it tougher than in middle school, when peers begin to replace parents as prime influencers. How to dress, what to talk about, what to watch on television, how to act, where to sit, whom to befriend, whom to avoid. This is how we forge identity, hammering out our awareness of self (which is a created thing after all, the “self” we decide to become). At middle school, many of these daily details are powerfully influenced by the pack.

Yet a primary aspect to becoming a true individual is the casting off of those concerns. It’s a challenge for anybody to stand up against the crowd. For a middle schooler, it’s close to impossible. On a deep level, in terms of self-identity, they see themselves as the group. The group is them, the individual swallowed by the great whale. And we are all Pinocchio, trapped inside the dark belly, fumbling for a light, yearning to become a real boy.

This dynamic is how young people find their place in the world. We watch others to learn about ourselves. We tell stories. We listen. And then when it comes to bullying, the adults in their lives tell these young people to not worry what anybody else thinks.

“Who cares what anyone thinks!”

Well, they care. They care so much.

In my heart, I believe the lasting answer to bullying is to become a genuine, authentic, free-thinking, responsible individual. The best definition of responsibility I’ve heard is “the ability to respond,” to act according to the courage of your convictions.

People are good, I absolutely believe that. And the closer people hone into to their true selves, the better and more moral they become.

Be yourself. In doing so, we all become far more likely to allow others the freedom to be their selves.

Shakespeare: “This above all: To thine own self be true!”

Or, if you prefer, Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everybody else is already taken.”

Five Days, 14 Presentations, More than 6,000 Students, and a Cowboy Steak

On Friday the 20th, I traveled to Wolcott, Connecticut, where I spoke to 650 students, grades 6-8, at Tyrrell Middle School. They had all read Bystander as part of their summer reading program and, I’m sure, as part of their school-wide anti-bullying initiative. The feeling in that school was very impressive. Thank you for all your hard work to make this happen, Sara Tedesco. I’ve been wearing the shirt!

Wait. What shirt?

This one:

That’s the design on the back of the long sleeve shirt created and sold (I think) at the school. I was presented with one as a gift.  The design, created by the librarian, Sara Tedesco, was a variation of the Bystander book cover, with a more positive, local spin. Brilliant.

Come to think of it, those students said they read Bystander. But I’ll admit it, some of those kids looked pretty tan. When I see young people under these circumstances, I often apologize, explaining that in all my hopes and wild dreams, I never intended to become somebody’s homework.

On Sunday, I flew from Albany, NY, to Chicago, and then on to Oklahoma City for four full days of visits in the Yukon school district.

Maybe you’ve heard of it.

Garth Brooks was born and raised there.

The main school I visited — it had a big auditorium, so several neighboring schools bused their students to us — was located on Garth Brooks Drive, because of course it was.

My first morning I stopped into a 7-11, still groggy & desperate for caffeine. After I completed the purchase of one cold Starbucks Mocha something, the cashier asked:

“Would you like a sack with that?”

“Excuse me?”

“Would you like a sack?”

My brain was still fuzzy. The flight had been delayed. I had slept less than four hours. “A sock?”

(Yes, in my pre-caffinated state, I silently wondered if, perhaps, in Oklahoma cashiers offered people socks. Maybe this is what they do here? “Why, yes! I’ll take argyle!”)

(Next comes helpless staring, where wonderment meets bewilderment. At last a light bulb goes on.)

“A sack!” I say. “Like a bag!”

“Yes, sack, bag. I call ‘em sacks.”

At that moment, I knew that I had fully arrived in Oklahoma. The land of sacks, not bags, far from the standard question of, “Paper or plastic?”

Across four days in the Sooner state, I gave thirteen presentations to 5,600 students, grades 2-8. And I can honestly say that they all loved me, every single one of them.

Actually, well, there was one kid . . .

The truth is, everyone treated me wonderfully throughout the visit. Respectfully, kindly. I felt blessed and fortunate. I can’t thank everyone enough, and won’t really try to here (I tried to there, in person).

Wednesday night I made it over to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

The museum was incredibly moving, artistic and powerfully effective. I was, at times, a blubbering mess, but in a good way.

If you ever get the chance, by all means, yes, get yourself over to the museum — and prepare to feel the power of that experience right down to the soles of your shoes.

Then I walked over to Bricktown and treated myself to a “cowboy steak” at Mantle’s restaurant, just across from the ballpark. It was a peaceful, reflective, delicious meal, and I was happy to be exactly where I was.

Jenah Hamilton was the force of nature who helped make my visit possible.

Thank you, Yukon, OK. It was really terrific for me to gain a first-hand experience of Sooner Pride. To meet all those kids. And try, in my own limited way, to leave each school a slightly better place where together we value reading, thinking, and basic human kindness.

Most especially, thank you Jenah Hamilton, middle school librarian, the force of nature who made my visit possible.

(I owe you, big time.)

Short, Sweet Review of “BYSTANDER” by The Reading Junky

Came across a nice review of Bystander at the Reading Junky, a site written by a woman about to embark on her 36th year of teaching.

They give out Purple Hearts for that, don’t they?

Or just smile stickers?

Here’s the money quote:

Author James Preller deftly handles a current adolescent concern – bullying.  By breaking the stereotype of the rough, tough bully, and revealing a more devious variety, Preller’s story will make readers consider their own role in bullying situations.

For the full review, click here.

Thank you, Reading Junky!

KINDNESS: My Trip to the 2013 Youth Writing Festival at Calvin College

I just returned from a wonderful, two-night trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I was invited (by Gary Schmidt!) to participate in the 2013 Youth Writing Festival at Calvin College.

At one point it looked exactly like this:

As my Nation of Readers is well aware, I do many visits — particularly at this time of year. It’s fun, it’s beautiful to meet those children, and it’s work. Most visits are great, a few decidedly less so (oh, the stories I could tell), and every once in a while the entirety of a visit feels like a blessing.

Like I’m the luckiest guy in town.

That’s how I felt for my entire trip at Calvin. I was surrounded by caring, dedicated teachers and volunteers  who could not have possibly treated me with more kindness.

These folks did it right every step of the way, and I am grateful to all of them (Gary, Judy, Don, Kristin, Nancy, Debbie . . . far, far too many folks to name, from the President of the College who invited us into his home to the student volunteers who assisted us in countless ways).

For example, in the hotel room, I found a basket of treats and this sweet letter:

I certainly don’t need to be treated like a big deal, and it’s not anything I’ll ever actually believe, but it’s awfully nice when it happens.

As an added bonus, I had the pleasure of meeting artist E.B. Lewis, a dignified man of talent, character, and intelligence. I picked up a copy of his latest book, Each Kindness, written by the great Jacqueline Woodson.

I love this book’s focus on kindness.

And, yes, that sad ending of lost opportunity hits me dang in the heart, hard.

Illustration by E.B. Lewis.

Since I first published Bystander in 2009, I’ve all seen a massive shift in focus on the issue of bullying in the media and in our schools. To the point where it almost feels . . . not over-stated, that’s the wrong word, but somehow . . . misguided at times. Students, especially, seem wary of being talked down to, lectured at, scolded. Hit over the head with the topic, turned off. You have to find a way to bring them to the core values, I think, and I believe that A GOOD STORY is far more effective at building empathy than a list of do’s and don’ts.

I suppose my radar has been, perhaps, more finely attuned to the issue over the past few years. I don’t really believe in talking about “bullying,” per say, since I don’t think that should be the main subject. I believe it’s  more basic than that, for “bullying” is just a sub-set of more significant themes for our children to encounter, consider, and embrace. One trend that I really like (see R.J. Palacio’s Wonder as a prime example) is a renewed focus on the simple things at the heart of the matter: how we should treat each other.

Words like empathy, decency, tolerance, compassion, and kindness.

Basic human kindness. Being a good person.

Do unto others.

Or questions like: How do you think it feels? How would you like to be treated?

This book powerfully expresses those ideas (and ideals).

We learn by meeting characters, by stepping in their shoes, by imagining their feelings, the rumblings in their hearts. We learn through the power of story — that essential human art form that’s been with us since cave dwellers gathered around the fire.

I highly, highly recommend the book, Each Kindness.

I even got a signed copy for my daughter.

Thanks, E.B.

And thank you, everyone at Calvin College, for a trip I’ll long remember.

One Reason Why I Titled the Book “Bystander”

Fan Mail #166: Lessons Learned, Messages Sent (and a Complaint about The Berenstain Bears)

Here’s one I had to think about a little bit, then pause, and reconsider, and pause again.

Dear Mr.Preller:

We are 7th graders at _______ Middle School. We have recently read your book Bystander, and have learned some valuable lessons about bullying. We wanted to thank you for enlightening us in this serious topic. This was a great book, and here are the lessons we learned.

The first is not to judge a book by its cover. An example of this is how Griffin seemed nice, but then turned out to be the bully. Another is how David seemed to be nice, but then led Eric into a trap. This just proves that you shouldn’t judge people before you know them.

We also learned that everyone is different and that sometimes it is perfectly fine to be different. You have showed us that it’s ok to express ourselves because you are you and that is all anyone could ask for. This is a good book to read if you need advice about bullying or having troubles with bullying. We hope you are writing more books about this serious topic and are inspiring more people to stand up to bullying.

Sincerely,

Chloe and Luke

I replied:

Dear Luke and Chloe:

Thanks for reading Bystander and also for taking the time to share your thoughts. It’s interesting when I send a book out into the world — I never know what the world will bounce back. As a writer, I never thought of myself as “teaching lessons” in my books, at least dogmatically, and I’d hate to reduce any novel to just “lessons learned.” At the same time, I would contend that it’s impossible to tell a story without sending a series of signals, values, messages.

I used to hate the Berenstain Bears books. Do you remember those? So popular. Each book set out to teach us something important! It got on my nerves pretty fast. And later on, as I had my own children, I began to intensely dislike how Papa Berenstain was such an unrelenting nit-wit. The big dumb dad, lacking in all thought. Sigh.

So while the stories might have set out to teach a valuable lesson, i.e., “Be nice to grandma!”, the unwritten message was often, “Dad’s kind of a dope. Insensitive, careless, clumsy. You know how fathers are.”

While my book, Bystander, does directly address the dynamic of bullying, what I hope shines through is the importance for readers like you to think for yourselves. To listen to your own heart, the good information that comes from your gut, rather than following the crowd. I never intended to hand a list of easy lessons to readers, and, frankly, I think most readers are loathe to pick up a book to learn “valuable lessons.”

While writing it, I was very much inspired by thrillers. I really wanted to give readers a quick, fast-paced, lively reading experience. A good read! I love literature, I love STORY — I love great television shows and movies, too — because they allow us to intimately visit with human beings we’d likely never encounter in our regular lives. By reading, we see new places, experience different points of view, and walk around in a different pair of shoes. In some books, we’re afforded a glimpse into how a variety of folks might feel at any given time. Rarely is another person 100% right or 100% wrong. It’s not black or white; we mostly come in shades of gray.

Stories help us build empathy, understanding, awareness, and tolerance.

In the end, the book closed, you guys will take away from it what you will. I don’t think there are lessons that you should or shouldn’t learn. Bullying is enormously complex, mostly because people are all so complicated. We are never ONE THING in life. As Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” We are loving and tender and careless and cruel — all before we’ve even sat down to munch on our morning bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats!

Thanks for your great letter, and for prodding me into these thoughts. Stand up, speak out, and above all, be kind.

JP