By Janet I. Martineau
During the past month, more than 3,000 students in 21 Saginaw, Midland and Bay County middle schools have collectively buried their noses in the award-winning book Touching Spirit Bear.
On Tuesday through Thursday, April 17-19, they will hear its author, Ben Mikaelsen, speak about his life as both bully and bullied and how it gave rise to his novel addressing this national issue which makes headlines just about every day.
And on each of those three dates as well, parents, grandparents and students not reached by the Great Lakes Bay Great Read project are invited to hear Mikaelsen during evening programs in the three counties.
“The evening programs also include performances by student groups, a drawing for an iPad 2, and free copies of Mikaelsen ‘s sequel, Ghost of Spirit Bear,” says Steve Elliot. the director of Saginaw Township Community Education, one of four sponsors of the tri-county anti-bullying outreach.
The evening programs are
* April 17, at Bullock Creek High School Auditorium, 1420 S. Badour in Midland. Opening the evening is an excerpt from the high school’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee musical.
* April 18, at Bay City Handy Middle School Auditorium, 601 Blend St. Opening the program are The Red Road Singers, a Native American drumming, singing, dancing group that is a part of the district’s Indian Education Program.
* April 19, at White Pine Middle School Auditorium, 505 N. Center in Saginaw Township. Opening the evening is the school’s girls rap group SEMK.
Doors open at 6:15 p.m. and the free programs begins at 7 p.m. Copies of Mikaelsen’s book will be for sale, and he will autograph them after each program.
In addition to Saginaw Township Community Education, the other partners in the project are Saginaw Valley State University, Creative 360 in Midland and the Bay City Public Schools. Funded by $45,000 raised through foundation grants and other donations, the participating schools received free copies of the books and transportation costs to hear Mikaelsen speak during the daytime student assemblies.
The teachers also attended a free in-service workshop at SVSU, with sessions on how to use the book in their classrooms and strategies for dealing with bullies.
And during the month of May, several of the schools will take a second expenses-paid field trip to Midland’s John Pratt Mosaic House—one man’s unusual response to a lifetime of being bullied—and then receive supplies to make their own mosaics.
MacLachlan, a teacher at Bullock Creek Middle School in Midland, says the entire 8th grade there, some 140 students, is reading the “Touching Spirit Bear” book and that the school’s student council and Lancer Leaders will make the trip to the Pratt house.
“The Lancer Leaders are a group of students specially selected to help improve the social and emotional climate of our school by learning more about bullying, teamwork, self-esteem,” says MacLachlan.
“I'm hoping they and the student council will return from the Pratt House with a greater understanding of the importance of being open-minded and creative in their own lives and in how they treat others. This is a small group of students, but their words and actions can influence everyone around them.”
As for her students reading the book, she reports several of them read into it ahead of her planned schedule, have passed her in the hall and exclaimed how much they love the book, and that she ordered copies of the sequel because her students wanted to read more.
“I joined this project because I had read the book and considered teaching it because it has a strong message,” says MacLachlan. “Bullying is a topic that can't be ignored, and the bully’s transformation throughout the book provides lots of opportunities for my students to think about how they treat themselves and each other. Plus, I've never had the chance to take my students to hear an author speak."
She added, “We will definitely keep using this book at our school for many years to come.”
Over at Thompson Middle School in the city of Saginaw, literacy lead teacher Debbie Crevia says every student and staff member, including the support staff, is reading the book. “That’s 630 students and 75 staff members, and a CD of the book also is being played through our PA system. There is a great deal of excitement over it.”
Like MacLachlan’s students, the Thompson Middle students are requesting the sequel as well, says Crevia.
“The discussions taking place between students/staff, students/students and staff/staff is impressive,” she says, “Many are learning to be open-minded communicators and their reflections demonstrate their insight into the book.”
Crevia says Thompson Middle was planning to use “Touching Spirit Bear” next year for a schoolwide read but amended its plans when the Great Lakes Bay Great Read offer was received with its free books and chance to hear the author. Three Thompson classrooms are also visiting the Pratt house.
“We are also implementing a program called Hero in the Hallway, which is an anti-bullying/positive behavior intervention program, in conjunction with the book. This program teaches students to stand up for others and gives students another means of reporting things that are concerning them. It provides information on what is and is not bullying and gives teachers the opportunity to reward students who stand up for others.”
What Crevia says she likes about the project is that it “exposes students to the message presented in the book and helps them deal with their own issues in better ways. And it fosters an interest in reading and inquiry, which so many of our students have lost, through a high interest, relevant story. We are allowing students the time to read and discuss without a lot of ‘work’ associated with it. We have tried to foster a ‘book club’ atmosphere by promoting discussion after the day’s reading.”
As for the Mikaelsen books, in Touching Spirit Bear Cole and Peter, bully and victim, heal and reconcile on a remote island in Alaska. Through the use of a system called Circle of Justice, based on Native American tradition, both boys learn to deal with anger, hatred and resentment.
In Ghost of Spirit Bear,
they are faced with applying what they learned on the island at their urban high school, where bullying and violence is rampant. Can they use the tools they learned on the island to make a difference at their school as the sequel takes them full circle, from the city to the island and then back again to their real life.
© Janet I. Martineau, 2012