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Diversity and Bullying: Just Another Version of the Chicken and Egg Question?

So, which came first, the chicken or the egg? After you consider that, then answer this, which occurs first, bullying because of our ignorance on how to respond to differences, or inconsideration of differences that contributes to bullying?

Today Kristie Gonyea and I facilitated the second of three presentations at Peru Central School. As a result of a series of different bullying incidents (which often are connected to inadequate preparation of students/parents with diversity & social justice) that have occurred around the North Country, the Peru administration decided to accept some assistance and provided us access to the middle school students to create a conversation about diversity, social justice and bullying.

The 8th grade students were amazing! Quiet when they needed to respect a voice, vocal when a question was put to them, we were pleasantly surprised by the energy, focus, and consideration they gave the subject matter.

I told my son I was going to write a blog about the rewarding experience I had today with his classmates. I told him I would link it to my Facebook account so that his friends could see it.

If any middle school students actually read this blog, my questions to them are:

1. What was the most personal thing that you got from the diversity/bullying session today?
2. If you were to describe to your parents what you experienced today, how would you describe it?
3. Why was it important for you to have a session on bullying/diversity?
4. Do you think the bullying/diversity session will make a difference with your classmates, and why/why not?
5. Do you think all students would benefit from more diversity sessions like the one you had today? Why/why not?
6. Do you think your parents would benefit from participating in a session on bullying/diversity?

My questions to adult readers of this blog are:

1. Do you think it is possible for a middle school student to truly process (significantly grow/mature) from a message that challenges them to respect “everyone,” no matter how different the person appears to be?
2. Do you think it is possible for a middle school student to become a leader when they’ve never really thought about leading before?
3. Do you think it is possible for a middle school student to tune out the dysfunctional messages that their parents, siblings, friends, etc., constantly expose them to and hold on to the positive messages?
4. Do you think it would be helpful/beneficial to find a way to include middle school student’s parents in these conversations about diversity & social justice, and bullying?
5. Why is it that we emphasize, promote, and fund sports and academics, but have so little emphasis on the development of our character through respect/consideration of our differences?

I am really curious as to how students and parents might process a session like this. What do you think?


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I enjoyed you coming to my school and enlightening all of my friends and piers. The most important thing you talked about today in my eyes and ears were the discussion of why we use the following words to hurt people: "Gay," "Fagot," "Queer" and "retard." I felt you made the students realize what image they were putting out to people and, what they are really saying when they say "gay" etc. I truly think you have gotten inside my piers heads. I thought it was important for 8th grade students actually teenagers at all to learn about bullying and what these hurtful words mean and, I also strongly think that the session truly got in students head making them think of what they're saying and doing. I think that all students would benefit from this enlightenment session it makes a lot of young students think and it's getting inside their heads.

*** Son, it may take you having a child of your own to realize this, but one of the most difficult conversations to create is one that includes your children and their friends. I was sincere when I said it was eerie how respectful the 8th graders at Peru were to us. That said, I agree with you that it is about getting certain thoughts in student's heads and keeping them there. I planted a few seeds, but now it is up to you and your crew to make sure they grow.

You also will never know how proud I am of the fact that you have posted to my blog for the first time. How cool is that...*** -- J.W.

Adult reader section:
1. Absolutely yes. Most people, even younger ones, really want to be good people. Once they begin to understand what that entails, they aspire to get there.

2. This one is a bit tougher for them. Peer pressure can be really heavy, or even the perception of peer pressure. Leadership can be developed, but it takes a lot of positive reinforcement and confidence-building.

3. See #2. These go hand-in-hand. It IS very hard to tune out messages that are a constant. Even if they believe differently, to act on that belief can be very scary. It really depends on each individual situation. I think these things are more easily resisted when a support or peer group exists for that purpose.

4. While it would be helpful, you might wind up preaching to the choir. The worst offenders probably won't want to take part. Still worth a try though! Even if you can reach only a few, it's worth the effort. Break the chain where you can.

5. Don't include all of us in this "We." But you're right that it seems that the priorities are not equal.

*** Debra, regarding #2 (student leadership) and #3 (dysfunctional messages) I agree with you, it isn't easy and peer pressure is daunting. Hopefully, the faculty and administration are committed to developing and implementing strategies that will enable them to be successful assisting their students in becoming leaders. As well, I am always telling my children that "steel sharpens steel" and if they want to become something or someone amazing they need to surround themselves with others who have the same desires.

Regarding #4, I also agree, it may be preaching to the choir, but the choir needs to be energized from time to time (and I don't quite see myself as anyone's preacher). I also firmly believe though that we (there's that We again) need to develop strategies to get all parents into these conversations. If they are passive, resistant, or straight up hostages to the conversation that unfolds that posture that they are in should be viewed as just that much more of a challenge that must be overcome. Once non-choir parents enter the auditorium the opportunity is there, so A-game must be implemented to see if they can be tempted to lean in and participate.

Regarding #5, it was an editorial "we" Debra, as I'm sure you must know. I really appreciate you taking the time to contribute to this conversation. See you soon (I hope) on FB or around the water cooler. *** -- J.W.

The presentation today really made me think in a different way. It made me sad when Mr. Wiley had to explain to us how his son was being bullyed and his son was being called names. Then lots of people started crying thinking of how sad it was. I feel like this really helped are school and everyone should put some effort into changing, and trying not to be mean, and hurtful towards people.

*** Margaret, I appreciate the empathy from you and your classmates. If you recall, my going into the story about my son's experience 7 years ago was in response to the one girl asking me to explain the word "nigger." I chose to tell a story that would reveal the pain associated with dysfunctional language instead of just giving all of you some stodgy academic definition of the term.

The bigger lesson I hope you all got from it was that we must be responsible for the things we say and do. As teenagers it is no longer acceptable for any of you to not think about your actions. So, as Justin mentioned earlier, language that ranges from what appears to be relatively harmless like "nerd" and "loser" to language that we frame as mean-spirited like "retard" and "queer" all have the ability to cut like a knife at different times.

Thanks for joining the conversation on the blog, Margaret. *** --J.W.

Mr. Wiley,

Your speach inspired me so much today. It made me think back of all the times that I bullied someone or made fun of someone. Two periods of you talking can really change someones life, like it did to mine. When you told me the story about Justin when he was a little kid, it was so hard for me to hold back my tears. Before I walked into the assembly, I didn't think that the speech would be so touching and a good life leason. You are so cool and amzazing!
-Isabella Schaefer

*** Isabella, most likely when you previously bullied you just weren't thinking of the impact it was having on the victims. All I did was challenge you to consider your actions towards others. It is you that is cool and amazing because your mind is open enough to accept a challenge to change some of your ways. Now, don't just half way do it, but take it all the way. Remember, we talked about how great the 8th grade class could actually be. Well, go out and become that great individual that has been quietly residing within you. *** --J.W.

Mr. Wiley,
Your presentation was amazing! I agree 100% with you.. I hear and see people being bullied all the time and I hear all the name calling that was discussed. It bothers me so bad, and I'm glad that somebody finally took action! What bothers me the most, is the use of the word "gay". I think you really got through to us, and I don't think we have ever been so quiet at an assembly. Thank You!

*** I appreciate your posting to the blog Michaela, but remember, the people that "really" need to take action are the ones that often are far too comfortable as bystanders. Don't be a bystander! Make sure you and your "now aware" crew of like minded students find ways to include those students that often are left out. That is when you really start to build a community. *** --J.W.

Dr. Wiley,

Thank you so much for coming to our school! I think bullying is the whole reason people are committing suicide these days. Those pictures of kids with autism and the comments made everyone very sad. Also when you said Justin got called the 'n' word , people around me were crying, and I kept my tears in though. I think thats horrible that this 5th grader was talking to him like that. I think there will be alot less bullying in the halls and the classrooms. Coming to our school made our school a lot better than what it has become. I think you should go all over the U.S talking about bullying, and seeing how much schools you have changed. Thanks again for coming to our school!

*** Karly, you are correct in recognizing that bullying contributes to people's lack of self worth, which contributes to many people taking their own lives.

The 5th grader who called Justin "nigger" seven years ago when he was a 1st grader was a product of his environment. Hopefully, as an adult now he has grown and changed. Like I said when I talked to your class, that 5th grader wasn't born with that type of language. He unfortunately was taught hateful language. Now its time for us (you, me, your classmates) to find ways to reteach those who are likely to bully, right? As well, it is also time for us to make sure that we aren't somehow bullying ourselves. Karly, thank you for being the leader that I know you to be. Keep working hard on bringing out the greatness you have within you. *** -- J.W.

I really enjoyed your speech the other day, i feel as if people will change now after you gave us that speech about not to bully and how it affects other peoples lives if you bully. I really connected to you when we were talking about the word "bitch" because it seems as if i get called that a lot, even by people i dont even talk to. I don't get why though because i've never done anything to them. I also tend to get called "fake" and a "whore" constantly. It affects me in life because i feel as if i'm not good enough to be here.I hate seeing people get bullyed to, i want to do something about it. and i want to put a stop to it.i know i've bullyed people to, and i do regret it. i may something but i don't realize it offends people. i do regret the things i've done in the past to people. and i hope in the near future,people will change. Your speech really affected a lot of people that were there because i feel that most of them connected to you and realized that it's not right to do. Everybody's different, no ones the same. so why dont we bully everybody? everybody's different in every little way. lets change... lets not bully those who are different then us, because were all different. We just have those people that we fit in with, but that doesnt mean that they aren't different then you. because they are. everybodys different. whether it's the way you dress, look, your body feautures it doesn't matter,everybody's beautiful. treat people they way you'd want to be treated.

*** Lindsay, thanks for looking at yourself and owning the fact that you have bullied. You are smart enough to know that you are young enough and caring enough to change. So, do what you need to do to be the person you want to be, instead of not giving any thought to the person that you are.

You are correct that everybody's different. If we all really focused on the fact that we all want our differences to be appreciated and if possible, celebrated, then most of us would be far less judgmental. Make a commitment to yourself Lindsay to stop judging others, even those that prejudge (which is what prejudice actually is). Most people that exhibit prejudiced behavior have never stopped to realize what they are doing. After the talk at your school you and many of your classmates now realize it so you no longer have an excuse. Time to take our game (respecting others) to another level, right? Thanks for contributing your voice to the conversation. *** -- J.W.

Dr.Wiley, after seeing the presentation the first time at SUNY Plattsburgh my life changed about using the words that are hurtful to others and put them down. I haven't changed completely but everyday I think about being a leader and trying my hardest to be a better person. Yesterday my life changed again. Now i feel that someone needs to make a change and stand up to be a leader. I am going to take the opportunity and try 100% to be an outstanding factor in the Peru school district. I believe you really made change in the way 7th and 8th graders from Peru will act in the future. You nailed the presentation, Congratulations Dr.J.W.Wiley.

*** Cameron, Thanks for introducing me yesterday. You are a leader, that is obvious, but with the power leaders have if/when it isn't used properly it can be very dangerous and detrimental to others. So, measure your actions young man, with care and consideration of others. I look forward to seeing the role you will play over the years in making Peru Central School District one of the best schools in the country. Are you up for that? *** -- J.W.

In response to your first question for adult readers, I feel that the quantity and quality of the 8th graders comments to this blog is a compelling answer. I remember being in middle school/Jr. high and seeing people around me getting bullied. At times, I joined in on the bullying myself, nervous that if I didn’t I would get picked on as well.

I feel it’s important to get parents involved in their children's lives. When I was younger, I didn’t necessarily want my parents around all the time because they were. Had I had parents that were never around, I would probably have craved that attention. My parents told me bullying was not acceptable and I was disciplined a few times when they found out I bullied someone. I wonder how many parents of bullies actually know the role their kids play in hurting others, or what role they play in contributing to their children’s abusive words/actions.

It is somewhat ironic that we are having a discussion on bullying yet funding sports and academics, like you point out in question 5 for adults. No, children aren’t told specifically to bully their opponents or fellow classmates, but they are taught, perhaps subconsciously, to be BETTER than the rest. The winning team is BETTER than the losers…the A student is BETTER than the B student. Students and players are rewarded for being better than the rest. Are the sports and academic systems somehow systems of bullying in themselves, distributing a “D” rather than calling a child “dumb” and congratulating a winning team who won because of the well-paid coaching staff?

Is there a way to participate in sports and academics, striving to excel, without bullying others, even if that is not your intent?

*** Via Via, you pose a very provocative question about the role sports play in bullying culture. I will have to ponder that a bit (as an ex-jock) and get back to you. Admitting that sports might play such a prominent role in the promotion of bullying could just make my entire house of cards tumble down. Yes, on some level the male psyche is often just that fragile. *** -- J.W.

Thank you soo much for comeing to our school yesturday and telling us about diversity. It was really sad to hear about the story with justin and hat 5th grader calling him the "n" word. It really affected me and now I a going to think about the words that i say and when other people are calling girls or boys names I will stop it now since i have watched those videos that you showed us. I am starting to become a better leader, and now since you showed us that presentation I will be thinking harder about what I say and do and iI will deffinately become a stronger and better leader! Thanks Dr.Wiley.

*** Bryn, you are very welcome. You can really demonstrate your appreciation by being an ally for the people who are often alone and preyed upon by bullies. Be the leader that you want to be and help us change the game at Peru to one that all can play, fairly! Thanks Bryn for contributing to this conversation. *** -- J.W.

Thank you for donating your time to the youth of Peru. In doing so, you have invested in their future. There has been a lot of negative press regarding Peru kids and the bullying that occurs there, however, as evidenced by the response of several students to this blog, there is great potential for change if we challenge and talk to our kids. Sometimes they just want to know someone cares and is paying attention. You deliver your message in a way the kids can relate. You facilitate an open and real conversation that really makes kids consider their actions or lack thereof. Kids need to be reminded they have choices and that they can make a difference. It seems you may have connected with many of these kids on a major level. They hear you. Reading these responses brings tears to my eyes and fills my heart with hope. I know you have impacted my kids in a powerfully positive way.I feel so appreciative that you are part of our community and dedicated to promoting respect.

*** Elise, they say it takes a village. I'm only trying to do my part with an expectation that many others are doing there's as well. And as far as Peru kids go, I can't speak for other communities or every kid in Peru, but the majority of the kids I know that have come through the Peru sports program facilitated by John Flynn (and Cathy), with coaches like Dave Casey, Rhonda Barber, Sue Ulliva, Dave Hackett, and Andy Guay, (all who advocate character as much if not more than they promote competition) or well on their way to being top notch individuals. So, on some level, the kids themselves--with the guidance you state as important if not invaluable--make us look good. *** -- J.W.

In response to the questions you posed to the adults, I hope that this feedback may aid you in your future endeavors, or provide a unique perspective on past experiences.

1.)When in middle school, I sought to soak in the world around me. Most middle school children are looking for a social niche to fill. If you present the idea of social consciousness to children of this age, not only will they be able to grasp this concept but it may become a permanent part of how they learn to relate to and befriend others.

2.)I would be remiss if I did not mention that leaders are already present at this stage of child development. The "popular" kids already set an example for a lot of their classmates. If these revered students carried the message of social diversity, the remainder of the population would be more open to the message itself, and perhaps in turn diminish the notion of superficial popularity altogether.

3.) I believe that although it is difficult to ignore the environment around us, middle school is a time where students are beginning to form their own opinions of the world. Even if they are not able to hold on to the positive messages you have presented to them, you have created a foundation on which they may later cultivate their own beliefs. You have posed an alternative to what they have experienced thus far in their lives.

4.) As helpful as it may be to include parents in a conversation about diversity, it would be a difficult task. As previously stated by Debra Kimok, you may end up preaching to the choir. Perhaps in doing so, you may inspire those parents to become activists within their community. Also, have you considered doing workshops with the PTO? Those parents are highly involved with their children's education and could be useful advocates.

5.) I think that we both know the answer to this question. Bullying is a learned activity. Adults control the allocation of funds within the education system. It is not unreasonable to infer that some of these adults have dysfunctional attitudes towards difference. As for the other adults, it is largely because our society does not consider diversity in regards to our children. Perhaps the better question would be, How can you emphasize the importance of diversity and education as two things that, not only should, but must coincide?

*** Jill, I like your suggestion about social consciousness, but could you elaborate on what exactly you mean by that concept? What I think you mean is a consciousness about how they socialize with others within a context of having been socialized to respond to differences in a socially awkward way (due to a lack of education/familiarity about otherness).

I like and agree with your take on #2 the eradication of superficial popularity. Your response to #3 makes me feel as if I am not working in vain, but know that if parents and schools don't build on the so-called foundation I attempted to lay down with my presentations, the environment that these burgeoning teenagers live in can and often does overwhelm them in some very dysfunctional ways.

Regarding #4, I concur that we need to find ways to involve parents. If we can create a culture of parents as allies we are well on our way.

Regarding #5, you are absolutely right about dysfunctional adults with outdated notions of justice or selfish motives of entitlement are huge obstacles to our youth growing up in more productive educational environments. Everything I do educationally with diversity & social justice is inextricably linked to successfully educating our children/youth/adult minds about the relationship between the two (diversity and education). *** -- J.W.

When I mentioned the term social consciousness, I was largely referring to the ways students learn to relate to those who differ from themselves. I was also referring, however, to the awareness of social constructs within the context of home life and the dysfunctional atmosphere middle school and high school often entails. So with the message of social consciousness, students will acquire the social skills necessary to " be in the mix" with students different than themselves, but also to form friend groups on a common basis of awareness or activism. I hope that this elaboration is sufficient in honing in on the meaning of my previous passage.

*** Jill, your elaboration was more than sufficient. Thx! *** -- J.W.

I hope you can spread this word to other area schools. I will be taking my child out of the schhol he/she is attending because the bullying is so out of control.

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