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cj bott and Sitka
When I started teaching high school English, my most important realization was that school was just a small part of my students’ lives, with my class getting only a little corner of that part. In that primary realization I saw my responsibility as a teacher. I had been hired to teach high school English, but a student could not learn from my lessons if he or she did not feel recognized and validated for his or her experiences. The 25 kids that came to my first period class brought 25 different life stories with them—and the next class did the same. While one student would read everything written by a particular author, another student might simply be struggling to stay awake after another sleepless night in an unsettled home.
How could I expect all these different students to read and enjoy the chosen classics, written by dead white males for adults in another time, that supposedly defined tenth grade English? My responsibility was to connect the works with their lives or get different books. Enter books written for teens, young adult (YA) literature that validated their lives in the here and now. We read the assigned core books, which I made as tempting as I possibly could, and then I gave them books that told their stories. These were the books they carried around, excitedly traded, and talked about with each other and me. During these talks, I learned a lot about how their stories overlapped the books they were choosing. Our reading workshop (loosely based on In The Middle by Nancy Atwell) contributed to the course grade.
I was also involved with several student groups. Early on, I worked with the school’s drug prevention program and co-facilitated support groups one for recovering teens, another for children and siblings of addicts. In another group we tried to help our African-American males stay strong enough to resist the temptation of gangs. Then another teacher, Helen Byrdsong, and I created Women Helping Educate Women (W.H.E.W.) for our female students. We worked on goal setting and educating our women students on such topics as their health, STDs, their future, and other problems they would face as women in the work world, with a special focus on sexual harassment. Then I joined three other staff members to organize a gay straight alliance (GSA) to support and validate gay teens or those who were still defining their sexuality, and for those students who wanted to support someone in their life who was gay. All of these groups dealt with stereotyping, bullying, and harassment.
With our discussions on sexual harassment in the W.H.E.W. meeting, we talked not only about the work world but also the harassment in their daily lives. While educating ourselves about GSAs, we researched and discussed homophobia and xenophobia. Eventually I helped create an Acceptance Statement that was posted in every classroom in our high school. When I retired, it had been adapted for all classrooms from fifth grade to twelfth.
All the time, I continued reading research on bullying and added fiction titles, from picture books to high school novels, that dealt with harassment—and the connection happened. Most teachers just naturally teach books to increase awareness on special topics. Why not start an on-going bibliography of books that contain a focus on bullying and harassment and add that to my consulting presentations? When I retired after thirty years in teaching, a job I loved, I wrote The Bully in the Book and in the Classroom, with 200 titles of books, K-12, that I started calling “Bully Books.”
And that’s how I got here.
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