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After a tragedy, counselor and teachers connect to help students open up

In autumn 2004, the Albert D. Lawton Middle School in Essex Junction, Vt. was stunned by the suicide of a student who had been severely bullied by instant messaging on the Internet. After the student's death, the community gathered to discuss how to respond to the problem that his action had brought so painfully to light.

One result, among a schoolwide effort to prevent bullying and harassment, has been an annual seventh-grade reading and discussion unit that centers on The Revealers. The project uses the book in several creative ways, to get kids talking, feeling, and rethinking their own ideas about bullying.

School counselor Tamara Pless happened to discover The Revealers at a statewide teachers' conference. "I knew this story was something that kids would grab hold of and understand," she recalled. "I knew that kids would talk about the classic bullying, but then it would get deeper than that."

Encouraged by her school administrators, Pless worked with the seventh-grade reading teachers, Jane Hamilton and Bev Knapp, to build a new study unit.

"We wanted to engage the whole seventh grade, and give them an opportunity to talk about this story," Pless said. "Did it have any parallels in their lives, in their school? What do they view as bullying and harassment?

"We really need to hear from the students — because they're the ones who hold the key."

Each seventh grader received a copy of The Revealers. Pless and the teachers took turns reading chapters to the classes, with some chapters assigned as home reading. The teachers worked with the counselor to lead discussions.

"We talked about the elements of the story," Pless said. "Then, getting into my area, we asked, 'What are you seeing, what are you hearing, in the story? Really talk about the feelings that go along with what the story brings up.'"

At the end of each class, students were given time to write self-reflections in their journals. Groups of students also did artwork, depicting a "bully," "bullied," and "bystander" in their own way - then presented their artwork to the class.

"One group illustrated the characters as animals," Pless said. "We let them explore and look at it on their own. Then we discussed how the classic images of bullying look - and how those are not necessarily true."

The school plans to repeat the unit each year. "This year, we're distributing a questionnaire," Pless said. "We want them to look at their culture, as seventh graders in the middle school. What do they see as bullying and harassing behavior? We want them to complete the survey, then go through the unit, then revisit the survey, to see if anything has changed for them."

Analyzing the survey's findings from year to year will help the school track the impacts of its study unit. Is it helping to reduce the incidence and severity of bullying? "To what extent," asked teacher Hamilton, "is it empowering students to understand the role of 'bystander,' and take a proactive stance against bullying and harassment?"

Time will tell. For now, the Albert D. Lawton School has found a way to work with students' own feelings and attitudes about bullying — and the experience is revealing.

"The kids really got into it," Pless said. At the start of the unit, she and the teachers send a letter home to each students' parents, inviting them to read the book too, and to talk about it with their kids.

This is an important issue in schools across the country - and in spring of '05, Pless, Hamilton, and Doug Wilhelm made a presentation about the Lawton School's initiative at the annual conference of the New England League of Middle Schools in Providence, Rhode Island.

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