MUMS students give ’13 Reasons Why Not’ as they work to prevent bullying and suicide

MIDDLEBURY — “Your canvas has many unique colors, you are a piece of art.”
“You’re a tall redwood tree; resist the negativity and live a long life.”
“The sky speaks to you and says you are the brightness in my day.”
“Be like a wolf: strong and independent. I will be your pack.”
Those are the words of Marshall Sanchez, Lyndsey Champine, Destiny Gero and Mahalia Gosselin, four of the 12 eighth-grade students at Middlebury Union Middle School who are taking anti-bullying and suicide prevention into their own hands.
This past Friday, June 16, the students used literary devices — similes, metaphors, personification, etc. — to write anonymous messages of encouragement on sticky notes they then posted on every single locker in the school. They titled their project “13 Reasons Why NOT!” in response to “13 Reasons Why,” a controversial television show and novel in which a girl commits suicide. 
They conducted the project as part of SOAR, or Strategies for Outstanding Achievement in Reading, a literacy course at MUMS. According to their teacher, Dana Cray, the students developed the idea on their own, partly in response to the show, but also after reading the novel “Touching Spirit Bear” and its sequel, “Ghost of Spirit Bear.” In the novel, a character commits suicide due to bullying and not feeling a sense of belonging. The MUMS kids said their mantra for the project was, “Help yourself by helping others.”
“I feel that everybody in our school should know that they matter and that they’re a part of something, because we don’t know what their home life is like and what their support system is,” Gosselin said. “I wanted to write up some sticky notes with literary devices, so it’s still learning, and just show people that they matter and that they belong to our school.”
It is the hope of those involved that the notes will remind students that MUMS can be their support structure, that it is a place where everyone belongs.
“I hope they don’t just look at them literally, that they just go deep into what the words actually mean,” Sanchez said. “I hope they actually think about connecting the quote to themselves and their own lives. Hopefully, they can learn from the quote by thinking about how to help others, which helps themselves, and how to stay positive throughout the rest of their lives.”
For Champine, who said she had a family friend take their own life, the effort to prevent suicide is personal.
“We need to do something about this. We don’t need other people committing suicide,” she said.
Gosselin said she battles anxiety herself, and that working on a project that combined traditional learning strategies with a way to combat the issue made her excited to come to school.
“I struggle with anxiety every day,” she said. “But I want people to know that it is possible to push through it, and that there are ways to handle your emotions.
“Every time I would open up my (computer to work on this project), I would have a smile on my face because I felt like I was making a difference, and it would make my day 10 times better.”
According to Cray, this kind of project is called “authentic learning,” which provides students the opportunity to take the skills they have learned in the classroom and use them in a real-world application.
“Authentic learning (has) an outcome that is meaningful, has power and also you can feel the (students’) desire to improve themselves in the process,” Cray said. “It has a tremendous impact on the way they’re willing to learn, on the way they engage with the content, with each other, with their school community.”
She said the middle school years can be a particularly challenging time for young people, and that having them open up about matters like anxiety, depression and suicide does not come easy.
“It requires that there is a classroom where kids feel safe and they feel like they’re an integral part of the learning experience, that they’re respected by their teachers, by their peers,” Cray said. “When kids read books, they understand people better because they understand the characters, the struggles and the context that people go through in books.”
A television series produced by Netflix, “13 Reasons Why” has sparked concerns in school systems across the country. The show, based on a novel by Jay Asher, tells the story of a high school girl who commits suicide and leaves behind a set of cassette tapes that detail the 13 reasons why she chose to take her own life.
The problem with the show, critics say, is that it romanticizes suicide, and that it does not properly show the resources that are commonly available in schools for students who may be combating depression.
Last month, MUMS Principal Kristin Holsman-Francoeur sent a letter home to families expressing the school’s concerns with the show.
“In watching the series, young people and teens could interpret the message that suicide is a viable and/or romanticized option,” Holsman-Francoeur wrote in the letter. “The show’s content is graphic, with disturbing scenes in each episode, which may be difficult for young viewers to process in a healthy way.”
The letter recommended that parents/guardians talk with their children if they have seen the series and, if so, to use it “as an opportunity to talk about some of its complicated issues and open the door to create a safe atmosphere for your child to discuss his or her feelings and emotions.” The letter also included a list of resources for parents and guardians.
Cray said she had to get permission to go forward with the 13 Reasons Why NOT project because it is a sensitive subject. She said there have been talks about the series in the school but, to her knowledge, no significant problems.
When asked if they had watched the show, Cray’s students said they tried, but didn’t see it through.
“I couldn’t finish it, I couldn’t watch it,” Gosselin said. “It was sad for me to just know that someone felt bad enough that they had to do that, that they had to take their life because of someone else.”
They MUMS students involved in this project are more focused on the positive side.
“This TV show is only looking on the negative side,” Sanchez said. “This entire project that we’re doing is based on the positive, not the negative.” 

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