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Addressing the dynamics of bullying on screen and in schools

This week in North Philly Notes, Laura Martocci, author of Bullying, pens an open letter about the recent film A Girl Like Her about teenage bullying. 

To Whom It May Concern:

Bullying is hardly a new topic—in fact, it is so well-worn that most teens roll their eyes at the word. They know what we want to hear, and what answers they need to give before we’ll let them go back to their iPhones.

Perhaps this is because we try to speak, without ever really having listened.
Amy Weber, writer/director of A Girl Like Her, listened—and it is obvious in the movie she made and the characters she created.

downloadAvery (Hunter King), Brian (Jimmy Bennett), and Jessica (Lexi Ainsworth), cast in the roles of bully, bystander, and victim, respectively, bring complex, often conflicting motivations to their characters. As viewers, we get to watch the drama unfold from each of their perspectives. Ms. Weber garners sympathy for the “over-the-top” behavior of her antagonist (bully) through a plot device that puts a video-diary in her hands. We not only get a glimpse of how Avery sees things (mostly, her narcissism doesn’t allow her to see them at all) but also come to understand her choices through the context of her family. While this may not be enough to exonerate her, it does make her much more than a mouthpiece, and situates her choices as important “talking points” in the movie. 

Do her choices ring true?

What would the bully at your school do?

Similar questions surface around Brian, Jessica’s supportive friend. Brian not only listens, he enables Jessica to take actions that document the bullying. Hidden-camera videos at first help sustain Jessica by preventing her from slipping into denial about the abuse. However, Jessica ultimately cannot negotiate the onslaught, and takes drastic action. Attempting to come to terms with what Jessica has done, Brian is torn between his loyalty to her and a community desperately seeking answers.

Bullying_smBystanders do not need to witness a drastic action in order to wonder what they should do, whom they might tell, and what/how much they should say. How they think about and sort these questions is another important talking point that is facilitated by the film. Is telling someone “tattling” or “supporting the victim”?

Finally, there is Jessica, the victim. We see her torment, and in itself, this is a talking point. Would anyone at your school ever be victimized like this? (Hint, the ready answer is, of course, “No.” “No” is the start of the conversation.)

A Girl Like Her understands that bullying is not only—or even primarily—about specific bad behaviors, but about the dynamics that support these behaviors, the conflicts that paralyze action, and the nuances through which teen dramas are played out.  Our children cannot engage bullying as a topic unless the conversation around it is authentic. Weber’s film captures the complexities that signal authenticity, making it a very good place to start that conversation.

This is an important movie, one I would not only want my daughters to see, but to see in an environment that would facilitate discussion around it.


Laura Martocci

Sizing it up

1986_regGarrett Delavan, author of The Teacher’s Attention, explains what prompted him to write a book about class size—and why smaller is better.

When I set out to write The Teacher’s Attention I’d been teaching for about six years in a second-chance high school. I was always amazed when teachers from other schools said how difficult that must be and how they admired me. I loved my job and couldn’t believe I got paid to hang out with these amazing young people.

But that got me thinking about why some classes were harder than others and why these other teachers thought my job was so much harder. I figured out that the difference was class size, which varied immensely in my school. These were frustrating (and frustrated) kids when my classes were large, which is the only size the teachers at the traditional schools ever got.

So I started out looking to read a book—not write one—about why small classes are better than big, and to explain why most everyone you talk to finds this obvious. It might also be a book that would then try to change the reader’s mind about the other thing most everyone thinks needs no further discussion: They’re too expensive. It turned out the books out there on class size focused primarily on test scores (and grades K-3) and not the positive relationships that make teaching more enjoyable and compulsory schooling more ethical.

Eventually my research led me to include school size and the length of time teachers and students stay together as just as important factors for cultivating mentoring relationships. I decided to opt out of the myth that our schools are academic failures (on average) and focus instead on school’s participation in American childrearing and racial injustice. What the book became was a school reform proposal that disputes the need for better average test scores and argues instead for a straightforward path to raising better-mentored kids and equalizing achievement.

While the book was in its final edits, I moved to a traditional middle school to gain more perspective on the system I’m criticizing. Yesterday I was at work getting set up in our new building and several teachers remarked with laughter that the new computer lab had only 30 computers. “What do we do with the rest of the class?” Last year I had to add two more desks to the thirty-six I started with. I asked the counselor my numbers this year and none was over thirty. I breathed a sigh of relief. He told me not to sigh yet because there was still a registration day coming up.

I may be ranting and raving this year on A Small Class Size Blog at www.classsize.org/blog.

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