Bullying and the Writer’s Notebook

Pamela Paul wrote an article, “The Playground Gets Even Tougher,” which appeared in the Sunday Styles section of today’s New York Times.  The article discusses mean-girl bullying, which has been seen as early as Kindergarten.  This article is a must-read for anyone who has or teaches elementary school age girls.
The article reminded me of the time one of my student teachers and I were eating lunch in the classroom while reading over students’ writer’s notebooks at lunch.  The student teacher paused from her reading and said, “This isn’t good.”
“What’s not good?” I asked.
“Uh, this,” she said, pointing to one of my student’s writer’s notebooks.  “She’s writing about her burn book.  Fifth graders shouldn’t have burn books.”
“What a burn book?” I asked (I hadn’t seen “Mean Girls yet.”) quizzically.
She explained the reference from “Mean Girls” to me, which immediately caused me to feel uneasy.  “No one should have a burn book,” I said to my student teacher, once she made me understand the severity of what a burn book represented.
“You’re right,” she replied.  “So what do we do?”
“You’re going to have to talk to her since you’re the one that read it,” I responded.
My student teacher looked like I had punched her in the gut.  It was the last thing she wanted to do.  However, since I was always a big believer in giving my student teachers autonomy and the opportunity to act as if they were the classroom teacher, she knew she wasn’t getting out of this one.  Therefore, we talked about a plan for confronting the student about her burn book, which was also going to include a conversation about treating others with dignity and respect even if they weren’t the best of friends.
The “burn book conversation” went well.  The student realized the error of her ways.  What she thought was funny at first, she realized could be very damaging and harmful to someone else.  Plus, she admitted that she wouldn’t want to be in someone else’s burn book, which is why she said she’d throw the burn book she created with a couple of other girls (who were also in my class at the time) away.
I’m pleased to say the girls who created the burn book eventually became friendlier towards the girls they admitted to hating.  While they weren’t the best of friends by the end of the school year, my student teacher and I noticed them hanging out occasionally (and peacefully) at recess.  Fortunately, thanks to a close reading of a student’s writer’s notebook, my student teacher and I averted a potentially horrible mean-girl scenario from breaking out and affecting more than a handful of the class.
When our students trust us with the stories of their lives, then they will write candidly in their writer’s notebooks.  As teachers, it’s often up to us to step in and act as parents more than we’d like.  However, in situations where we read about teasing, mean-girl behavior, or any kind of bullying, it’s up to us to be proactive with our students so that we can make school feel like a safe learning environment for every student.