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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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My 2010 Book Picks

As a rather slow reader, I don’t get around to reading every book I should, nevertheless during the year it’s released. Instead of offering you a best-of list, I’ll simply comment on what I got around to reading. Keep in mind: it’s not the size of the list but what you do with it that counts.  Continue reading

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Empathy and Civility? Those Are Just Words, Right?

I attended a panel discussion that was set up to respond to the suicide of a local high school student. As a result, I don’t want to say I’ve lost all hope in society’s ability to deal with this problem, but my hope has taken a painful, debilitating blow.

The principal spent a lot of time and energy insisting that bullying will never end. It happens everywhere, not just her school, and fighting bullying requires everyone’s involvement, not just hers. Every so often, she emphasized that she didn’t mean to sound defensive, although it was hard to read her mostly well-intentioned comments as much more than an attempt to gain control of the story that the local media and rumor mill (hard to separate those forces) have painted.

Fine. We’ve all got to be committed to solving the problem. I agree. Any halfway responsible person can agree with that. So what does she recommend we do, based on her experience? The principal told a story about going to a parade at her son’s school. As her son passed on his float, another parent who didn’t know this administrator said her son should have been killed at birth. What did this administrator, this trained professional, do? She froze. After demanding that we audience members avoid standing by and letting bullies get away with their offenses, she gave us an example of her doing that very thing.

To be fair, it was a shocking comment, and when she told that part of the story, audience members let out a collective gasp. But I really expected to hear that she collected herself and did something, either immediately or shortly after the incident. I hoped she might have told us the story to illustrate the difficulty of anti-bullying work and to encourage us to prepare for such situations, to anticipate how we might feel and plan what we might say, to do role-playing to rehearse those moments so we’re not caught off guard as she was. I would have given her a standing ovation if she’d had a rhetorical purpose other than playing the I’m-a-parent-too card. If educational professionals are also parents, they are, apparently, supposed to be forgiven for inaction because they, too, have feelings. But if the feelings for one’s own child doesn’t inspire action, Maybe we weren’t supposed to notice that she did offer no clear solutions from either perspective.

There was also a police officer on the panel. He preached the gospel of structured behavioral training. He didn’t use those words, but that’s what he meant. He spoke about the effectiveness of dress codes, saying that it gives children one less thing to have to worry about. When educating children, we should set high standards of behavior, the most effective height to be determined by him, apparently. He gave examples of ideal educational environments, such as private schools and a summer camp he’s involved with where parents drop of their kids so he and other law enforcement professionals can “hammer them all week.” The rigid structure he recommended doesn’t give kids room to misbehave. While I agree that not giving kids choices is an extremely effective way to modify their behavior for a time, such an approach doesn’t do much for helping young people learn to make responsible choices when rules aren’t clear. Furthermore, the imbalance of power and the repeated, aggressive approach he recommended are key features of bullying.

For all the railing I’ve heard about how “kids today!” have become desensitized to violence, I’ve heard very few adults consider that kids become desensitized by watching the adults in their lives use bullying as pedagogy and/or avoid dealing with what actually affects kids. Continue reading

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