Wonder stories--addressing bullying behavior with a new form of storytelling
I entered the school early even before my students arrived. My students said proceed with trepidation, the school was a rough school. However, after being a public school teacher for over 14 years I had seen my share of rough schools. I had taught in Cleveland, Ohio and what some said was rough parts in California and as a professional storyteller spent time in schools with a reputation before I entered them. However, students are students.
With my students we gathered to share with the class addressing the issue of bullying behavior. We use a special pedagogy I call "Ensemble Storytelling" and the book Wonder by R. J. Palacio to address the issue of this sensitive topic.
(After reading the book Bullying Nation I learned that to call someone a bully is a marker that stays after the act. Instead, bullying behavior communicates that people can change their behavior.)
The first thing we did was a Storytelling Scavenger Hunt based on the book Wonder. I was informed that the fifth grade class was reading the book and I designed this narrative scavenger hunt to show how the events in Wonder can relate to our lives. However, I was soon surprised at the wonder that I discovered from the responses.
One of the questions on the scavenger hunt was to tell about a time that was a highlight in your life. I initially talked with a student who I soon found out was panicked, I mean downright scared to talk. She physically shook when I asked questions. Instead of asking questions, I sat at floor level and told her stories about my life.
Although I never received a full response I did get a smile and a nod. An attendant asked if her if she felt safe, she nodded yes. I felt like this was a step in a good direction.
Another young boy came into the picture. I asked him the
question about sharing a highlight in his life
and he told me a story that made me gasp and I can't recall it because the second question made me silent. He simply said, "My uncle was shot in the head twice and I don't know why they took him off the tubes, He was still breathing. Why did they take him off the tubes?"
I was silent. How was I to answer this? I did not. I instead said I was sorry this happened and gave him some time to talk more. He did not. He was silent. I ask him to consider a story that might be positive, a story that was a highlight in his life. He did not share one.
By this time, my students shared their connections to the scavenger hunt and one student shared how thier cousin had Down Syndrome and how she felt when she could not defend him and how she felt when she could.
We then engaged in "ensemble storytelling." This is a specific pedagogy of using story and play and creating with students a fictional world to discuss real world contexts. Imagine this.
In the book, Jillian's mother states that August Pullman should not be in the private school because the school does not have the ability to handle a student with special needs. She writes a letter stating that it was unfair for her son and other students to be friends with August before school and during school. At this age, they are not ready for such difficult issues.
Instead of sharing statistics on bullying results, we created a situation where the students were not students dealing with the situation. In role as parents at a Board of Education responding to this letter. In role, my students served as principals, psychologists, and even Jillian's mother. However, this was not a play, because there was no external audience. The 5th graders was provided the charge to be in role as parents and address the mom.
One student, a young lady straighten up in her chair and said in a bellowing voice, "This is not fair. How would you feel if this was your child! Besides, he does not have special needs, he has a problem with his face."
Another student piped up, "My son is his class and he loves sitting next to him. He knows more about the subject than my son."
The conversation was heated and in my role as "story mediator" I quickly stepped out of the fictional story to address the class, "Class, look at Jillian's mother, do you think there is anything we can say to change her mind? Maybe there are stories about Auggie and how he helps and how he is smart."
We then stepped back into the fictional world but this time the conversation took on the tone of helping to change the mind of the student's mother. I mediated this so students realized that they could help someone rethink their action. Even though we were in the fictional world of Wonder, they spoke as though it was happening now.
The narrative changed and by the end, even in the fictional text, my student using role to change Jillian's mother's mind.
We used the fictional world of Wonder to discuss the issue of anti-bullying behavior. Then, we used the highly practical work of Teaching Tolerance to address change and what to do when someone exhibits bullying behavior. In my real role as being on the advisory board of Teaching Tolerance and my role as educator/storyteller we were able to use stories coupled with TT resources to not only talk about change, but show how it can be enacted. (www.teachingtolerance.org)
I spent five plus years studying this pedagogy I call"ensemble storytelling" and still marvel how this new method of using stories can promote critical action and communication. But I was still surprised when as we were leaving a young lady said can you sign this?
I am petitioning to start an anti-bullying club at my school. I signed the petition in big letters and by the time I arrived home with the help of pre-service educators she had created a name for the club and proposed the first meeting. She initially decided on ABC club, anti-bullying club, but changed it to ABA, anti-bullying Alliance because she said she could do more with it.
Now my students are mentoring these kids and we are extending our outreach as the "Wonder Team."
The narrative of the school was nothing like the narratives that I saw when I was at the school.
Take a stand. Address anti-bullying behavior. Create Wonder not Division in student lives.