Under the Radar (UTR) is a regular review column on the ALAN website that highlights the publications of smaller presses. The most recent column is below; for archives of the UTR column, please see this page.
Under The Radar: Special Interview
with sj Miller, Leslie David Burns, and Tara Star Johnson,editors of the recently published Generation BULLIED 2.0: Prevention and Intervention Strategies for Our Most Vulnerable Students (published by Peter Lang International Academic Publishers)
by The UTR Team:
cj bott, James Bucky Carter, Sean Kottke, Jon Ostenson, Daria Plum, and Jennifer Walsh
In this special column, we introduce a series of columns to be published over the next year in which we treat young adult literature focused on an issue that we feel often “flies under the radar”–bullying. We decided to interview sj, Leslie, and Tara as a way to introduce both their important work in this area and the complexities of this issue that is so in need of heightened attention in our schools and communities.
Our motivation for framing these columns can be best explained by this statement from Leslie David Burns in his chapter, “The Consequences of Bullying and Anti-Bullying Interventions for Individual and School Success.” It cuts through all the objections to and excuses for facing the escalating problem of bullying:
The central consequence of allowing bullying in our schools is that we systematically reduce every person’s capacity to succeed. We reduce every person’s ability to participate in and contribute. Bullying is rooted in threats to individuals’ identities, and research from social psychology demonstrates irrefutably that such threats have powerful, negative effects on everyone’s abilities to perform and learn.
In this introduction and in future columns, we will put aside all thoughts, prejudices, complaints that block action to deal with this fear-filled epidemic.
Introduction of the Interviewees
sj Miller is Associate Professor of Literacy at the University of Colorado, Boulder
Bullying has always been on my radar–stemming back to when I was a student first, what I experienced mostly at home–some might call it abuse, I saw it as bullying. But then when I became a teacher 18 years ago, I was very attuned to how my students bullied and were bullies.
Over time, I created a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) to stop unnecessary bullying against queer youth and their allies–and the more invested I became in supporting my youth, the more I came to see how bullying was nearly everyday an occurrence relayed by the media. When I went into academia, with a heart set on supporting youth, I entered into the field with a desire to put social justice at the conceptual centerpiece of teachers’ identities. I believed that if teachers are committed to understanding how social justice theory informs pedagogy in the ELA, then they could provide students with embodied tools to combat bullying. At the time I entered academia though, there was no theory or pedagogy for social justice, let alone a standard in teacher preparation. With the love, support and fortitude of caring and like-minded colleagues, we grew each of these and breathed life into social justice as a human rights issue. Now, we have an instantiated practice for how to interrupt, disrupt and stop bullying, to the extent we can.
Leslie David Burns is Associate Professor of Literacy at the University of Kentucky
Having grown up a large Midwestern boy named Leslie, I was frequently bullied myself, despite being a member of one of the identity groups most people would name as dominant and perhaps more likely to be bullies than vice versa. At that time, my sexuality was frequently called into question simply because of my name, I was often left out of many normal experiences–especially rite-of-passage types for many schoolchildren–because of bullying related to my body-image at that time, and I grew up learning to be both my own greatest defender and also highly sensitive to the ways in which bullies around me operated in relation to me and others they attacked.
I grew up at a time (the 1970s and early 1980s) and in a place (rural Wisconsin) in which “standing up” to bullies was not just expected of a boy, but practically required in order to prove my identity as a male. I frequently felt forced to fight, often in response to relentless teasing and on multiple occasions when I was outright attacked verbally or socially ostracized at school for being different. The fact that I grew up in a wildly homogenous community and nearly lily-White schools where I experienced life as a bullied child highlights the fact that even children whose identities might not indicate they are at risk of bullying are vunlnerable too. I began to see the countless and tragically wasteful ways in which schools and classroom cultures position children in ways that not only make bullying possible, but even set perfect stages and scenarios for bullying to occur. I never felt my own teachers ever intended me or any other child to suffer, but I also and always got strong and explicit messages that what happened to me was “just a part of growing up” and that I had to learn to live with. I sort of refused to accept that, and have ve never stopped working against it. I used to joke (and sometimes still do) that I was lucky to be a big kid because I had to beat up nearly every other boy I met through 5th grade. I have long since stopped resorting to violence to fight back against bullies, and have become interested in how teachers and schools can teach children to value each other for their differences and individualities in ways that help us all succeed.
Tara Star Johnson is Associate Professor of English Education at Purdue University and incoming editor, along with sj, of English Education.
I’m a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to bullying, more of a bystander (albeit a cheering one) than a contributor to the heightened discourse surrounding the issue in the past decade. My history isn’t singular or remarkable–aside from a neighborhood bully who systematically tormented me during my childhood, I survived adolescence relatively unscathed, perhaps because my painfully nerdy introversion made me somewhat oblivious to and thus unaffected by others’ opinions of me. My dad tells stories of his youth, though, that help me personally connect to this work and realize how timeless the issue is, even though bullying wears different faces today. His eyes gleam with triumph as he relays the victory he and his friend achieved over a playground bully when they banned together to take him down, though his expression is more pained when he reminisces about protecting my Aunt Betty, whose surgery from an operation on a brain tumor affected the muscles on the right side of her face, from teasing. Then I skip forward a generation to my children and wonder how I can protect and prepare them for racist treatment they’re likely to encounter even though it’s more veiled today. My daughter’s already been told her skin looks like poop. That’s not bullying per se, but it’s part of something bigger…a meanness, a desire to hurt, that runs deep in the human psyche. Making a contribution toward illuminating that darkness via this project was a sort of labor of love between pre- and post-tenure research projects for me.
sj, Leslie and Tara, thank you for your research and willingness to participate in this interview. There is realistically no possible way your book can answer everything about this problem, but Generation Bullied 2.0 (abbreviated as GB 2.0 in our column) is rich with a clear view of the situation, lists the most targeted groups, and provides strategies that educators can use. It is UTR’s honor to not only be able to interview you but also to devote future columns to each of the four most targeted groups: students in the LGBTQGV spectrum, students facing weight discrimination, students with disabilities, and students from diverse cultures.
UTR: With so many people writing about and working with this problem what prompted you to start this extensive examination of bullying?
sj: Too many of my students who did not comply with “normative” identity or expected social representations were suffering. I was not going to be passive. I had to do something. I was diving into research at the time on “the norm,” by examining how Tobin Siebers in disability studies understands disability as a consequence of how environments are actually disabling to people. His work ruptured my thinking and motivated me to apply this to bullying. So I began to deconstruct the idea of the norm and connect it to how bullies are highly attuned to “normative” representations of identities.
In 2010 initially, I turned to the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, volume 4) that had once pathologized and later depathologized homosexuality in 1973 and argued that bullies are attuned to historic and current normative “deviations” pathologized by the DSM IV (now DSM V), and which cites a biological orientation that focuses on the binary identifiers of sickness and mental health that are considered as abnormal, unhealthy, or which require intervention or something in need of fixing. I proffer that bullies are agitated and threatened when the ideology of the norm is challenged by the externalized non-normative representations in society and schools writ-large (Miller, 2012) because they have come to identify “with a set of social narratives, myths, ideas, values and types of varying reliability, usefulness, and verifiability” (Siebers, 2008, p. 15). When these narratives are threatened, bullies go on the attack. Bullies are attuned to these “deviations,” and often feel vindicated because some non-normative identities are pathologized by and in the Medical Model.
Since this point forward I have started interrogating how microaggresions are a form of bullying–or, the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostility, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (Sue, 2010, p.3). As people tune into how they microaggress, they can unlearn those and cease bullying. This takes education.
Les: sj approached me about working on this project because of work I was doing around research in several areas. I had been examining paradigms like Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, critical pedagogies, critical race theories, queer theories, feminist theories, Third Space pedagogies, Funds of Knowledge research, and other theoretical/research perspectives related to using students’ knowledges and identities as the central bases for creating successful school curricula. I had been noticing for quite some time that, for example, “multicultural” education had developed a tendency and institutionalized state of being its own kind of walled garden–a garden in which people advocating for equity, justice, and equality for all were mostly talking only to each other when they really needed to be talking (or learning how to talk, or teaching how to talk) with people who were not inside the garden, so to speak. I noticed, along with some colleagues in multicultural education, that there were many silos in which particular identity groups were and are still actively discussing why and how to teach children with certain identities or in particular contexts. I wasn’t looking to create any “grand theory,” exactly. What I did instead was analyze those bodies of research for patterns and commonalities, and then synthesize them with findings from social psychological research that proved their methods were not only healthy for certain kinds of learners, but all learners.
One of the issues that became immediately apparent was that a central reason these bodies of research and calls for action existed in the first place is the fact that so many–too many–different groups and kinds of students simply are not treated equitably, included, given access, or provided support simply because they are perceived in school by both peers and professionals as “different,” or “other.” I remember Dan Lortie’s classic finding from his 1975 work Schoolteacher, in which he states that one, if not the primary motives of most teachers is to work with “normal” children, and by normal they meant “children who are more or less like me.” Many teachers harbor tremendous fear about working with children who are not like them, and it has many significantly negative consequences for us all. Bullying was one consequence, and I was dramatically reminded of how my own non-academic experiences in school shaped who I am and socialized me in ways that were not all healthy. Realizing that bullying was not just cruel but an active and aggressive cause of student, teacher, and school failure, I couldn’t not get involved in this work. There is clear evidence that stopping bullying matters to everyone’s success, and no professional educator who believes the job is to help everyone succeed can ignore that without betraying our ideals.
When sj’s work and the epidemic of suicides began to reach truly intolerable proportions in our society, we decided we just had to speak out and do anything we could to help, especially from the perspective of teachers and the system as a whole. We wanted to make sure we offered ways any teacher, any student, and any school could change for the better and learn to not only stop hurting our most vulnerable children but celebrate diversity for the truly valuable things it offers us in today’s world.
Tara: Even though bullying wasn’t a research focus for me at the time sj invited me to collaborate with him on this project, he’s a hard person to say “no” to. He radiates compassion for people who are hurting for whatever reason, and he has a way of drawing you in to support whatever cause du jour he’s involved in because it’s sure to be a worthy one. The issue of bullying is certainly that, and I like to think I brought a personal concern of mine–weight-based discrimination, or sizism–to the fore with my chapter. Though social justice permeates my personal and professional lives, the silence surrounding the struggles that people of size encounter is something that is insufficiently addressed in literature (both YA and scholarly). But, to answer your question more directly, all the recent attention to bullying writ large is a two-edged sword in that it raises public and schools’ consciousness (and conscience!) about the issue, so saturating the market with books such as ours is a good thing–but the term “bullied” then gets bandied about and conflated with any sort of unpleasant behavior such that we run the risk of rendering it meaningless. For example, the other day I observed a man I know taking a woman to task for failing to do what she had promised—a criticism that appeared to be warranted in the context of their conversation. She responded, half defensively and half playfully, “Stop bullying me!” Several things came immediately to mind: 1) Holding someone accountable for her or his (in)action in one instance isn’t bullying. 2) Calling something bullying that isn’t makes light of the seriousness of “real” bullying. 3) For a woman to falsely accuse a man of bullying, particularly when that man is African American, could have negative consequences, not unlike what I’ve studied in cases where teachers are falsely accused of sexual misconduct. We need to be mindful that the proliferation of the term “bullying” could result in misappropriation. Part of my role with respect to this project has been to temper the hyperbole that often accompanies passionate writing. When people write about issues that are personal and deeply visceral, they tend to wax dramatic, and I had an editor’s eye for toning down these moments in the book. Yes, we want to move people to action with compelling stories, but we need to balance that with objective facts along with clear definitions to present an incontrovertible case for why it’s imperative to address the issue.
UTR: In your preparation for this book, what surprised you most about this topic?
sj: Bullying is an international problem and has become accepted and normalized in the values, behaviors, and rhetoric of our country. We see examples of bullying among politicians in Washington, D.C. We see U.S. soldiers participate in egregious behavior against innocent civilians abroad, and we read stories and watch movies in which soldiers, athletes, and members of Greek letter and other extracurricular organizations “haze” pledges—bullying them as a way to make them “toughen up.” We see examples across all media including film, radio, television, newspapers, books, magazines, adolescent literature, and graphic novels, and in cyberspace. We see it becoming part of the American social fabric in terms of how people treat one another; as more than a “common-sense” part of life or even an expected rite of passage that is “just” part of growing up. Whether it can be controlled in all aspects of public life or not, it certainly structures the lived realities of students in our public schools, but our public schools can and should be structured in ways that not only prevent it, but also educate children to both recognize the damage done by bullying and elect to behave civilly toward each other. When I think about these realities, my heart bleeds that we have NO FEDERAL POLICY on anti-bullying and it’s a state’s rights issue. States can opt to not enumerate identities in anti-bullying policy which means that states can intentionally condone bullying against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, intersex, agender/asexual, gender creative, queer and questioning (LGBTIAGCQ) students.
Les: The most surprising thing I learned is that bullying is not at all a simple problem that only affects people who “get bullied.” It turns out that acts of bullying require tremendous cognitive energy on the part of the bully, too. The bullied spend cognitive energy enduring violence, abuse, psychological aggressions, and much more to the point of trauma. But even bystanders are affected negatively and can’t perform as successfully as they would if bullying was not allowed. Quite literally, when we allow bullying to go on in any context where we seek to learn, perform, or produce anything, our abilities to succeed decrease. The bullies are too busy bullying. The bullied are too busy trying to survive the bullying. And the by-standers are overwhelmed or at least distracted by the bullying in ways that prevent them from focusing on successful learning and social interaction. the need to stop bullying is not just a moral and ethical argument, it is more than that. Ending bullying is a key to increasing the success of all people, especially in schools and classrooms.
Tara: What surprised me (although it shouldn’t have, knowing his dogged determination to see things through) is that sj pulled it off. This is the kind of project that people talk enthusiastically about wanting to do over drinks at a conference (which we did for a couple of years before it was published), but then life and priorities at work get in the way and it never gets beyond the conceptual stage. We originally wanted to write the book ourselves, but then decided it’d be better to solicit contributors who were in a better position to speak to the kinds of bullying that weren’t in our wheelhouse. I was pleasantly surprised at how willing and eager our contributors were to participate.
UTR: The problem of bullying and harassment is huge. It starts in preschool with the word “stupid,” the first word we all learn that has the power to hurt, and goes on forever. The word ”bully” has become a buzzword; mention it and kids crack up. Administrators are afraid of the topic because no one has the right answer. In all probability bullying will never go away. Where do we start? In the classroom, in the hallways, with the administrators, the parents?
And where do we focus our attention? The target? The bully? All those silent witnesses? How do we get the witnesses to act? Lots of questions, but the dialogue on these parallels the dialogue going on in school across our country and many other countries.
sj: My research looks at pedagogical and intervention strategies for K-12 teachers, since the feds have opted out of policy, for now. I do offer five suggestions for all of us to consider and ideas for pushing local and national legislators. These suggestions, provided in the book, hold more relevance than ever:
Looking Ahead into Bullying Reform: Bullying could be extinct if it were…
– legislatively bound and if every school in the country had a systems-based anti-bullying program in place;
– possible for all schools to implement an anti-bullying curriculum in which students took anti-bullying classes every year during their pre-K-16 preparation;
– possible to have a federally appointed official to serve as a “Minister of anti-bullying” who studies and reviews successful models of anti-bullying programs for use in local systems (based on models such as those found in the U.K., and Sweden);
– funded at the federal level and reward states and schools that show reductions in bullying; and
– possible to tie anti-bullying preventative mental health and health care screenings so that prevention/intervention becomes a standard aspect of our citizenry’s annual check-ups.
Les: Where do we focus our attention? First–and this is crucial–what we are recommending here is emphatically not about being politically correct. It’s not about being nice. It’s not about making sure everyone has high self-esteem. Of course self-esteem and self-efficacy are important outcomes of the sorts of strategies we recommend to prevent and intervene in bullying events, but the actual fundamental reason is we are all more successful when bullying is prevented and ultimately eliminated. Maybe it is idealistic to think bullying behaviors will ever be entirely eradicated from our society. People think “idealism” means “naivete,” but these are not the same. Naive thinking fails to consider practical realities. Idealist thinking is actually pragmatic which means “the eternal pursuit of excellence,” and if you aren’t working toward that eternal pursuit, then why not? The word, by definition, states we can’t ever stop working for what we know is right. I love that, even if it means that sometimes our hearts could be broken when reality diverges from what is right. I believe professionals at all levels of the system can work idealistically, professionally, and based on knowledge so that bullying becomes abnormal in our schools–a distasteful and shameful behavior that the majority of educators not only rejects but works to prevent every single day.
Will that be easy? No. Too many people still think bullying is a rite of passage. I’ve always been troubled, for example, by the “It Gets Better” campaign Dan Savage started when many young gay children were found to be committing suicide in the face of bullying. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve watched and been inspired by many of the testimonials from people speaking to their younger peers and encouraging them to hang in there until they get older and (hopefully) have their chances to break the cycles of abuse and bullying they now face every day. My concerned was, “Wait. It should never have to ‘get better’ in the first place! If we know this is happening everywhere all the time, and children are literally killing and being killed because of it–there is no time to wait and let it ‘get better.’ The time is now. We can make this better now. We must.”
How do we do it? By never stopping. By constantly inviting others to join us. By writing books like this. By studying what bullying is, why it happens, how it works, and thus how/why it can be stopped. There will be many still who think bullying is “just how the world works.” But people made this world the way it is, and that means people can change it. I say we change it by making this an explicit topic in public education and teacher education so that it is no longer one of the dirty secrets of public education. Bullying is not–and doesn’t have to be–a normal part of any life. Quite the contrary, bullying is a part of life that prevents our society from taking full advantage of its actual nature–diverse, full of rich differences and strengths and multiple ways of being normal and successful in ways that positively affect us all and the worlds we make.
Tara: I alluded to the buzzword problem earlier; I agree that the term “bullying” has lost some of its power. I wonder if we ought to reframe the issue–not as something negative that we must eradicate, but as something positive that we want to foster? Perhaps working to develop a “culture of kindness” in our classrooms, workplaces, family relations? Regardless, I think the phrase “think globally but act locally” is useful. If we resolve to first improve the lives of those within our sphere of influence and let the ripple effect take over from there, it becomes manageable and imaginable. Otherwise the task at hand may seem insurmountable to the point of paralysis.
UTR: State laws may require school systems to have a policy “to handle bullying” but these laws are basically not enforceable. The same thing happened when Title IX first went into effect. The state sent out a commandment—you must all conform to this law, but many school systems sent something minimal, enough to cover themselves knowing that the state board would accept even the most general statement and that the state would never check to see if the statement was being enforced. The same thing is happening around the country with the states ordering all local school systems to create a policy to deal with bullying. It is not enforced because the only way to do so would be for the state to withdraw funding which will not happen. That is the reality. Please comment.
sj: We need federal anti-bullying legislation linked to federal accountability measures and funding. Seems that those measures would push states more–sadly–but when you take away funds because of fiscally-linked accountability, that’s what might force a change. I truly wish it wasn’t this way. 🙁
Tara: Though the state may not enforce such policies, money talks, so litigation will. Jamie Nabozny’s case set a precedent for holding schools accountable for protecting their students.
Leslie: I agree with both sj and Tara in that our school system requires an explicit, clear, and consistently enforced national policy-set that is designed using knowledge to prevent and intervene in bullying at all levels. I also agree, unfortunately, that Tara is correct when she says that if the states and schools do not enforce protection from bullying, then the legal system will–sooner or later. All that said? It’s not enough to rely on the hope of some one-day policy that will make this better. We strongly advocate local teachers, students, administrators, parents, and community members organizing and coming together in dialogue to not just discuss issues of bullying, but identify where it exists, create a plan for prevention and intervention, and take very overt, public steps to create, communicate, and teach about local programs that can both reduce and even eliminate bullying behaviors. A national policy is an essential end-goal, but it’s just as important that all professional educators and schools create a plan based on the needs of the children and communities they serve.
UTR: Picking up on Tara’s suggestion of developing a “culture of kindness” with respect to issues of weight discrimination and fat-shaming, how have the pre-service teachers you’ve worked with resolved the dilemma of promoting acceptance of a broad range of body types while fulfilling curricular responsibilities to promote healthy lifestyles and raise awareness of the long-term consequences of obesity? Are there models for creating safe learning environments that encourage fitness and nutritional awareness without implicitly stigmatizing overweight children?
sj: The broader work around social justice units in my SLA methods course encourages pre-service students to take up an issue closely related to their hearts. I have had students create powerful units on body justice and self-determination. This is a touchy issue because it can trigger people. I haven’t seen any major changes or models other than teacher educators who approach topics that reframe the argument and critique society for reinforcing dangerous norms and ideologies about bodies. People should be supported to think about what types of dangerous chemical and pesticides are in foods rather than only focusing on their bodies. People are entitled to happiness in their bodies and telling someone that their body is “wrong” is just that–wrong.
Les: This is somewhat of a new frontier in our social discourse about what “normal” can (should?) mean. Body size and type have always been subjects of controversy and great interest across history, and physical size/shape/appearance has far too often been used across cultures and eras to control people–especially our most vulnerable people–in ways that should not be tolerated (shaming women for being “too thin/fat,” attacking heavier children, singling them out, or marginalizing them from participation in certain events, etc.) Many arguments related to body bullying are tied to concerns for child welfare and health because it is often believed that weight and health are closely related. That fact does not imply that bullying and shaming in schools are appropriate ways of helping children become healthier (they do not). In fact, I have seen reports noting the BMI indexes of body mass across individuals may have no significant connections to overall health at all. I certainly do not advocate we enable or encourage support for obesity in society so much as I argue we must never allow certain individuals to determine the criteria for how others ought to look, how much they should weigh, what shape they should strive to be, or otherwise determine what is “normal” based on their personal opinions. All people have the right and need to be supported for who they are, as they are. Those factors should never be impediments to being treated humanely and gaining access to a successful and positive education.
UTR: GB2.0 cites a study from Greenleaf et al. (2006) that found “participants stigmatized peers who were presented as fat regardless of race or gender, claiming that ‘the stigma of fatness overrides race-related differences in attitudes toward weight’ (p. 500)” (p. 51). To what extent have variations in weight-based bullying or discrimination between different cultures been observed in the research literature or in your work?
Tara: The most obvious “variation” that comes to mind is within the African American community. I’m thinking of a story a good friend of mine used to tell from her teaching days in an urban setting: “You’ve got thick legs, Miss M!” was a compliment from one of her African American students (though she, as someone who had struggled with bulimia, didn’t take it as such at the time), and I think songs such as “Baby Got Back” suggest a preference for curves. But forgiveness for or privileging of fuller figures is diminishing, as the rise in anorexia among girls of color attests.
UTR: Your chapter titled “Black Ritual Insults” discusses roasting, the common pastime of Blacks verbally harassing each other. For those reading this column that have not yet purchased a copy of your book, help them understand why teachers need to deal with this behavior.
sj: Some groups have embodied or been forced to embody stereotype threat. This means that groups which have been systemically told in myriad ways over time that there are limits put on their intelligence and bodies, creates internalized and cultural oppression. For Black youth who bully Black youth it’s important to understand historicity where the bullying mindsets stem so that such types of self, or cultural negative behaviors can be shifted through schooling practices. Often youth enact and perpetuate what has unknowingly been done to their ancestors and families. Once individuals come to understand how individual prejudice feeds systemic and structural oppression, they can move toward informed and more self-determined actions.
Les: sj is right. I would add that in addition to issues like ritualized insults, another internalized oppression for many Black youth is the problem of “talking White” in schools. Many scholars have written about this in particular, but I always end up thinking about Phillip Jackson’s broader findings about “life in schools” from his classic book of the same title. Jackson notes that all students have at least two groups they must please and satisfy: teachers and peers. Any student invested in academic success is required to adopt or adapt to the academic speech used in most school settings, which is pervasively based on institutionalized White linguistic traditions (See NCTE’s “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” for more on this topic). As such, Black students (among many other youth groups) can find that the school requirement to perform and speak in ways that are traditionally “White” effectively force and coerce them to at least give an appearance that they reject their home languages, discourses, and ways of being. Given that about 85% of all teachers in the U.S. are White, female, and middle class in background, teachers’ expectations and understandings for how different students will, can, and even ought to communicate in school have consequences for teaching and learning outcomes. For example, I regularly review a case set forward by James Gee in which he describes observing children in a Kindergarten class. The teacher (White, female, middle class) asks the children to tell a story. The first child the teacher calls is a White female. The child tells a story that is structured and told in a way the teacher thinks of as traditional, familiar, and therefore correct. the teacher praises that White child and give her a high grade. Then the second child is called to speak. She is a Black female, and she tells a story the teacher finds difficult to follow because it does not match the teacher’s own cultural schematic for how a story should go. For this child, it is the way her family has always told stories, it is complete and rich, and it is normal. But then the teacher chastises the Black child for not knowing how to tell a story correctly–what are the consequences of this teaching episode for the Black child, and any children who witnesses it? At least one key implication is that the children had better copy the teacher’s example and follow her personal beliefs about what a “normal” story is (or “normal” behavior, speech, etc.), or they will be publicly failed and shamed. All by itself, this issue of cultural variations related to communication (internal and external to the culture) is hugely important for teachers to think about. It comes down to this–are we helping children learn to think, understand, communicate successfully, and navigate life based on who they are, or are we trying to train all children to adhere to some single “correct and normal” way of being, doing, acting, thinking, and believing? I’m in favor of helping children become who they are and seek to be, not who someone else decides they ought to be. When language use within a culture becomes toxic, it’s our job to recognize, assess, and stop it. It is also our job to ensure all students, Black, White, and all others, are respected members of our classroom communities no matter how they speak and communicate, as long as they do not use their communication in ways that do harm. Norman Fairclough did beautiful work on this concept of “Critical Language Awareness” in the 1990s. I highly recommend teachers check out that work.
UTR: Related to your chapter “The Lives of Latina and Latino Students”: The United States is going through a population transition or growth spurt, depending on one’s perspective. In 2000 the actual breakdown of numbers for enrollment in elementary and secondary schools was 61% white and 39% all other ethnicities. Projected enrollment for 2019 is 50.1% whites and all other ethnicities will make up 49.89%. In five years our schools will be 50/50. Shortly thereafter, our student population will not contain a majority culture. The fastest growing cultural group is the Latino population. This is something not only our country but definitely our classrooms need to prepare for. What does GB2.0 offer to help educators now?
sj: Teachers cannot cluster or lump people together because they may have a similar cultural heritage. Teachers must start with the person, the soul, and get to know each and every person for who that individual is and how that individual identifies. Teachers must put stereotypes aside for all people and seek out support if they don’t have or know resources that best meet the needs of their learners.
Les: We have reached a point in our society wherein cultural and social diversity is so varied that traditional, monocultural ways of thinking about and doing school simply have to change. sj is right–there is not single student identity in our classrooms, and there is no single narrative that describes all the children we serve. There never was, never will be. What the profession requires is a disposition to act as responsive teachers–that is, teachers who systematically collect data about who their students are and then use that data to design and implement instruction that is responsive and relevant to the needs of particular, unique children in particular, unique classrooms. It should not be our job to force children to comply to a curriculum designed to change them all into relative copies of the dominant culture’s stereotype person who is prepared for “college and career.” It is our ethical and professional responsibility to respond to our students and help them become who they seek to be and prepare for their own goals, not goals the state has dictated for them.
UTR: In the chapter on bullying and students with disabilities, you note that many teachers might bully these students and disguise the bullying as “behavior management” (p. 64). What do these behaviors look like, in your experience, and how can teachers monitor their own actions to prevent engaging in bullying behavior? This chapter also explains two views of disabilities: a biomedical view (where the disability is viewed as a deficiency or abnormality) and a socially constructed view (where we the disability is not “inherent in the individual person” but is instead a product of the way the society perceives or interacts with the disability). What suggestions can you offer for teachers who want to help students (and others) move away from the deficit view of the biomedical model and towards a healthier perception of those with disabilities?
sj: Everyone should read Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man to understand how scientific racism and craniometry impacted our beliefs and understanding of people based on the intersections between the brain and cultural identity. He travels back in time through myriad studies and shows us case by case how cultures were framed with deficit perspectives and how those beliefs became instantiated in science and and schools. What teachers would greatly benefit from is not allowing numbers or aggregate data to determine student’s identities but to question any fact provided, knowing each fact is predicated on a set of outdated and biased narratives. Also reading Tobin Sieber’s book, Disability Theory, helps to reframe the issue and teaches us how environments are what are disabling. The question I pose then is what can teachers do to flip the script and challenge a privileging environment that leads to a culture of bullying? In other words, what dominant narratives predominantly live and operationalize that space that lead to bullying? Heterosexism? Ableism? Body-conformism? Eurocentrism? Christianity? Hegemonic Racialized Discourses? How can teachers critique their own identities and the power such discourses have and simultaneously push back to generate spaces/contexts where undervalued identities are afforded the same weight and opportunities? I suggest, build this into curriculum through units on social justice. Ask students to analyze their school and neighborhoods for these narratives.
UTR: In chapter two of the book, you, sj and James R. Gilligan, spend several pages telling the reader that LGBTQAGV bullying exists. As teachers we know this is a problem, but most feel unable or ill-equipped to approach the topic or confront the behavior. In Chapter Ten, you have provided a wealth of strategies for dealing with bullying for all of the most targeted groups. For a teacher, perhaps new to teaching or the school system, what is the best beginning to create an accepting classroom? For a tenured and accepting teacher in that same building, what steps must this individual take?
sj: For not just the new teacher but for all teachers, study the code of conduct, review district and state policies, and find allies. Speak up for justice. Classroom and schools are deeply connected and this work cannot exist in silo or in one space–it must be systemic. This means creating an environment built on democracy, civility and social justice. This means putting up inclusive zone and pronoun posters on all doors and entrances (see images below). It means that for students to become self-determined, individuals they must be afforded opportunities to develop internal safety, or the embodied trust that galvanizes individuals to take risks and to be their authentic selves (Leonardi & Saenz, 2014; Meyer and Leonardi, forthcoming).
Self-determination is the right to makes choices to self-identify in a way that authenticates one’s self-expression and has the potential for the embodiment of self-acceptance. It is also a type of self-granted or inherited permission that can help one refute or rise above social critique. It presumes choice and rejects an imposition to be externally controlled, defined, or regulated. It presumes that humans are entitled to unsettle knowledge, which can generate new possibilities of legibility. It means that any form of (a)gender or (a)sexuality deserves the same inalienable rights and should be afforded the same dignities and protections. Such de facto rights thus grant individuals ways of intervening in and disrupting social and political processes because one’s discourse and ways of being as self-determined, demonstrates placement as a viable stakeholder in society, revealing that no one personhood is of any more or less of value than any other.
For students to experience (a)gender and (a)sexuality self-determination then, two conditions must be present: they must be afforded favorable social contexts and have authentic identity-affirming choices. In the classroom, then, optimal conditions that make self-determination possible include activities that foster independence, agency, integrity, an adequate range of options, and which authenticate cultural identity (Moses, 2002). When such conditions are normalized, students can develop internal safety and as result, are more likely to take risks and be their authentic selves. To foster conditions that can lead to internal safety, schools must strive to rid the environment of “unsafety” by eliminating all enactments of domination and oppression (Young, 1990) from the micro to the macro-level across practices and policies. Schools predicated on democratic values that inspire independence, integrity, and an adequate range of options can ostensibly shift the prevailing schooling environment.
UTR: How can a teacher at any level, best educate themselves to better understand and accept gender fluidity?
sj: Teachers can stay open-minded and hearted and refute the idea that there is any single story. They can be encouraged to remember that we have inherited constructs and a society we never made that are filled with arbitrary representations and symbols. They can ask questions and push back against ways they have been socialized and constructed to believe in gender. They might consider these untenables:
- We live in a time we never made, gender and sexuality norms predate our existence;
- Non-gender and sexual “differences” have been around forever but norms operate to pathologize and delegitimize them;
- Children’s self-determination is taken away early when gender and sexuality are inscribed onto them. Their bodies/minds become unknowing participants in a roulette of gender and sexuality norms;
- Children have rights to their own (a)gender and (a)sexuality legibility;
- Binary views on gender and sexuality are potentially damaging;
- Gender must be dislodged/unhinged from sexuality;
- Humans have agency;
- We must move away from pathologizing beliefs that police humanity;
- We are all entitled to the same basic human rights; and,
- Life should be livable for all.
Our special thanks to sj Miller, Leslie David Burns, and Tara Star Johnson for the contributions to this UTR column. Please check out their edited collection, Generation Bullied 2.0 from Peter Lang Publishing. And check back soon for a series of columns featuring small presses that publish books related to bullied groups!
Leonardi., B., & Saenz, L. (2014). Conceptualizing safety from the inside out: Heteronormative spaces and their effects on students’ sense of self. In L. Meyer & D. Carlson (Eds.), Gender and sexualities in education: A reader (pp. 202-229). New York: Peter Lang.
Meyer, E., & Leondardi, B. (forthcoming chapter). In E. Brockenbrough, J. Ingrey, W. Martino and N. Rodriquez (Eds.). Queer studies and education: Critical concepts for the 21st century. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Miller, s. (2012). Mythology of the norm: Disrupting the culture of bullying in schools. English Journal, 101(6), 107-109.
Moses, M. S. (2002). Embracing race: Why we need race-conscious education policy. New York: Teachers College Press.
Siebers, T. (2008). Disability theory. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. New York, NY: Wiley.