For this special edition by Dr. Joellen Maples (who has contributed before and you can find her previous post here.) talks about how quickly she encountered the book and how she used it to engage her students and local teachers. The topic is timely and important.
The same time that Joellen was working in her environment, I had occasion to be in conversation with Dr. Shelly Schaffer and Dr. Gretchen Rumohr-Voskuil. Infact, I asked them to preread my blog post reaction to the previously mentioned tradegy at Stoneman Douglas High School (Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora Colorado, Orlando, Las Vegas, and now Parkland). I consider both of them friends and valued colleagues. More importantly, I know they care deeply about adolescents and the preservice and inservice teachers in their spheres of influence. Thankfully, I work in a profession where that is true of so many people. I picked on Shelly, because she has written about the issue. I turned to Gretchen because she has written for the blog several times (look for her on the contributor's page) and she and I have been writing together on several projects. She does her best to make sure I say what is on my mind with clarity. After they offered their advice we disussed the possibility of a book on gun violence in schools. We formed an idea, invited other English Educators and YA authors to write chapters on the various aspects of the subject. We started. We crafted a proposal. The chapter authors began writing. We acted with faith, hoping that someone would want to publish this important book.
We got the news yesterday morning, Thursday, May 24, 2018, that Routledge is offering us a contract. The tentative title: Contending With Gun Violence in the English Language Classroom: Teaching Beyond Fear. Now the work begins in earnest so that we can submit by August 1, 2018 and have the book in hand by NCTE. Do you hear that chapter authors? The pressure is on.
Thanks Joellen for leading the charge with this Friday post.
Mercy Rule and Teacher Talk: Navigating the New Normal of School Shootings by Joellen Maples
And yet, Mercy Rule was released 6 days after the Parkland shooting. I stumbled upon it when I read an article about Dr. James Blasingame’s work using young adult literature to work through school violence. Mercy Rule tells the story through multiple points of view of different high schoolers all struggling in their own way with various stressors. Danny is struggling to fit into a public school since he got taken out of his private school, and he deals with unrequited feelings from Candice, a freshman, who is positive all the time. Brady appears to have it all together as a talented football player, but he often is homeless and doesn’t have food to eat. Other characters deal with their identities, unhealthy ways of expressing their stressors (cutting), and also having to take on the role of caretakers. You begin to care about the characters as you read and realize that any one of these characters could be the school shooter and more importantly, that this book is about so more than just a school shooting. The stressors mount throughout the novel until that day when one of the characters simply has had enough. Leveen adds twists to the plot that the reader doesn’t expect, and he plays with format through font changes and blank spaces on pages. Definitely a worthwhile read to share with adolescents to finally talk about what precipitates these horrific events that has become a reality for teens.
In response to such questions, I felt the need to start a “What is Dr. Maples Reading?” book club with my colleague, Kathy Broikou. Former students have always contacted me about new books to use with their students, and I felt teachers needed a place to talk in hopes that they might use this literature with their students as an avenue toward discussion. I decided to open up the book club to 50 teachers all across the Rochester area, and with the help of Dr. Blasingame, I was put into contact with the author, Tom Leveen. I asked if he would be willing to Skype with a group of teachers who would read his book, participate in the book club in small groups, and then ask him questions when he skyped in. He graciously agreed. It was a profound experience for all the attendees.
Teachers’ Takeaways from the Book Club
Nicole focused on the use of multiple perspectives in the book while also bringing up issues of race and class. She replied, “What resonated with me during my group's discussion was the fact that there were many characters in the novel who could've been the shooter. The multi-perspectives showed that adolescents deal with issues such as bullying, feeling like an outsider by family and peers, abandonment, homelessness, pressure to be someone they're not, self-harm, mental health concerns, etc. Kids don't really get to be kids anymore because society is making them grow up so quickly. What also resonated with me was that school shootings are predominantly occurring in predominately white middle to upper class suburban schools, yet it’s city schools with predominantly lower socio-economic, students of color that have metal detectors. More attention to taking preventative measures should be put on making all schools safe, regardless of location and socioeconomic status.” Even while listing all the stressors adolescents can face, she still saw hope when she said, “With this book being released in the wake of the Parkland shooting and the influence characters had in the novel, it became even more apparent to me that the students who essentially are putting their lives on the line to come to school have the potential to be incredibly powerful in their speaking out against gun violence. We should not take for granted the maturity of these young people and what a difference they can make with their words and actions.”
I asked Courtney how reading the book affected her own teaching and view of teens and she replied, “Teens are very complex. I've learned from teaching in two different schools, one urban and one rural, that although each teen is different they all want the same thing: someone to care about them. I understand as a teacher I am not going to be every student's "favorite" or the person they go to for advice; however, I make it known to all my students that I am there for them. I am grateful for where I work and the team of teachers I work with. We set aside a period every day to discuss our 9th graders. We talk about changes we see in them or any concerns we are having with a specific student. I think that this is beneficial because we are able to discuss ways we can help this student. Do they need to go talk to a trusted adult? Is something going on at home? Can we reach out to their parents? Can we bring the student in and talk to them? These are all options we discuss as a team.
I think that is very important to have in a school. The teachers need to work as a team to help the students succeed. I also learned that if you are the trusted adult students come to it is part of your job to get them the help they need. I have had kids come to me and talk about how I might not see them on Monday. It was hard to break their trust, but I followed the necessary steps to get them the help and support so I could see them on Monday. School shootings are something that can be uncomfortable to teach because it is about more than just a school shooting. It is looking into bullying, mental illness, the lack of home support, and teachers not doing their jobs. However, these are all issues students need to discuss and talk about because this is what is impacting them. It really only takes ONE person to listen to a student and help. It was heartbreaking to read in Mercy Rule about someone who is begging for that help and isn't getting it. It personally made me more aware in my own classroom.”
1) You do right by kids all the time.
2) Books do not harm children.
3) If not you, then who?
I realize that last one puts a lot of pressure on them, and in the context of gun reform, it sadly seems it might just be teachers since our lawmakers certainly are not taking up the cause. I taught Courtney as an undergraduate and then was fortunate to have her as a graduate student---she’s heard my 3 points above many times. As an undergraduate she was afraid of teaching such topics. She’s progressed since then and I was happy when I asked her about teachers teaching Mercy Rule and talking about school shootings she said, “As uncomfortable as this topic might make teachers, they need to discuss and teach it. Whenever I am teaching a topic that is deep and raw and might make me uncomfortable, I always tell my students that I do not have all the answers and I might not know what to say. But I want to talk about this because it is important that they are aware of what is going on in the world because they can make a difference. It's okay to be uncomfortable; I found my students appreciate it when I am honest and tell them that. It makes for a greater discussion. Mercy Rule is the book I recommend to all students when they come to me for a book recommendation. I tell them it is a book they can all connect to. I highly recommend reading the book and trying to find ways to implement it into the classroom. I know I will be working on that over the summer. “
Listening to Courtney, I might just add another precept:
4) It’s okay to be uncomfortable.
Read the book. Spread it widely. And listen to kids and let them talk.
Hey! Tom Has More Books!
Below are some sample questions that Tom was asked during his Skype with my book club. He again, graciously agreed to answer them so that I might share them with you. Enjoy!
1. What was the impetus for you writing a book about a school shooting?
Every novel I’ve ever written comes from a question that can’t be answered by any conventional means. My novel just prior to this one, HELLWORLD, is a horror story that asks “What do you do when your world goes to hell? When you know tomorrow is going to be worse than today?” Thematically, it’s a book that is entirely about dealing with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, even though that has nothing to do with the plot. In MERCY RULE, given our preponderance of school shootings since Columbine, I wanted to find an answer or seek to understand more what would drive a person to such a horrific act. Readers will notice very quickly that there is more than one person in the novel who might have a “reason” for doing it, and that is intentional—I wanted to draw attention to the fact that there are a lot of hurting students (and adults) in this nation who are being dismissed; unseen, unheard. Rejection at least implies acknowledgement, while dismissal is the utter denial that you even exist, or deserve to. What I learned through writing the book is that it’s easy for any one of us, myself included, to dismiss someone, and that those cumulative dismissals—from parents, family, teachers, peers, whomever—can be devastating.
To me, it’s not a “school shooting book.” That is the climax, but it’s not the point. Looking closely, I think readers will find multiple types of violence and dismissal throughout the story.
2. What's the significance of the title "Mercy Rule" ?
One character describes what the mercy rule is and that “in real life, there is no mercy rule,” meaning that too often, it feels as if there is no one to help us, no one who will at the very least allow us some dignity. I think far too many people—students and adults alike—feel this way today. We have to find a way, culturally, to stop treating one another this way.
3. What are some key takeaways that you hope readers leave with when they finish the book?
Secondly, I hope it reminds readers that we have got to talk and to listen to one another. We’ve all gotten so good at smiling and saying, “Good, good!” when someone asks us how we are, yet we could be full of torment inside. That’s not helping us. We have to speak up about what we are really feeling; we have to speak up when we suspect someone is not well; and we have to listen when someone tells us (through words or actions) that they need help. It feels as though “slipping through the cracks” has become the norm for us, and I hope this book and others like it get readers to stop and think and choose to listen to others.
4. I know YA authors don't write books for teachers to use in their classroom, but this is obviously a timely topic and necessary topic to discuss in schools. What would you like to envision in terms of the discussions by students and teachers around your book? What action do you hope might come about as a result of students reading this book?
As a multiple victim of it myself, I have come to believe that all violence—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual—makes all of us in the world a little less human. The violence in the book is not isolated to the shooting at all; some of it takes place on page one, and many students will recognize that instantly even if they can’t (or won’t) necessarily articulate it out loud. I have political opinions on gun control and arming teachers and all the rest of that . . . but I feel strongly that such conversations (which are necessary) are missing the deeper point. I sincerely hope the book causes readers of all ages to look and talk beyond laws and political changes (again—very necessary to have those talks and action!) and into “Why does this keep happening? What can I, a fourteen-year-old freshman, do to change how our world seems to be operating right now?” Because maybe that one change is saying hi to the kid they’ve always avoided. Maybe as a coach or after-school activity sponsor, it’s checking in with all the kids once in a while in a sincere manner.
It’s one thing to put mechanisms and machinery in place to “end school shootings.” It’s entirely different to talk about “ending violence in all its forms.”
I’m going to say this next part as carefully as I can because I hate upsetting people, but I think it’s important for teachers on the front lines to think about:
I had one high school educator tell me right after the Parkland shooting that she asked her class what they were feeling, and, “no one would say anything.” I did not say this, but my first thought was: “I’m 14, 15 years old…sitting in this class day in and day out…and it took a bunch of kids getting killed for you to ask me what I’m feeling? Sorry. You had your chance. Too little, too late.” Does that make sense? We as the adults can’t swoop in now, wringing our hands and begging them to talk to us. Those relationships have to start on day one and keep on going. It starts today if it hasn’t already. Make me (a student) feel listened to and seen and heard. Make this space a safe one for me when things are falling apart at home. No, it’s not what you went to school for, I understand that, but teachers have an impact on student’s lives, period. There’s no escaping that, so we ought to embrace it.
This is particularly true in high school, because if you teach up to 12th grade, you are quite possibly and literally the last adult who is going to have influence on a kid. Make it count. Teachers are what I call “the thin chalk line” between childhood and adulthood; once they’re out of high school, that’s it. Students are mostly thrown into the world, so these last few years really, really count.
Finally, on the more actionable side—maybe break them into groups and do mini-bookclubs. If this book was meaningful to them, get them started on another one that handles difficult subjects. Get them talking and listening to each other.
Then ask them what actionable ideas they have. They are smart and creative and have the energy and the resources; they’ll come up with great suggestions. It will vary from school to school, and what one needs might not work for another.
5. Any last thoughts you can offer teachers about using your book in their classroom?
Lastly—and this does not just apply to me—invite authors into the classroom in person or via Skype. YA authors take their jobs very seriously and believe in those readers. If we can help in any way, we love to do that. It seems teachers and media specialists/librarians never think to go ahead and reach out to authors. Often, yes, especially the most popular authors don’t have a lot of time to do many visits…but you’d be surprised how many authors absolutely will make time to meet with you. Reach out. (I can be reached at info firstname.lastname@example.org and most authors can be contacted directly through social media, websites, or their publishers.)
I’d like to add: Thank you. Thank you for doing sometimes impossible work under often intolerable circumstances. There is a reason I am not a teacher; I couldn’t handle it. Teachers are rock stars and should be treated as such. My friends and I would either not be here or would be a whole world of hurt today if not for our teachers. Thank you so much for what you do, and don’t give up on us. We need you.