This month tragedy struck a school district here in Western New York. After enduring ongoing torment and ridicule by his peers, and after multiple cries for help, a middle-school boy took his own life. Perhaps you’ve heard this story before. It begins with the student that is somehow different from the rest of the class. Maybe they have the “wrong” clothes, hang out with “that group,” or don’t say anything at all. You hear them being condemned in the hallway and see them cast by the wayside during lunch. You may not even know their names. These are the students who carry with them the burden of bullying, and they are found in every school in America.
What can we do for these students? Reading the book Slob by Ellen Potter is one way to start. Read on for suggestions on how to teach this powerful young adult novel to your class.
Recent data shows that:
Even more chilling, 60% of middle school students say that they have been bullied, while only 16% of staff believe that bullying occurs. As the head of my school’s anti-bullying committee, this topic is very close to my heart. When this event occurred, I had just finished reading Slob with my class. Focusing on the topics of self-acceptance, loss, bullying, and diversity, Slob packs a punch from beginning to end. It is a book that will linger with you, long after you have read it.
I begin my teaching of Slob by playing the game Paperback with my students. After reading the back cover together, I ask them to think of a good opening sentence or paragraph (depending on ability level) for the story and tell what they anticipate the plot will be about. Most are intrigued by the Oreo cookie illustration on the cover, which leads to an activity on idioms. A majority of my students are literal thinkers; therefore, the concept of idioms can be tricky to teach. I ask them to think about a moment of disappointment or unfairness in their lives and give them a starter such as “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” “You are what you eat,” “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” or “Back to square one,” and ask them to create an illustrated personal narrative. Two differentiated "sketch to stretch" vocabulary sheets help them make connections between the words and the text.
The protagonist of Slob is Owen Birnbaum, an overweight twelve-year-old boy who happens to be a genius. After reading a few pages, my students relate to his plight: he is stereotyped, lonely, and often suffering from low self-esteem. In the midst of profound loss, Owen finds a way to come out on top, offering inspiration to us all. Since the story offers up scenarios that are so relevant to middle-school students, I really want my students to make a connection to the text. This is best done by allowing them to create mental pictures as I read the text aloud. The end result is an insight into the character’s mind, and aids in the understanding of the story. By using a “text-to-self connection” organizer, students create a deeper level of processing.
At the end of Slob, there isn't a dry eye in the house. The topic of bullying and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds resonates throughout my classroom.
This year, we decided to create a public service announcement to be broadcast during our school announcements. In addition, we have decided to create a “bullying box” to place at the front of our district office where students can anonymously report instances of bullying or relational aggression. Although we have a long way to go, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Let’s not be afraid to take it.
For more information on bullying prevention and on how to create a safe school, visit Edutopia.