Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Five Words to Call Out a Bully

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Recently, actress Jennifer Aniston had the chance opportunity and the courage to stand up to a bully. It may be hard for anyone to believe that Aniston could be the victim of bullying considering her stunning good looks, international fame, and resulting wealth, but she was often on the receiving end of nasty nicknames and comments slung at her by celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton. She describes how she accidentally bumped into him in a parking garage one evening and felt compelled to ask him one question comprised of five words. Those five words carried quite a bit of power, enough to make someone like Perez Hilton rethink his behavior. She asked him, “Why are you so mean?”

Perez Hilton spoke with talk show host Ellen Degneres about being called out for being a bully. Interestingly enough, Hilton says he doesn’t want to be perceived as a bully, and it was “…a big wakeup call that so many people perceived me that way.” He says he felt justified in his behavior because it wasn’t the “real him” doing the name-calling; it was a character. Degeneres points out to him that, “Kids look at [his bullying] and go, ‘Well, adults think it’s funny to make fun of other people; why can’t we make fun of other people?’”

There is so much to be learned from this situation. One is for adults to realize that kids do pay attention to what they do and how they treat other people. Whether or not someone is famous, whether or not someone considers him or herself a role model, kids learn social behavior by watching adults.

Another thing that is interesting to note is the rare glimpse into the way a bully’s mind works. Hilton himself said he found ways to justify his name-calling, and he never realized anyone actually thought of him as a bully. Parents, teachers, and even kids themselves can make good use out of this insight. Bullies may know on the surface that what they are doing is wrong, but if they can create a justification for it, then they are able to perceive their behavior as acceptable. They don’t think they are being bullies, either, because they have used pretzel logic to make their behavior feel okay.

Finally, I think Aniston has provided a great way to call a bully out by asking the simple question she posed to Perez Hilton. Asking, “Why are you so mean?” is a great way to be assertive (as opposed to aggressive, which is often met with further aggression). The question doesn’t draw attention to the victim directly, and it shows the bully that his or her behavior has been noticed and asks him or her to explain his or her actions. This question, delivered in a direct tone of voice, must be quite disarming to a bully. It’s possible that the bully will retort with some sort of snide answer, but hopefully it will be enough to give the bully pause at some point to reflect on his or her behavior.

This is a question that either a victim or a bystander can use to address a bully. This question subtly sends the message, “I know what you are doing. It’s easy to label. I’m calling you out on it. I won’t put up with it.”

This Hollywood story has a relatively happy ending. Perez Hilton has acknowledged his nasty behavior and vowed to improve, which he has done pretty effectively. Yes, he still likes to comment on juicy celebrity stories, but the tone of his blog has changed noticeably. It has been a long time since he has been truly insulting; he has managed to create a way to keep up the gossip without being quite so destructive. Bullies can change – all it takes is one good jolt to wake them up to what they are doing. Jennifer Aniston, by standing up for herself, gave all our kids one more tool to use to bring bullies down.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

No Laughing Matter

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Yesterday morning, I checked Facebook and noticed that one person I am friends with had made many, many posts on another friend’s page. I’m talking 50 or 60 posts. I cringed because I knew what this meant: I was eventually going to see a comment something akin to, “Thanks for raping my Facebook wall!” Sadly, I wasn’t disappointed; that comment did appear once the posts were discovered. This is not the first time I have seen, in particular, high school and college students throw around the word “rape” in such a casual way. I find it incredibly disturbing. Even more disturbing is that every time I see it on Facebook, it is almost always said by a female. When did this word become socially acceptable to use in such a flippant way? What is going to happen if it continues to be used to describe unfortunate but meaningless situations like having too many posts on your Facebook wall?

There is actually a new term for what happens when someone’s Facebook page is left open and “hacked” by someone else or the Facebook page is hit with hundreds of posts; it’s called “frape”, a combination of the words “Facebook” and “rape” (read an article about the effects of “frape” on boys here, and see the Urban Dictionary definitions offered here, but reader beware – at Urban Dictionary, you will encounter a deluge of obscene language, but realize this is “the site” kids use to pump up their slang).

Rape is no laughing matter. It’s nothing to be taken lightly. It’s not something to make a joke out of. It should never be treated insensitively. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network has compiled some research findings and statistics that have frighteningly real implications for our children, including
• 44% of rape and sexual assault victims are under the age of 30.
• 29% of rape and sexual assault victims are between the ages of 12 – 17.
• Girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
• Victims of sexual assault are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
• About 2/3 of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.
• 60% of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported to the police.

There is an immense amount of education that needs to be done in order to prevent our daughters from becoming victims of this heinous crime. One of those pieces of education needs to be teaching our daughters AND sons that there is nothing funny, silly, or casual about rape, and that using the word in a joking way diminishes the impact of the word and therefore the act itself and makes it sound socially acceptable. Which is not acceptable at all.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Honors Classes: Yes or No?

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Every January, my 8th graders need some extra special TLC from me. This is because January is the month for applying to honors classes in high school. There is always a great deal of angst among the students and their parents about honors classes. The most common question I receive is whether or not a student should apply for honors classes. The answer to this question is not cut and dried. If you have a child who might be considering honors classes for high school, I offer the following things to consider.

First, think about why you want your child in an honors level class. As a teacher of gifted 7th and 8th graders, I see parents divided into two camps in response to this question, although few will admit to being in one of the camps. One group of parents wants their children to be challenged, and they appreciate the advanced curriculum I strive to offer. I try to teach my class on par with a high school class in terms of curriculum, activities, work load, and student responsibility. As a result of this, my class isn’t really an “easy A” class. Sometimes these highly intelligent kids with great work ethics don’t get all A’s in my class. The parents who appreciate the challenge are okay with this. The other camp includes parents who like the prestige of being able to say that their child is in an accelerated class. These parents often like being able to brag about their children earning all A’s, too; there is a great deal of prestige in a child being able to accomplish this. Sometimes, these parents get very upset with the curriculum because of the level of complexity. However, I feel it is imperative to offer a challenging curriculum to these advanced learners and sometimes they don’t earn an A right away. Most high school honors classes are going to be very challenging, so be honest with yourself and don’t strive for your child to enter an honors program if you want it only for the prestige factor.

Next, realize that it takes a lot of work to get into an honors program in high school. I fear that some of the parents I work with like having their child in a gifted class because they think it gives them an advantage when it comes time to apply for honors. In the high school that we feed to, it does not. If your child isn’t willing to put in work during the school year, or into the application process, or into the high school class itself, then honors might not be right. Be honest about your child’s work ethic and study habits. Both are going to be very important once he or she is enrolled in a class with high academic standards.

Now think about college and how high school honors classes will impact your child’s college experience. It is commonly believed that colleges will take on students who have been in honors classes over those who have not. This is not always true; it varies from school to school. However, all colleges do like to see that students are taking challenging coursework, so having honors level classes on a transcript can reflect well. As far as how those accelerated classes will impact what college coursework will be taken, that also depends on the individual school. As an honors student in high school, I took four years of math, which I enjoyed but was not my forte. When I got to college, I was essentially “forced” into taking trigonometry instead of college algebra because of all the math I had in high school. In my eyes, my honors math classes worked to my disadvantage. I scratched and clawed my way through trig but see no benefit to it now that I am an English teacher. Discussing with an admissions counselor the kinds of coursework that will need to be taken in college after honors coursework in high school is a good idea.

Finally, please take into consideration what your child wants. Too often I talk with students who want to take some honors classes but not others, but their parents are “forcing” them to apply for all the classes. My biggest fear when I see this happening is that whatever subject the student is being coerced into taking at an honors level in high school will become that student’s most hated subject and/or the subject he/she does the most poorly in, which then sabotages the student’s academic record. Yes, sometimes saying, “Try it; you’ll like it!” yields positive results. But it’s a gamble; it may end up being an albatross around the student’s neck.

Here is a good Q and A about the advantages and disadvantages of enrolling your child in honors level classes. In addition, you can peruse a Yahoo! Answers discussion about the benefits and challenges of honors classes. Also, the website CollegeData (sponsored by 1st Financial Bank) offers up some reasons to take honors classes as well as some things to consider here.