We can learn about ways to stop bullying from teens in the civil rights movement

My daughter Amanda — her fifth graders call her Ms Angel — recently told me about issues with name calling on the school playground and she wondered aloud how to turn this into a lesson that would make her class recognize they have a voice and they can stop bullying. “They need to be empowered to stand up against bullying,” my daughter lamented. “They need to do it peacefully.”

 (Ms. Angel)

I had just finished reading an amazing book, We’ve Got A Job, a book that Lyn Lachman Miller has already reviewed on The Pirate Tree. I told Amanda I had a book for her class and asked if I could come in to give a review to the students.

  The more I thought about it, this seemed like a great opportunity to show folks reading The Pirate Tree how this and other nonfiction books can walk students through tough issues, while encouraging them to take a stand and have a voice in solving problems.

This nonfiction book tells the story of peaceful protests for civil rights through the eyes of teens who marched and even went to jail to call attention to the fact that they were bullied by the city’s leaders, and were victims of institutional racism in Birmingham, Alabama

My plan was to come into my daughter’s class, summarize the book and read some segments about the courage and conviction of teenagers who made a difference when they protested. Their peaceful protests and subsequent arrests made headlines everywhere but in Birmingham. Still there was enough national attention on their loss of rights that many of Birmingham’s leaders had no choice but to acknowledge their racism and bullying and step aside in favor of civil rights. After I read pieces of the stories, I asked the class to respond and said I’d post their reponses here.  In reading over the many pages and stories these fifth graders wrote, I discovered they responded to this book by seriously considering how bullying makes them all afraid and it takes away their own rights. While I hoped to post all of the responses, I’m only able to include a few here. Perhaps I can post more later:

Luke said, “I would go to jail to stop bullying. Bullying just makes me sad.”

Skylar said, “I would be willing to go to jail for everyone’s justice and freedom to be united!” Tori agreed, adding, “…like if people were saying they said something horrible when they didn’t.”

Jake admitted, “I have been afraid to stand up. I have been afraid to speak up, and I was shaking when I did it.”

Kelly said, “I would be willing to go to jail for rights of people. If some people in my community weren’t getting treated fair because they’re different, I would stand up for them. I believe that everyone should be treated fair and equal.”

Sam understands the value of taking action if kids are not treated fairly. He said, “I would speak up and have a bunch of kids sign a petition stating that they would agree to arguing with city hall about it.”

Some students wrote about their experiences being bullied. A student I’ll call A. wrote, “I have been bullied and honestily it made me feel like a piece of trash becasue it was hard to hear that people do that.” E. has also been bullied and she said,”I have been bullied by someone and it made me feel like trash. I went from feeling like the star of the world into a piece of junk from the bottom of the garbage.” An anonymous student said that when someone called a member of his family fat he “just felt like falling down on the ground and start crying.”  One girl said, bullying “made me afraid to come to school and ride the bus. I was also watching another student being bullied for the way she looks and beause of her use of words.”

It’s especially hurtful when your own friends become your bullies. S. said, “I always thought good of myself but when they bullied me, I wasn’t too sure. Some of my friends joined them, they didn’t help.” T. has been bullied and it has made him think he would stand up for others who get bullied. He said, “I would be willing to fight against bullying. I wouldn’t even care if I had to go to jail. People can be very hurt by being bullied.”

A fifth grade girls was once afraid to speak out against a friend who was being a bully and now she wonders, “what made her want to bully or made something hard in her life happen for her to bully?”

In the end, many of the students wrote that they’d be willing to protest against bullying if they could do it the way the teens in We’ve Got a Job did it. They’d be willing to go to jail to stop bullying, “so that everyone can be treated equal.”

J. spoke for a majority of students who enjoyed the book review and now want to read Levinson’s book. It made them think beyond there own community and about how others are treated. “I would stand up for human rights, even if it meant jail time. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, those are the rights the Consitution gives us. Even today not everyone has rights.” J. agreed, “I would be willing to go to jail if we didn’t fund things for the poor. I would because there are starving, homeless kids in the world who need money, food and more.”

It’s really no surprise that nonfiction stories can serve to teach history through the eyes of young heroes. It should be no surprise that these young heroes can influence today’s students to consider the good and imperfect in own world and that these stories can open them to becoming the voices for a better world.

1 comment for “We can learn about ways to stop bullying from teens in the civil rights movement

  1. April 5, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    Oh, my goodness, Ann. Thank you so much. I’m touched by your daughter’s students (Ms Angel is beautiful, by the way!) and by your using my book in this way. It has also come up in discussions of Trayvon’s Martin’s murder, and I’m gratified that it is sparking discussion and introspection and change. I would be delighted to send you and your daughter signed book plates, if you would like to put in your copies. (I also, of course, visit schools. If you want to tell me off-line where Ms Angel teaches, I could see whether or not that’s feasible. My email address is clevinson@austin.rr.com. You might want to tell your daughter that teaching material is available on my website, http://www.cynthialevinson.com, and I add more periodically.

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