By now you’ve probably at least heard of the book, Wonder by RJ Palacio. It tells the story of Auggie, a boy with facial deformities due to a rare genetic disorder, who loves his dog, Star Wars, and Xbox, just like most kids his age. But his appearance makes him the target of bullying, even as he makes new friends and tries to fit in at school.
If you take the time to ask, nearly everyone you meet has a painful childhood memory about bullying. Some people were bullied, or saw someone bullied, or maybe even feel guilty for having been bullies themselves. Of course, Vermont passed an anti-bullying law 10 years ago, and many schools have developed related policies & trainings since then, but schools often focus on enforcement, rather than actually teaching tolerance and citizenship. And despite what we know about how emotion and cognition overlap in the brain, school hours are still mostly spent covering content and then testing for it, with far less time spent on what researchers call "socio-emotional learning".
Mike McRaith, the new principal of Enosburg Middle School, had been researching socio-emotional learning when he discovered the book. With financial support from the Rowland Foundation, Principal McRaith decided to buy a copy of Wonder for each Enosburg Middle School student and staff member. They would read the book together as a school community - but with no test afterwards. He liked the book's portrayal of the tricky transition into middle school, with what he calls the "hornet's nest of social angst" at birthday parties, at lunch, and in the park. He liked the book's humor, and how the story is told from different characters' perspectives. But most of all, he liked its "powerful message of bravery in kindness."
In their morning Teacher Advisories, students and staff read Wonder aloud together and discussed it too. Some shared memories of losing a pet, and sometimes both kids and adults got a little choked up. Parents decided to read the book too, and a common language emerged from the experience. "Don't be a Julien!" students started saying. One student even decided to make a huge poster to celebrate the book's best ideas.
After the school-wide reading, there was an initial spike in reported incidents – perhaps due to increased awareness – but that was followed by a dramatic decrease in bullying. Principal McRaith noticed a shift in the school's culture: upperclassmen looking out for younger peers, the widespread welcome for two new transfer students, and more middle-schoolers offering to sit with anyone eating lunch alone.
Principal McRaith says that Wonder has become part of a larger program for socio-emotional learning at his school. For example, in Teacher Advisory, students have started nominating each other for acts of perseverance, integrity, kindredness, optimism and self-control. The awards hang in the hall as a reminder, and so does the new school motto, "Be nice. Work hard."