Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Larry Swartz

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Larry Swartz

While bullying is far from new, the issue has had something of a renaissance recently in terms of public discussion. Once considered utterly taboo, it now features everywhere from radio news broadcasts to the stages at pop concerts, with several high profile, tragic cases serving as rallying points for activists, researchers and sympathisers.

It's prescient timing for Larry Swartz's The Bully-Go-Round (Pembroke Publishers). Today we speak with Larry about the book, which features practical activities designed to help address the root causes of bullying, the current public dialogues and the role fiction can play in the bullying discussion.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Bully-Go-Round.

Larry Swartz:

The Bully-Go-Round is a 32 page flip-book and was written to provide educators with literacy and arts strategies for promoting bully awareness in the classroom. It contains a wide range of activities, literature resources, and discussion prompts that invite young people to respond through talk, in writing, in art, and in role to challenging bullying issues. It also explores bullying in the digital world and investigates anti-bullying in all types of media.

OB:

Bullying seems to be getting significantly more press coverage in recent years than ever before, with public figures from Dan Savage to Lady Gaga weighing in on the issue. How do you feel about the current public dialogue around bullying?

LS:

Hooray for Dan Savage and Lady Gaga and for parents, teachers and experts who serve as ambassadors for the anti-bullying movement, advising young people that yes, it does 'get better’. This is an important mantra and without public dialogue, we cannot work towards an understanding of the issue.

Still, we need to empower young people to uncover their feelings about cruel behaviour whether it’s happened to them personally or to others. And since we’re talking about dialogue, this implies that someone speaks and someone listens. Let us start by listening.

OB:

If you could tell the kids who are being bullied one thing, what would it be? What about kids who are bullying?

LS:

As I wrote in the introduction to The Bully-Go-Round, no single activity can change someone’s behaviour or attitude. A bully is still a person and it is important to consider why someone behaves the way they do. Whatever role in the triangle — the bully, the bullied, the bystander — it is important to get involved (and involve others) and never look away.

I think it is crucial that we, as parents and educators, provide strategies and support for those who are caught in the bullying cycle. We need expose our classroom communities to stories in the media that appear from day to day as they serve as case studies that can tap into the emotional lives of young people and have them consider their own moral, ethical, and compassionate behaviours.

OB:

How were the activities in your book developed? Tell us about the process of putting this project together.

LS:

Many ideas and activities have come to me over time and are perfected through the workshops that I do with school administrators.

For example, one of the activities in The Bully-Go-Round came to me in the shower one morning and, not sure if it would work, I tried it out at a workshop with 40 elementary and secondary school administrators to great success! I instructed them to use three geometric shapes (a circle, a square, and a triangle) to create a design on a page. The shapes can be different in size; they can be connected or can overlap. Once completed, I ask participants to discuss which of the three shapes represent the bully, the bullied, or the bystander. This simple metaphor activity is designed to engage participants in discussing the bullying triangle and the roles of all those involved. As an extension, individuals can collaborate with others to create a design that tells a story of bullying.

OB:

Bullying features in a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction. Are there books that touch on bullying you've read and enjoyed? Any other titles you would recommend?

LS:

I truly believe that fiction can help readers understand their own worlds as they read about the worlds of others. I first chose to introduce my class to picture books dealing with the topic of bullying when, in the middle of my career as a classroom teacher, a problem with bullying in our school community emerged. I then developed an integrated unit that invited the students to respond through reading, writing, talk, and the arts to some of the issues presented in the literature.

Over the years, my collection of books on the topic has multiplied and I have provided a list of 100 of my favorite titles in The Bully-Go-Round. At the moment, I am an advocate for Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Wonder tells the story of Auggie who, born with a facial deformity that previously prevented him from attending school, must convince his classmates (and himself) that they are no different from each other despite initial appearances.

Other titles I have recently enjoyed on the subject include The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea, and The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne. I must also recommend the picture book Open This Little Book by Jesse Klausmeir, illustrated by Suzy Lee and Seven (The Series), which is a series of books written by best-selling Canadian authors such as Eric Walters, Richard Scrimger, and Shane Peacock.

OB:

What are you working on now?

LS:

I am also currently promoting The Bully, The Bullied, The Bystander and The Brave (Rubicon), which is a poetry anthology edited by David Booth and myself.

To create this collection, we crawled into poetry anthologies for young people and gathered a collection of over seventy poems written by Canadian, American, British, and Australian poets as a way of looking at this difficult issue. We hope to help students to consider their own patterns of behaviour and prepare them for some of life’s challenges.


Larry Swartz has explored literature-based learning with students and teachers for more than 30 years in North America, England, New Zealand, and China. As a classroom teacher, consultant, and instructor with OISE/University of Toronto, he has inspired colleagues and children alike to learn in new and exciting ways. Larry is a well-known speaker and workshop leader.

For more information about The Bully-Go-Round please visit the Pembroke website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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