Class Discussion Guide, Talking Points, and Other News About “BYSTANDER”

Some exciting things have been happening with my book, Bystander. I’m hearing from schools that wish to purchase multiple copies, make it a school-wide read for an entire grade, and so on. Some perceive the book as an accurate, realistic representation of bullying in a middle school environment, a good starting point for classroom discussion, and as a useful tool in their overall anti-bullying programs.

Of course, I’m gratified to hear that.

I’ve been asked about a teaching guide, paperback reprints, and suggestions for “discussion starters.”

On that front:

* Feiwel & Friends is currently creating a Discussion Guide which will be available as a free PDF file on the MacKids “bonus materials section.” (I think that’s right, anyway.) When that happens, I’ll let you know.

* My publisher is also taking the rare move of creating a bound Teacher’s Edition of the book.

* There is talk of a paperback printing in the future, but no date has been set. Very probably, Fall of 2011.

In the meantime, in response to requests for more immediate discussion starters, I sat down and wrote out this list of talking points that might help teachers encourage students to think about Bystander. I’m not a professional educator and I really don’t know how this kind of thing is done, but I figured I’d wing it. In that sense, it’s very much like having children. You just sort of fake it.


Note: Spoiler alert!

* In the character of David Hallenback, we see a victim/target who turns around to become a bully against Eric Hayes. Research shows this to be a common dynamic, that a target often becomes a bully. Why do you think this might be true? This kind of pattern is often called a “vicious cycle.” Why might you think that’s an appropriate phrase?

* From the book, we learn that Mary has been involved in cyber-bullying in the past. Why do you think this particular form of bullying — creating a web page, or simply sending a mean email — is on the rise today? What makes it easier?

* Think about Eric’s mother’s actions and reactions in the book. Do you think she made any mistakes? What did she do right?  What would you want to tell adults about the “real” stories behind bullying?

* In chapter 20, a gathered group of boys discuss their responses to Griffin’s behavior. A number of excuses are mentioned by various characters as to why they elect to do nothing, including: 1) The unreliability of authority figures to respond; 2) The threat of retaliation; 3) That the victim, at least on some level, deserves it; 4) That it’s human nature, the law of the jungle, and will always persist; 5) That it’s better to stay out of it; and lastly, 6) That no one should “rat out” another student. Are any of these valid reasons for remaining a bystander? Why and why not?

* In what is known as “the bystander effect,” it’s been learned that group behavior is often less moral/ethical than individual behavior. For example, imagine a figure laying on the sidewalk. Groups of people have, in various tests, failed to stop and help the injured person. Yet individuals — alone — are much more likely to stop and try to be of assistance. Psychologists call this “the diffusion of responsibility.” Why do you think this is so? Do we become less humane, less our true selves, in group settings? How might this relate to peer pressure?

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Here’s another interesting video on the topic:

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* The ending of the book does not provide a typical Hollywood conclusion, where it’s all wrapped up and the bully gets punished. Instead, the story strives for something more realistic. What do you think will happen with the characters in the future, particularly with Griffin and his friends? What clues in the text support your conclusion? Pay attention to Cody: What did  you think of him?

* Griffin Connelly is represented as a smart, charismatic, articulate, intelligent boy. Why do you think he’s involved in bully behaviors? What character traits do you think he might lack?

* Eric’s father is absent from the story, living miles away. What effect do you think this had on Eric? Do you feel it helped make him a potential target in Griffin’s eyes?

* To what extent is it fair to blame some of David Hallenback’s problems on himself? What mistakes does he make? Are there things he might have done differently? Did he in any way bring these problems onto himself?

* Do you feel the school authorities — ranging from the principal, teachers, counselors and the school resource officer — acted appropriately throughout? Could they have done more to address the problem?

* Late in the book, Mary decides to no longer worry so much about what others think. Why do you believe this is a good or a bad thing?

I’m sure an experienced educator, or a thoughtful fifth-grader, could come up with many more topics for discussion. I hope it’s of some use. Ultimately, this is a story, a work of fiction, an entertainment, and  succeeds or fails as such. Not every book has to be taught or discussed; a story must work in that individual relationship between text and reader. Bystander is concerned with the dangers of abstraction, the disconnection between cause and effect (particularly where cyber-bullying is concerned), and the importance of individuality — though I never say so directly. Except for now, here.

And I have to say it again: Thank you, Rich Deas, for creating this amazing cover.


  1. Jenna says:

    I did use Bystander in my sixth grade class this year. It was an amazing experience. We had some great conversations about some difficult topics. At the end we even had a mock trial to decide if we felt Eric and Mary were guilty of bullying. The best part happened afterward though, when a student left a note on my desk alerting me to a student that was being picked on. In the note they said “I don’t want to be a bystander anymore.”
    So thank you, for this wonderful, realistic, thoughtful book.

    PS- Please encourage your publisher to speed up that paperback printing!

  2. Jimmy says:

    Thanks for that note, Jenna!

  3. slang says:

    I feel every middle school student should read this book. I am requiring it as a summer read. It has great potential for moral and ethical discussions and I am anxiously awaiting a teacher’s guide.

  4. jimmy says:

    Susan, thanks for the support. As I’ve said from the beginning, this is a talking book, one that in the hands of a good educator could lead to many lprovocative classroom discussions.

    Wait. I always feel like I make it sound like a textbook when I write that, and I don’t think that’s the case. I tried to write it almost as a thriller, set to simmer. Hopefully it works on different levels — as a good read, a good story — and a starting point for lively debate.

    As for a teacher’s guide, I’m not sure there’s going to be one. I might be wrong about that. If you are interested, however, I’ve tried to include a lot of background info on this blog. Just click on “Bystander” on the right sidebar, and it will lead you to numerous entries about the book. You’ll have to dig a bit. Thanks again for stopping by.


  5. Danyelle says:

    We will start reading Bystander next week. As I ready myself for the discussions that my eighth graders will hopefully want to have, I am wondering how many of them will have their own stories to tell about bullying and intimidation.

    Thank you for the “Talking Points” section above as well as the Youtube videos. They will be helpful in my lessons.

  6. Sally says:

    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 hated Eric so much? Eric wanted to help hallenback.

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

    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 Hallen back?

    4. When Cody got angry with ‘Weasel’ and fought, why did Eric smiled 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?

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

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

  7. Gracie says:

    Hi. I have this book as a reading assaignment for going to the 7th grade. There us a question I have about how Eric’s character trait changes from beginning to end? Also is bystander a personality trait?

    • jimmy says:

      Gracie, yes, it’s always interesting to look for change in characters across the length of a book. To me, the key character in the story is a minor one, Mary. She is the one who changes the most. I tended to see Eric more as a witness, almost like a detective analyzing the facts of a mystery. Eric changes in his awareness and in his understanding. Whereas Mary, I think, shows the courage to stand by her convictions, even though it means being shunned by her current group of friends. So, there you go. Do you have any more homework for me to do? Thanks for reading my book!

  8. Sumerlyn Ellis says:

    1. Think about Eric’s mother’s actions and reactions in the book. Do you think she made any mistakes? Do you think she made any mistakes?
    2. What reactions by David Hallenback made Eric realize he was as bad as Griffen and the gang?

    • jimmy says:

      Sumerlyn, it’s funny, I see this idea quite often — that Eric is “as bad” as Griffin — and I don’t agree with it. Yes, I guess one of the central ideas of the book is that we all need to examine our roles in any dynamic. No one gets away without any responsibility.

      (What is responsibility, btw, if not the “ability” to respond?)

      As bystanders, we play a part. As witnesses, we play a part. Many behaviors are done in front of a receptive audience, for laughter or for support, so we have to look out how we might (unknowingly) support negative behavior, if only with our silence (and tacit approval).

      It’s tricky; I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I don’t think a bystander is “as bad” as a bully, generally speaking.

  9. Victoria says:

    What are some conflicts that occur in the book with some authority figures? And which authority figures? Teachers? Counselors?

  10. Charity says:

    hi, I wanted to ask you just one question. How does Eric personality change from the starting of the story to the end of the story ?

    • jimmy says:

      I think he does, for sure. Of course, the character I always point to as someone who changes the most is Mary. Look at her arc, the distance she travels from beginning to end. So suffers the consequences and reaps the rewards. I’ve come to see Mary as the secret “star” of the story. A minor but key character. She deserves her own book!

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