As is the case for many teenagers, middle school was a difficult transitional period for me. I was gawky, had pimples, and had a hard time maintaining elementary school friendships because I was too busy trying to figure out who I was and what this whole puberty thing was all about. I unapologetically participated in gymnastics, chorus, and theater, but was too preoccupied with my passions to realize that “being myself” went against social mores for teenage boys. It’s no surprise I was a victim of bullying.
I spent many sleepless nights wondering if doing what I loved was worth the ridicule and alienation that often accompanied it. I didn’t want to worry my parents so I didn’t talk to them about it, plus I feared that any form of adult intervention would exacerbate the situation. There wasn’t a guidance counselor or an established bully prevention program, so my only defense was the thick skin I developed over the years. If I acted like the bullying didn’t bother me and if I denied its existence, then it would stop. Eventually it did. Life went on, we all matured, and by the time I got to college I surrounded myself with friends who shared my interests. Ironically, my career path has brought me back to the place that once caused me so much angst and anxiety – the middle school classroom. In a sense, I feel like fate guided me here to give every student – the bully, the victim, and the bystander – something that I lacked at their age--hope.
Preventing bullying takes more than just pointing fingers
Eighth-grade students at my school are no strangers to anti-bullying methodology. We were the pioneer school in the district to adopt the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Like any program, it’s only as effective as the commitment made to it by administration and staff. Anti-bullying is much more than pointing fingers and labeling the perpetrators. After all, teens who are labeled as bullies are unlikely to simply change their ways just because they have been accused of bullying.
Preventing bullying behaviors also goes beyond hanging rules on a classroom wall. If you’ve taught middle school you know that breaking rules becomes a rite of passage for these youngsters. Furthermore, the more we repeat the rules, the more likely they are to break them. They become desensitized to the message.
The real goal should be to undermine bullying behaviors by fostering compassion in classroom settings where no student wears a label on his or her forehead.
Bridging the gap between theory and practice
The biggest challenge that educators face is applying anti-bullying theories in ways that produce the desired outcome – a decrease in bullying behavior. How do we walk the fine line between creating an environment of acceptance and boring our students with redundant anti-bullying messages? In particular, I’ve found that teaching about the Holocaust offers an opportunity to address intolerance in a historical context while raising my students’ emotional intelligence.
I start with a pre-assessment of the students in my Process Writing classes. Students complete it anonymously so they can be completely honest. The questions include:
- Do you think bullying is a serious problem in your school or community? Why or why not?
- How do you think bullies feel when they demean someone else?
- Do you think it’s possible to make a bully understand other people’s feelings? Why or why not?
- How do adults in your school community address bullying? What interventions have you seen adults use to prevent or stop bullying?
- What interventions can young people use to prevent or stop bullying?
- Do you think you’ve ever bullied someone? If so, what made you stop? What made you want to bully someone again?
I was most surprised by the students’ answers to Numbers one, four and six. Almost every student felt that bullying is not a serious problem in our school because we have a bullying protection program. Ironically, a large percentage of the same students admitted to bullying behavior in Number 6 and explained that anger and frustration were the causes of that behavior. Fear of retribution, as many students explained, was a popular reason why they stopped their bullying behavior. Shockingly, almost every student admitted to witnessing an adult figure turn his or her head instead of addressing the bullying situation.
Often overlooked in discussions of the Holocaust, as well as the discussion of bullying, is the concept of the bystander’s responsibility to act. When we teach about the Holocaust in history or language arts, we tend to point fingers at the perpetrators who carried out mass murders. We also spend a good deal of time on the victims, as we should, by examining their collective and individual experiences with injustice and despair. Perhaps more numerous than perpetrators and victims is the one group we frequently overlook—the bystanders. A bystander’s fears or lack of skills can turn into apathy and further tolerance of social cruelty to others. Continued “turning away” can create a climate of indifference and a code of silence.
I instruct my students to choose a teenage Holocaust victim from an assortment of resources and then study their experience. Based on their studies, each student puts themselves in the victim’s shoes and writes a poem or song, keeping in mind that this innocent victim died at a young age. By doing so, my students escape their own identities and enter the minds and hearts of another teenager who might have been helped by a bystander.
I am always amazed at what my students produce. Their poems and songs are so beautiful, and although each may represent different levels of intellect and analytical thinking, one trait remains constant – an increased awareness or empathy for those who lost their lives during this tragic time. In addition to teaching the history behind the Holocaust, I expose my students to literature that opens up their eyes to the consequences of silence. Through reading and analysis of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous statement (“First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist....”) as well as the allegorical tale Terrible Things by Eve Bunting, students understand the consequences of inaction and are able to apply these situations to their daily lives.
Upon completion of the autobiographical memoir, The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender, students will have experienced the devastation of loss, the guilt of remaining silent, and the hope that comes with survival. Not measurable in any assessment and something that is so noticeable every day and every class period during which we study the Holocaust: silence. Whether stunned by what they have heard or showing respect for the magnitude of the losses suffered, students often sit silently and participate in discussion in a manner that is so hesitant, there seems to be a pervasive respectfulness about the topic. The narratives of the Holocaust illustrate the extremes of human behavior from blatant hatred and cruelty to courage and mankind’s humanity and kindness. Exposing teenagers to these experiences allows them to make real-life connections that resonate in their actions toward others.
When students realize for themselves that their bullying or bystander behavior must stop without being told it must stop, then we know we’ve made a difference and we will witness a decline in bullying incidents. If you can provide a safe environment for your students where they can listen to these stories and feel compassion for victims in real life situations, then these feelings will resonate in their own lives and their morals will strengthen. The hope is that our students will naturally be inclined to exhibit tolerance and eventual acceptance of those who are different.
Making it work for any curriculum
Just as I hold my students accountable for their writing in every subject, we must all hold them accountable for the behaviors they display in every classroom and hallway. Compassion and empathy are emotions that transcend all facets of human interaction regardless of the subject matter. When students feel sadness, remorse, heartache, or empathy, they are expressing a form of caring. And when you are taught to care for someone then you can naturally learn to care for each other. Will this fix every problem? No. But it is definitely is a step in the right direction.
The ability to empathize is vital. Personal responsibility is such an important part of a caring and safe environment, and it is a vital life skill. Today’s students will learn to care if caring behaviors are modeled by all of the adults in their lives. Since time seems to be what most teachers lack in an increasingly more challenging profession, this may seem like an impossible feat. That’s why it’s important to incorporate these messages into what is already being taught. Language arts classes are rich with opportunities for students to make emotional connections with ideas and characters `and to celebrate tragedies and triumphs. I believe every teacher of every subject can find opportunities to infuse messages of empathy and compassion into their lessons without compromising academic integrity.
In addition to the aforementioned Holocaust Unit, there are so many wonderful ways to teach empathy in any language arts classroom.
- For literature to be meaningful there must be a relationship between the readers and the characters in the books and stories they read. In most literature that addresses intolerance and its effects on human rights, teachers can note and reinforce the similarities between fictional characters and the students, therefore bridging the gap between the fictional them and us.
- Journal writing serves as a springboard for a student’s imagination. Ask students to make up their own definitions for words like caring, respect, ignorance, and hate. Stemming from this, students can create a vocabulary of emotions that they can hang in classrooms throughout their school.
- Classroom debate serves as a wonderful vehicle for discussing topics that revolve around human interaction and character traits. Is there a difference between tolerance and acceptance? Ignorance and stupidity?
Social studies naturally connects with most themes introduced in language arts. Teachers and students can explore the human condition using historical events as their guide.
- How did America show empathy toward other countries in times of warfare or tragedy, and how do we continue to do so? How have we accepted different cultures in our own country? Does America ever fall short of our expectations?
- High school students and teachers can explore societal reactions to gender, sexuality, and religion in ancient civilizations and compare these reactions to the present day. What are their implications?
- Students and teachers can explore stereotypes that Americans have of people from different cultures and countries. How do these stereotypes affect our perceptions of these people and our interactions with them?
- Pictures speak a thousand words. Students can draw, paint, or photograph pictures of people in the school community who engage in acts of kindness and hang them around the school during a week of kindness or respect.
- Teachers and students can listen to their favorite songs that relate to the theme of empathy and understanding. How do the lyrics express these themes?
- Students can compose and write lyrics for original songs dealing with empathy and understanding. Bands and choruses can perform these pieces at scheduled school music assemblies.
- Genetics is a wonderful way to introduce children to gender and racial differences. Teachers and students can discuss stereotypes based on physical characteristics. Why do they exist? How can we stop them?
- Science teachers can even infuse empathy into their lessons on planets and the solar system. Students can work in groups to define and develop their idea of the “perfect” universe. They can incorporate these ideas into our universe by creating their own perfect planet. NASA Education offers a fun, interactive website (http://astroventure.arc.nasa.gov/) where students can do just that. In addition to considering star type and orbit, students can write about the physical and cultural characteristics of the inhabitants of their planets.
- Students can create traditional word problems that incorporate weekly themes of empathy and acceptance.
- Teachers can create charts that track the acts of kindness they witness in their classrooms on a daily basis and break them down by grade, gender, and student. From these charts, teachers can teach about fractions, percentages, and ratios, just to name a few.
- At the high school level, students can take a deeper look at the lingering economic effects of slavery, segregation and other forms of institutionalized bias.
This is just a sampling of ideas that can open new windows for learning in today’s schools. The Teaching Tolerance website (www.tolerance.org) also provides a volume of resources that help all core content teachers introduce diversity and empathy into their classrooms.
Compassion and empathy are emotions that transcend all facets of human interaction regardless of the subject matter. When students feel sadness, remorse, heartache, or empathy, they are expressing a form of caring even if they are solving an algebraic expression or completing a chemistry lab. When students are taught to care for something they simultaneously understand how to care for someone, which is the heart and soul of acceptance. Will this end bullying? No. But if it changes the attitudes and behavior of a few students, it is well worthwhile.
Michael Seaman has been an eighth-grade literature/process writing teacher at Orange Avenue School in Cranford since 2005. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in educational supervision and administration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.