Responding to 13 Reasons Why

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There are times and trends in pop culture that lead me to worry, or wonder, or fear how it might impact my students. 13 Reasons Why is one of them. The series is already claimed to be the most watched that Netflix has ever produced. If you have not watched or heard about this series, it follows a high schooler who has received 13 cassette tapes made by a classmate before she died by suicide; the tapes explain her 13 reasons for killing herself, essentially uncovering dark secrets that caused her suicide.

13RW

Okay, I have to say that I did watch this series, even before I heard the rumblings on social media. The rumblings include everything from praise for the show for not shying away from difficult topics like bullying, sexual assault, and suicide, to criticism for romanticizing the act of suicide. The thing about this show is, it puts you on an emotional roller coaster from the very first episode, and leaves you shaken. It is graphic, often times uncomfortable, and still, keeps you wanting to watch until the very end. This is not a series that you can move on from immediately after finishing; the story line and images stick in your mind.

After seeing many conversations about the series on social media, I saw some parents writing in about allowing their children to watch the show to “prepare” them for middle and/or high school. AND THIS IS WHEN I KNEW I NEEDED TO PREPARE MYSELF TO RESPOND AS A SCHOOL COUNSELOR.

Over this past week, I have read articles, blogs, and editorials about responses to this series to get a pulse on the impact. Still, I didn’t feel prepared enough to address any concerns stemming from this series in my own school. Yes, I work at the elementary level, but I fear that there are upper elementary students binge watching this series and perhaps not even talking to their parents about it, because their parents might not even be aware they have watched it at all. This, THIS, is scary and unacceptable.

Yesterday, I participated in a webinar facilitated by several experts in the field of suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. Each of them brought their expertise to the topic of how educators in particular could and should respond to this series. Needless to say, there are a lot of concerns about how the sensitive topics are handled in the show.

Here are a few of the concerns:

  • This show is FICTION, though many people (children and adults alike) are taking the show as the reality for many high school students today.
  • The graphic depictions of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and suicide can be very triggering, especially for anyone who is or has struggled with any of these things.
  • Young people may over identify with the characters in this show, particularly the main protagonist, Hannah, who dies by suicide.
  • The show very much over-simplifies suicide. The majority of people who have suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or die by suicide, have an underlying mental illness that they need professional treatment for. This show does not mention mental illness, or specifically, depression, at all. Not even once.
  • The 13 tapes created by Hannah before her death romanticize the ability to speak to people “from the beyond.” This is completely unrealistic. The tapes would have taken a rational mind to create; Hannah was not thinking rationally near the end of her life. In fact, most people who die by suicide end up acting impulsively at the very end. Suicide notes are not common.
  • One theme through out the show is the blame and shame placed on Hannah’s classmates (and the School Counselor) for her suicide. At one point, a character in the show says, “We ALL killed Hannah Baker.” Suicide survivors already tend to feel guilt when someone they care about dies by suicide; this is a dangerous and hurtful message to send.
  • The other theme through out the show seems to be about how kindness can save lives. Sounds great, right? After all, we want our children to be kind. However, Hannah references in almost all of her tapes that if that person had just done one thing differently, she might not feel as badly as she does. In the last episode, Hannah says, “Some of you cared. None of you cared enough.” Kindness is not enough; suicidal ideation requires PROFESSIONAL help! Again, this is not mentioned AT ALL in this series. Let’s not let the message to our children be that if they had just been more kind to so-and-so, maybe they wouldn’t have killed themselves. Talk about guilt!
  • The adults in this series, yikes. None of them appear to know how to help when they see their children/students struggling, or they don’t have the time. This is also a very dangerous message. The School Counselor in the series, Mr. Porter, is cringe-worthy when it comes to his responses to Hannah in the last episode. He is dismissive, distracted, and unhelpful. We need our children to know that there ARE adults who will listen and who know how to help them.
  • There are little to no help-seeking behaviors shown in this series. Hannah appears to be helpless and hopeless. The series offers no alternatives to suicide as a means to deal with serious problems. (I have to add that there is a follow up to this series, Beyond the Reasons, showing the producers, cast, and mental health professionals discussing how to get help for these kinds of issues, though there is NOTHING about it in the actual show.)
  • Contagion. Experts in this field know that research shows that young people are more likely to attempt or die by suicide themselves after experiencing a suicide death of someone close to them (about 4 to 5 times more likely). You might say, “But this is just a show. They don’t really know Hannah.” And you would be right, except that there has already been an increase in young people who are attempting suicide in the same way depicted in the show. Contagion is real.
  • Finally, producers of this show claim to have consulted suicide experts and media portrayal experts. The truth is that they did not consult said experts until after the show was already completed.

Here are a few resources to prepare yourself for potentially hard conversations:

I am not saying we should not watch this show. What I am saying is if you live with or work with young people, you need to be prepared to process this material with them. If it leaves adults shaken and heartbroken, imagine how it leaves our children. Do NOT let them watch this without an adult to process with.

Hopefully this post will be found helpful for someone! And School Counselors, let’s continue to be the best listeners and problem solvers for our students that we can be! We are needed now more than ever.

The not so invisible boy

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When I came across Trudy Ludwig’s book The Invisible Boy, I couldn’t wait to use it with my students. In the overly social environment that is most schools, the quiet kids tend to be overlooked. I know this because I was one of those quiet kids, and now I’m that quiet adult.

brian

I absolutely love the way Brian, the “invisible” boy in the book, is shown through beautiful pictures existing among his classmates, but not really noticed by many. At the same time, the pages showcase Brian’s many talents and positive attitude, regardless of how he is treated. The use of black and white vs. color pictures draws the students in from beginning to end.

I ended up reading this book with grades 2nd-6th, as the messages inside are so varied that all ages enjoyed the story. Particularly, my students had great discussions about why Brian felt invisible and how he helped a new student feel welcome, even when he wasn’t feeling so welcome himself.

When we got to the page that posed the question, “Brian wondered which was worse, being laughed at or feeling invisible,” I polled the class for their thoughts. Their opinions were split pretty equally, in each class.

After we read the book, I prompted the students to use their creativity to write or draw three ways they could help a kid like Brian feel welcome in their classroom. Many of them had some pretty great ideas! These two are from a third grade class:

invisible boy pic1   invisible boy pic2I love it when the book I choose has enough depth that it takes up most of the lesson, while capturing students’ attention cover to cover. This book is one of those!! The topics it covers is vast – diversity in personality, appreciation of differences, celebrating talents, friendship, teasing/bullying, respect, kindness, and much more.

If you haven’t read The Invisible Boy, do yourself a favor and get a copy!

RAK, bingo, and secret missions

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The week before Christmas vacation, I decided my school needed some help in being a little more kind. And I decided to find a fun way to incorporate random acts of kindness into my guidance lessons that week.

The result was outstanding!

RAK board

I came across a RAK Bingo Board featured on Confessions of a School Counselor. I loved it and decided to make my own. Using a similar format, I created a 4×4 Bingo Board with very simple acts of kindness that students would be able to do over and over again in their classrooms.

Click here for the RAK Bingo Board I made. I made four versions of my bingo board to allow for some variety while playing Bingo in classrooms.

To begin the lesson with my 2nd-5th graders, we had a discussion about what random acts of kindness are, allowed for some examples, and talked about why they matter. Specifically, we talked about RAK’s being anonymous; meaning, being kind isn’t about recognition, it’s about giving to someone else.

Then, we played Bingo. This was an immediate hit because kids love Bingo! As I read each act of kindness, the students were able to hear ideas that they could try themselves. We played until everyone had Bingo at least once on their board. Because the boards are small, this didn’t take long. In some classes, we played until everyone had blackout (their whole board was filled).

brown paper bag

Next came the REALLY fun part! I presented the class with a brown paper bag and asked a student to read the words I had written on it with marker: “Secret Mission Shhh!” We discussed that a secret mission is something you do and don’t tell anybody about it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One by one, each student came to pick their secret mission from the bag. The secret missions were little folded cards that had the acts of kindness from the Bingo boards. All I did was cut up some of my Bingo boards, fold the squares, and pop them into the bag!

Once each student had their secret mission, I told them their challenge was to complete their secret mission before the week was over. To combat a few of the grumblers, I reminded them they would have a lot more fun if they kept a positive attitude! Plus, their secret missions were really easy and didn’t take a lot of time.

This lesson was not only fun, but it created a ripple effect of kindness throughout many classrooms and into the hallways of our school. My favorite part was having several students come up to me after the lesson and say, “I already did my secret mission. Can I have another one?” 🙂

Finally, I know the lesson made an impact because I received an anonymous card thanking me for the lesson. (One of the secret mission RAK’s was to make a card for your favorite teacher.)

The card said “To: A special someone, Merry Christmas. As you can see I hope you have a good Christmas and a happy new year. I really like you and I’m excited for today. I was happy that the class got to see you and I really liked the game and getting to pick the cards. All my love.

How kind is that? 🙂

Compliments web

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In one of my fourth grade classes, there’s been a change in the last month. The students went from being very engaged in their weekly Community Circles, to disengaged, barely sharing anything, staring blankly at me and each other, etc. I wondered what the change meant and why it happened, so we talked about it in the circle…..I got nothing. Sooooo, I decided they needed some help engaging with one another again like a classroom community should.

Enter the compliments web. I’ve done webs before, usually in the beginning of the year to discuss how each of us are an important part of the community, each playing a role on the team, and how we need each other to do our part so the community stays healthy and happy.

This time, we focused on giving the person you roll the ball of string to a meaningful, specific compliment. We work on giving meaningful compliments all year (nothing like “I like your shirt,” “I think you’re nice,” and I don’t even let them say “Thanks for being a good friend” anymore because it’s not specific enough).

Here are some pictures of their work as a class to create something together.

This is the web just getting started.

This is the web just getting started.

Each student, upon receiving the ball of string and a compliment, had to thank the person, then wrap the string around a finger so they didn’t drop it, and send it on to someone else.

compliments web2a

Here is the web almost complete.

Some of their directions were to use self-control, meaning they were not allowed to pull, shake, or drop their string. We discussed how doing so was not doing their part to successfully make the web.

compliments web3a

After completing the web, we all stood to see the shapes.

Furthering their teamwork, all students had to stand in their spots, at the same time, to see their web in the air.

compliments web4a

Students began talking about the shapes and designs they saw in their web.

Some of the meaningful compliments given were: “I like it when you help others on their work after you’re done,” “Thank you for always including me at recess,” and “I like how you check to see if I’m alright when I’m sad.” Some students needed help from others to come up with a meaningful compliment. I encouraged this, as it was furthering their teamwork and helping one another to complete the task.

compliments web5a

More sharing of designs and patterns they saw.

When we returned to a sitting position, we discussed how it felt to give and to receive compliments.

As a side note, the student in the bottom right of the picture above, has been asking to do this activity since the beginning of the year. I’m glad we finally made time to do it!

This activity got them engaged, interacting, working together as a team, using self-control, and sharing positivity, which is much needed as spring time rolls around!

When the target is the teacher

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Dart and Dartboard

Anybody who works in a school setting probably knows that the word “bullying” is a buzz word as of late. Bullying is a hot topic and it gets a lot of attention. For me, bullying sometimes feels like a dark cloud looming over my head, as I wait for the next time it will come pouring down on me. The cloud opens up every time students use the word to describe a friendship conflict in which their feelings were hurt, or every time a parent uses the word to defend their child’s actions. Sometimes, I get so sick of the word that I don’t even want to teach it to my students, because I know it will result in the inevitable and annoying overuse. Of course I do teach about it, because it IS an important topic.

But I digress.

At my school, the excessive use of the word bullying hits overdrive as spring gets sprung. Friendships are breaking and mending naturally and repeatedly, and with this comes some mean behaviors. I spend a lot of time each spring helping students use the problem solving skills they already possess (and just need to be reminded they have).

I say all of this to say my next point – because spring is here, I’ve been thinking about bullying as a bigger issue than student-to-student relations; I’ve been thinking about it as a school-wide community issue, a climate issue, a global issue. We all know that bullying is not just a childhood problem – adults can bully too. Sadly, the students who struggle with bullying behaviors sometimes have parents or adults in their lives who struggle with it too.

Sometimes, students can even bully the adults in their lives. Sometimes, the target of the bullying is the teacher. I have seen it happen.

Let’s journey back to the year 1998-1999. I was in seventh grade, on a team mixed with eighth graders. The year I started in middle school, a new young teacher began teaching social studies. He was obviously nervous as he found his way around a classroom filled with hormonal adolescents. What most students noticed about him right away was a peculiar speech impediment – he finished most sentences with “mmkay” (kind of like Mr. Mackey, the school counselor on the adult cartoon South Park). During some class lectures, you’d hear “mmkay” a few dozen times. Needless to say, it got old. Really fast.

As you can imagine, the speech impediment became a topic of conversation and jokes for the eighth graders, which the seventh graders overheard and joined in on. Eventually, the jokes happened less behind the teacher’s back and more often to his face. I remember students interrupting his lectures to mimic his words. I never mimicked his “mmkay,” but I laughed along when others did. I was a bystander to the bullying of this new teacher.

Well, the teacher ignored the bullying for a while, until he couldn’t any longer. I was waiting for him to blow up, discipline the students, up and quit. He didn’t. Instead, he did something so special and so brave, that it worked.

I remember the social studies class that day. The teacher wasn’t standing at the board; he was sitting at a desk just as we were. He opened the discussion by telling us that he wanted to share something with us. Then he told us all about this speech impediment – he talked openly about it with us. He said it was something he struggled with for a long time, and that we weren’t the only ones who have noticed it and mimicked it. He said he had tried years of speech therapy to stop, but that it was a habit and it’s hard to stop. He ended his speech by sharing that he wanted to be our teacher and he wanted the classroom to be a cool place to learn cool stuff, and that he needed everyone to feel comfortable being there, including him.

He didn’t tell us to stop or threaten to send us to the office if we didn’t. He just put himself out there, openly and honestly, so that we could see how our actions affected him and others in the classroom. The students started to see him differently – he wasn’t just a teacher; he was a person with feelings, just like us. Seeing him put forth this effort changed the climate in this classroom from then on.

After that day, students stopped mimicking him. A few would make jokes behind his back, but those jokes soon sizzled out because no one found it funny anymore.

Thinking back on this experience, I realize how grand a gesture it was for this new teacher to open up his world to a group of awkward adolescents who needed a lesson in compassion. I commend him for his strength and courage to put his hurt feelings aside and use his struggle to teach us something more important than the curriculum that day. I don’t remember much from seventh grade social studies, but I do remember this lesson in empathy, humanity, and kindness.

As we each go forth and work with students, we may find ourselves mistreated, unappreciated, and maybe even bullied. I hope we can understand that these students need unconditional care regardless of their actions because they may be trying to push people away. I hope we can understand that these students may need a lesson in compassion because they may not get it anywhere else in their lives. I hope we can use their actions for teachable moments.

If we can do this, there will be more allies coming together than targets of bullying coming apart. It is easier said than done. We need to do it anyway. Every day.

Kindness Matters

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You know all those new and exciting plans you make at the start of a new school year? Well, guess what? I put one of my ideas into action! Here it is…

I wanted a way to make kindness more cool and routine at my school among students and staff. I came across various lessons and bulletin boards, so I decided to create my own version.

The Kindness Matters Bulletin Board was created in December. The purpose of it is to encourage all students and staff to look out for kind acts, write them on a colorful post-it, and stick it on the board for everyone to appreciate. It’s a twist to the “see it, say it, share it” mantra.

I introduced the bulletin board idea in all K-5 classrooms by reading Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and then doing a demonstration of dropping stones into a bowl of water to watch the ripple effect. As we dropped each stone (starting small and getting bigger), the students named a kind act that each stone represented, and we discussed how kindness ripples out to others and comes back to you. It was a really neat activity!

Here’s a picture of the bulletin board about a week after we started:

Kindness matter board before

Here’s a picture of the bulletin board about a month after we started:

Kindness matters bulletin board

As you can see, it’s filling up! When it’s completely full, I plan to take down some of the oldest ones to make room for new post-its.

Here are some examples of acts of kindness that students and staff have written and/or drawn for the board:

Post-it1

Post-it2

Post-it3

Post-its

I have a few kindergarten and first grade students who show up to my room almost every day with a new act of kindness they’ve seen to write down. It’s adorable. I also experienced the delight of seeing a group of fifth graders huddled around each other in the hallway – as I approached, I heard one of them say, “Yeah, write that down!” and I could only imagine they were up to no good – lo and behold, they were writing things down for the bulletin board! What a nice surprise!

Hopefully the momentum continues! It is a great morale booster for our whole school community. If I’m ever in need of a smile, I go to the board and fill up on kindness!

Cotton vs. Sandpaper Words

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In elementary school, a large part of what I do involves talking to students about the words that they use – the words that hurt, the words that help, and all the words in between. Although we do many, and I mean many, lessons about the way we talk to others, this topic is ongoing, all year long, every single year.

So when I find a new way to teach it, I’m really stoked! I learned about cotton and sandpaper words from a counseling colleague, and it’s a good lesson to pass along.

This lesson uses concrete objects like cotton and sandpaper to help make the concept of kind and unkind words feel more real to my students. I use it K-2 mostly, but it could be adapted for older grades.

It goes like this: I have a box that has cotton glued to one side and sandpaper glued to the other. I present the box to the class and tell them this box is going to help us learn about kind and unkind words. I walk around with the box so each student can feel the difference between the cotton and the sandpaper. We talk about how each feels on our fingers and hands.

The cotton words

cotton-balls

After students have told me that the cotton feels nice, soft, fluffy, etc., I point out that some of the words we use can feel this way too. We discuss what a compliment is (I like your shirt, you’re a good friend), what using good manners sounds like (please, thank you, excuse me), and what an I-message is (I feel…, when you…, I would like…). We spend the most time practicing I-messages.

Sometimes I show a picture of kids in a line with a boy cutting in and pushing others – I have the students come up with an I-message that they might say to the boy who cut and pushed.

The sandpaper words

sandpaper

After students have told me that the sandpaper feels rough, hurts, etc., I point out that some of the words we use can feel this way too. We discuss how name-calling, teasing, and even tattling can feel hurtful like the sandpaper.

When I show the picture of the boy cutting and pushing in line, we sometimes discuss what sandpaper words might be used and whether or not they would help solve the problem or make it worse.

The escalator

steps

To add to this lesson, I usually bring my drawing of an escalator with feeling faces drawn on each step – the faces go from smiling to frowning to really angry. We use the escalator to talk about how our words and actions can escalate a problem (make it worse) or de-escalate a problem (make it better or smaller). I tie this into using cotton words, which are the best way to de-escalate a problem.

Finally, I wrap up this lesson by having students pick a slip of paper from a bag that has either cotton or sandpaper words written on it. They decide which and why after we read it out loud. This is a fun way to evaluate their knowledge from the lesson.

What I like most about this lesson:

I like that the materials make it very concrete for my students. They are able to understand about words that feel rough/hurtful and words that feel soft/kind. I usually do this lesson in the beginning of the year, and the concept of cotton and sandpaper words seems to stick with them throughout the year. I often come back to it when discussing with a student about unkind words they have used with friends. They just get it!

Materials needed:

  • Box – any size works. I use one that can come apart to really differentiate between cotton and sandpaper words.
  • Cotton – you can separate cotton balls to glue on the box.
  • Sandpaper – get a grit that is rough enough to feel with your hand.
  • Glue – hot glue probably works the best, but any glue will work fine.

Optional materials:

  • Escalator – draw at least four steps on a white piece of paper. You can add faces on each step to show how our feelings change as we move up the escalator.
  • I-message cards – have a card with each part of an I-message written on it to practice them with your students.
  • Problem picture – any picture showing a problem is helpful to have students practice using an I-message instead of sandpaper words.
  • Cotton vs. Sandpaper words – slips of paper with examples of both for students to practice listening for the difference. Click here for the document I use (I cut the examples into strips and put them in a bag for students to pick from).

This is a fun lesson that my students usually enjoy and my teachers usually ask for. It can be repeated each year for added learning!