Tag Archive for Wonder R.J. Palacio

Are Students Sick & Tired of Anti-Bullying Messages? And What About You?

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I have doubts. Not about bullying, exactly — I know it’s a serious issue, a matter of life and death — but I fret about the effectiveness of talking about it.

You could call it an occupational hazard.

Does anyone hear the message anymore?

Anti-bullying rhetoric seems everywhere these days. Trending hot on Twitter. Almost fadish. And I sometimes wonder if kids have tuned it out. In my travels, I’ve talked to many teachers who have expressed that worry.

This year, I’ve visited schools in OH, MA, FLA, MI, NJ, NY, SC, PA, and CN — often because I wrote the book, Bystander. I’ll arrive at a school where all the middle schoolers, grades 6-8, have read and discussed my book. They’ve wrestled with the issues, hopefully identified with characters, felt compassion, empathy, anger. Or, I guess, some of them have just been bored by another book they didn’t get to select themselves. In most cases, my novel is only one small piece of a comprehensive anti-bullying agenda.

But as I’ve said before, I wrote a book. A story. Not a brochure on how to make your school a “bully-free zone.”

Despite the amazing letters I receive, I still wonder what I can say on a school visit that won’t come off as yet another lecture to this audience. What can I say that might make a difference. And if, perhaps, they simply can’t hear it anymore.

Is it worth beating on that same old drum?

Then I opened up The New York Times and read Nicholas D. Kristof’s op-ed piece from Thursday, May 17. And I’m reminded, yet again, why this matters so very much; and how real people — the children in our village — are powerfully effected every single day; and that anything we can do is far, far better than sad resignation.

As an author and father of three children, ages 11, 12, and 19, I believe that the core of this issue comes back to simple values. Do unto others. The importance of thinking to yourself, “How would that make me feel?” Identifying with others. Caring. Our fundamental humanity.

The issue of bullying is about the importance of compassion, tolerance, kindness, and empathy — at a time in life when empathy does not come easily to many middle schoolers. Stories can help. Like Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, to cite one recent, brilliant work of children’s literature. I read it recently and then pressed it into my 5th-grade daughter’s hands. You must read this, I said. I loved the way, like any great book, Wonder brought us into the hearts and minds of different characters. How we experienced forms of bullying, of painful isolation, from the inside out. I loved Palacio’s message of kindness and compassion.

Anyway, I digress.

Here’s an excerpt from Mr. Kristof’s op-ed piece:

Plenty of adults are skeptical about the fuss over bullying. “How come the thin-skinned kids nowadays can’t handle the bullying that made us better, stronger adults?” one man wrote to me on Twitter.

He should read what Madison Jaronski, 15, of New Hope, Pa., wrote:

“Tears have been flooding down my face; breathing is a task that now seems impossible. I draw my legs closer and closer into my chest as I try to transform the pressure into reassuring comfort. I begin to slowly rock myself, and by now my tears have colored my pillow black. …

“All of my accomplishments and enjoyable moments are overshadowed by the pain and harassment that was thrust upon me. Just looking at my surface, you would see a confident young woman, as sturdy as a rock. You would never think that I was broken, broken into a million pieces like shattered glass, all because of the work of a group of senior boys.”

You want to reach out to these kids and envelop them in a big warm hug and tell them that they are smart, sensitive human beings, a thousand times better than their tormenters.

To read the winning essays, go here. Just do it.

You will be blown away.

Here’s a brief sample from one winning essay, written by Lena Rawley, age 17, from Montclair, NJ:

Teenage girls are cruel super-humans from a distant galaxy sent here to destroy us all. They have the self entitlement of a celebrity heiress and the aggression of a Roman Gladiator. Like vampires they feed off the blood of the weak. They’re pubescent monsters. Adolescent boogeymen.

While my observations may be coming from a point of bias, that doesn’t mean they are faulty in accuracy. As a teenage girl myself, I think I know teenage girls quite well. Not only was I a former teenage mean girl, but I was tortured, tormented, isolated and socially maimed by them as well.


Just came across this school that featured a booktalk about Bystander, way back in 2011. I appreciate that this kind of thing has been happening in many schools across the country, and sometimes on a schoolwide scale, but this one is especially sweet since I grew up in Nassau County, too. I just love the idea of parents and kids coming together and talking about this stuff — that this book, my book, offers a safe springboard for those conversations. Wow.


Lastly, here’s a recent Doonesbury . . . still kicking it after all these years.

The Dublin Literacy Conference — featuring Donalyn Miller, Sharon Draper, Ruth Ayres, and Hot Tubs

I had a great time at the Dublin Literacy Conference back in February. I saw a couple of old friends, Karen and Bill from the Literate Lives blog, and finally met two women I’ve known almost exclusively through their terrific blog, A Year in Reading, Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn.

You can’t talk to either Franki or Mary Lee for long before you are promising to read a book or two that they absolutely loved. These are the ones that sounded most interesting to me . . .

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.

I also heard a morning keynote speech from Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer. She was terrific and inspiring, and an expert on building a classroom community of voracious readers. Boys, girls, whoever walks into the room. Many teachers told me that Donalyn’s professional book was excellent — fast, accessible, illuminating, and motivating.

So that was cool, meeting her. Riding in a car with Donalyn in the back seat. We didn’t get much of a chance to talk, pulled in different directions, always seated at different tables, but it was a pleasure to become aware of her, sit in the auditorium and hear Donalyn’s thoughts, humor, and classroom-earned wisdom. The pedagogical stuff was solid, but she really won me over when she talked about specific students in her classroom, these small laser-like observations, like the boy who informed her that he did not read any books the previous year, except this: “I think I might have read Hatchet.” He wasn’t sure. At those points in her talk, I recognized that Donalyn knew these kids, stone-cold knew 6th-graders, and that she loved them. I was sold.

At lunch, Sharon Draper was the keynote speaker. Sharon is a force of nature, strong and lively and confident and outspoken, a woman to be reckoned with. My daughter has already read Out of Mind, so I brought home a copy of this book for my 7th grade son, and he’s reading it now.

Oh yeah, she also had the line of the weekend, quoting from (I think) an African proverb, but addressing all the changes in education these days, today’s sad and misguided emphasis on testing:

“If you want an elephant to grow, you feed it, you don’t measure it!

My most unexpected pleasure came from a young woman I met. We got to talking, she was there to make a presentation, and I slowly realized that this was, holy wow, Ruth Ayres from the fabulous Two Writing Teachers blog.

Me: “I love your blog. You do such a great job. I think I’ve even commented a few times.”

Ruth: “I know!”

I guess I didn’t figure she’d know me, or care, but she did. Anyway, anyway. Ruth and Staci (the other writing teacher) do a “Slice of Life” Challenge through their blog. This is their fifth year, so it’s a slick presentation, there’s even a button thingy you can download or whatever, way beyond the capabilities of this bargain basement blog. Essentially, they invite teachers (and readers in general) to put their money where their mouths are. If you are going to teach writing, then write. And share it. And enjoy it.

By the way, Donalyn was on a parallel mission, calling on teachers . . . to read. It’s obvious, but there you go. A lot of teachers, for valid reasons, feel too busy to read. But even so: Read. No excuses.

To me, I’ve always maintained that teaching = enthusiasm transferred. You want them to catch the reading fever? It helps if you’ve already got the bug.

Next week I’ll share one slice of life from my visit, because I had a great encounter in a hot tub.

No, it’s not what you’re thinking.