The Teacher asked students to think of all the words you could call a fat person—then called it a lesson in descriptive writing

September 26, 2014 in Uncategorized

I really didn’t know what to title this post.

To be honest, I hate that I’m even having to write it.

I have no interest in criticizing a teacher’s methods.  However, this is a topic that is close to my heart.

You see I struggled with my weight from my earliest memory.    I was that kid in elementary school who was already on a diet.    I was that girl in middle school  swallowing diet pills at the water fountain.  In high school, I was the one in the bathroom throwing up my lunch.  There was not a single day that I did not feel uncomfortable with my body.  I still remember that guy in math class who bumped my leg and then commented on how my fat jiggled.  By the time I graduated from high school, I had a full blown eating disorder.

By the time I reached my mid 30’s, I weighed over 400 pounds.  Every day of my life was a living hell.  And it wasn’t all that easy for my kids either as they were affected by it  too.  Walking was a struggle for me.  I could not fit in chairs.  I could barely fit behind the wheel of my car.  People stared at me and many made comments.  Once I even had a guy yell at me out his truck window to get back in the house because I was “too fat” to be outside.

After losing 200 pounds, my life has changed. Yes, I’m still “overweight” but now I can walk around in society and be considered “normal” for the most part.  I don’t deal with the numerous issues that I did when I weighed 417 pounds. No one yells at me to go back in the house because I’m too fat to be outside.  People generally don’t stare at me anymore (unless I forgot to zip my pants or have toilet paper trailing off my shoe).  And while my life might  appear “normal” now,  I am still the same person on the inside. More than that,  my life experience with obesity has taught me that people who struggle with  their weight don’t need more judgement and condemnation from the world.

 They take care of that all by themselves.

When I see someone who is overweight (especially a child or a teenager), my heart breaks.  I know what they are going through and I know how cruel the world can be.  And please understand this—the world CAN be cruel.  VERY cruel.  Especially if you are in middle school.  I can speak to this personally because not only have I been an overweight teenager—I have also been a middle school teacher.  I know exactly what goes on in the life of someone who is overweight in middle school.  And I have seen it from both sides.

This is why what happened in my 8th grade daughter’s classroom at the beginning of this year hit me right through the heart.

Am I just overly sensitive?  Have my personal experiences  made it difficult to see this objectively?

That’s why I write this to you today, friends.  I want another perspective.  I want to know what you think.

So this is what happened:

I asked my daughter what she did in English class that day.  I used to teach 8th grade English so I guess that’s where my interest lies.

Please don’t critique me based on my blog now that you know that! Yes I was an English teacher but I don’t teach English on this blog.  This blog is  like a diary to me.  I start sentences with “And” and “But”.  When I want to write formally—I don’t do it here.  But yes, I taught English.  And never would this have been one of my lessons.

So the teacher said they were going to work on descriptive writing in class.

And then she wrote the word “FAT” on the board.

From there she proceeded to ask the students in this 8th grade class to tell her all the negative words you could call ” a fat person”.

Children snickered and then many started to suggest names to call someone who is “FAT”

Like Big Mac 

AND BLUBBER

I’ll stop here.  I’m just not going to list all the names they came up with for the obese.

But the teacher wrote these names on the board.

And after that, she  asked the students to come up with nice words to call “fat people”

I can’t remember what my daughter told me the nice words were.

I was too busy trying to figure out why we were calling “fat” people names AT ALL.

And I’m not going to lie—-I clearly have a very personal experience with being “fat”.  So  I won’t even PRETEND to be objective.  Right about now my blood was boiling.  I was just so shocked that any of this had happened.  I simply couldn’t believe it.

In spite of what she’d told me, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.  So I gave it a full 24 hours.

I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just reacting from emotion.  Then I emailed the teacher for clarification.

I will now copy and paste our emails below (taking out the name of the teacher because I really have no interest in putting her on blast)

MY EMAIL TO THE TEACHER:

Hi there,

I had a quick question for you. My daughter is in your English class and when I asked her what she was learning she told me something that I was curious to know more about.  I don’t feel like I got the whole story or full context so I was wondering if you could fill in the blanks for me.  She said that you are currently teaching the writing  process or maybe persuasive writing.  Part of the lesson was to put the word “fat” on the board and then have students come up with all the derogatory names that someone might call a “fat” person.  Then on the other side to also share the more positive names you could use to refer to someone who is “fat”.    I asked my daughter to further explain the object of this class exercise to me but other than learning the writing process and possibly learning about being a persuasivewriter I wasn’t able to get any other information from her.
I was just curious if you could fill in for me what this exercise was about.  The only reason Annabelle even told me about this was because I asked her specifically what she learned in English that day.  I tend to be more curious about that class because I used to teach English and it’s my favorite subject.   I was confused though after she mentioned it to me since I probably did not get the whole story.    Fill me in when you get a chance.  Thanks!

 

THE TEACHER’S EMAIL TO ME:

Hi, Mrs. Rose,

The part of class you heard about (5 minutes or less) was an introduction to the positive and negative connotations that words can have.  The word “fat” was used simply because it is an easy word for students to use to quickly produce many synonyms.  We talked about how the word “fat” is fairly neutral and descriptive, and how words can be substituted in a sentence to make it sound kinder (positive connotation) or more rude (negative connotation).  This week we have been focusing on Greek roots, Author’s Purpose, annotations while reading, and Text Features.

We will be talking a lot more this year about connotations, especially when we delve deeper into writing, but, as I said, this was simply a quick introduction to the terminology and concept.

My basic plans for each week are located on my webpage under “8th Grade English.”  If you have any more questions, please feel free to contact me.

I was sorry to see that Annabelle was not in class today.  Please let her know that we have a quiz tomorrow on the Greek roots and the Author’s Purpose notes in her Notebook.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

So here’s my personal reaction to her email

#1  The part of class you heard about (5 minutes or less)

She mentioned that the entire incident was only 5 minutes or less.  So that means it was only 5 minutes out of their life where students were having to listen to everyone come up with words for a fat person.  I can tell you right now that if I was an overweight student in that class it would have been the longest 5 minutes of my life.  If the words stayed up on the board the entire class it must have been a nightmare.  The whole incident with kids laughing and snickering would have replayed out in my head all day.  I can only imagine the further conversations that continued to go on even after the class was over no doubt by the kids who found it funny.   This is just my perspective as someone who has been that overweight kid.

#2  We talked about how the word “fat” is fairly neutral

I don’t know about you but the word FAT has NEVER been neutral to me.  Oh I get it.  Technically the word fat is in the dictionary and has a definition.  But to most anyone I have ever met—the word fat is anything BUT neutral.  Just hearing the word can bring an emotional reaction.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying we all have to be politically correct and never say the word fat.  I’m not saying that at all.  I’m just saying that if we are going to say it we might as well not pretend it doesn’t carry with it an emotional charge.  Maybe it depends on if you are the “fat” person or not in the room but trust me when I say—there is nothing neutral to me about the word FAT.

#3  Words can be substituted in a sentence to make it sound kinder (positive connotation) or more rude (negative connotation)

This is definitely true.  But I can think of a lot of words that could have been used for this lesson without traumatizing a middle schooler though.  How about these words:

Good,  Bad,  Nice,  Fun…..

Now here is one that could have been used in place of FAT…..how about “Big”?

Now “big” is a word that is not very descriptive.  If she used THIS word and asked students to be more descriptive, I can actually see the lesson still going down the same road.  There would still be those kids who shout out things like Fatso or Big Mac but at least she would not have intentionally led them there.

Maybe I’m overreacting but I personally believe that teachers have chosen to go into a profession that adds an additional responsibility to their job.  They have chosen a profession with children.  And middle school kids are still children.  They are impressionable.  They are vulnerable.  And if you choose to be a teacher then you choose to have an influence over someone at an age where they are in many ways under your authority and without a voice.  No one in that classroom was in a position to stand up and say “This isn’t cool!”.   Teachers are in a position of power.  And in my opinion, that brings with it responsibility to use your power for good.

It’s so easy as a teacher to become dead to it all.  To just see it as the daily grind.  And I get it.  You have your own life to deal with.  You have bills and you don’t get paid enough in the first place.  Maybe you get jaded even.  But what you can’t do is forget that regardless of what your day to day life may appear—-you are dealing with children that look to you for guidance and help.  And one day you will answer for how you handled that responsibility.

Teachers must be very aware that their job entails much more than simply teaching someone the basics of a subject.  Teachers have an opportunity every day to make a difference.  If you are a middle school teacher then you have just entered a child’s life at a particularly critical stage.  You might as well accept that you are never going to just be a teacher.  You’re also a counselor, mediator and to many kids a parental figure.  And that is the reality—like it or not.  If you look at your profession as simply transmitting information then you are missing a huge element.  You are never going to just be a teacher.  You will have an influence every day on so much more than you realize.  You have the power to make an impact every day.  And in the words of spiderman “With great power comes great responsibility”

Even if you are not the parent of a middle school child, you used to be one.  So we all know what it’s like.   We all know that it can be an awkward stage.  You’re trying to fit in.  You’re trying to figure out who you are.  Your body is still developing and changing.  If acne wasn’t bad enough, you have to keep up with fashion trends, being cool and learning Algebra.  For some children, though, even more is going on.

Body image and self esteem are major issues at this age.  Eating disorders are also prevalent.  Here are some statistics that relate specifically to school age children pulled from the National Eating Disorders Association:

● By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape

● 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too “fat”.

● 46% of nine- to 11-year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets

● Even among clearly non-overweight girls, over one-third report dieting

● 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders

● Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives

● There has been a rise in incidence of anorexia in young women 15-19 in each decade since 1930

● 40% of newly identified cases of anorexia are in girls 15-19 years old

For females between 15- and 24-years-old who suffer from anorexia nervosa, the mortality rate associated with the illness is 12 times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death.  

Read that last one again.  Girls between the ages of 15 and 24 who suffer from anorexia are 12 times more likely to die from it than anything else.

Eating disorders are nothing to joke about.  They are life threatening issues.  LIFE THREATENING.  And it’s not just the physical issues that may kill a person.  50% of people who struggle with eating disorders meet the citeria for depression.  Many kill themselves.   And this doesn’t surprise me at all.   Struggling every single day with an eating disorder is mentally exhausting.  It is depressing.  And it often feels hopeless.

Yes–people kill themselves every day because of it.

It is very important that teachers are aware of the fact that eating disorders are real.  They are taking place right now in their school.  I would roll the dice and say that right now there is a 99% likelihood that if you teach middle school—you have a student with an eating disorder or body image issue right now sitting in your class. I have zero doubt in my mind that is the case.

And since I know that is a fact, I find it really hard to believe that my daughter’s 8th grade teacher decided to stand up and write the word FAT on the white board.  Then turn to the class and ask them to come up with all the other words you could call a fat person.  And then as those words were called out—write them on the board.

At the end of the day—I don’t feel like the teacher even cared.  I mean it was obvious from my email that it bothered me.  And I made a point to be exceptionally KIND as far as I’m concerned.  Yet it seemed that all she did was prove her lack of concern.  She didn’t even provide one sentence in her email to me that said “If the lesson seemed inappropriate….my apologies!”  Nope—nothing.

Just…oh by the way…your daughter needs to do her homework.

Well my daughter doesn’t go to that school anymore.  So I no longer need to concern myself with that teacher.  I’m not saying she doesn’t go there anymore because of this.  I’m just saying this teacher is no longer my problem.

But she is still teaching.  And she is still in a position of authority.  Still perhaps writing the word FAT on the board every year for her lesson in descriptive writing.

Is that ok?? I’m just wondering…..

Because to me—it’s just not.

I rarely use my blog to rant about things.  My regular readers know that.  And if this is just one of those times I’m out in left field–I apologize.

So it’s your turn.  What do you think?

And thank you for listening 🙂

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Natalie September 26, 2014 at 8:36 am

That is horrendous. A very bad choice for an otherwise interesting lesson.
Natalie recently posted..Having something to wear, even when you are overweightMy Profile

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C September 26, 2014 at 11:07 am

Your email was exceptionally kind and gave her the benefit of the doubt at every turn.

Meanwhile – you are right. She did not seem to care.

You are not over-reacting. In the least. You and I both know that some kids in that class went home and cried their eyes out after school. Of course, they tried to wait until AFTER school. But they did cry.

And they will remember this day. The effects of this day will linger – even decades later, they will remember this day. I know this. You know this. Because we have our own days like that, and we’ll never forget.

Surely there are other parents who would not be any more excited about this than you are? Surely the administration would not be supportive of this kind of personal attack on the confidence of impressionable, young students?

I’m not talking about starting WWIII. However, she could have chosen a million other examples that weren’t going to strike at the heart of a problem WHICH IS WELL KNOWN AND RAMPANT IN THE AGE GROUP SHE IS INSTRUCTING.

Her response to you makes me think that she might need to hear this from someone above her – someone in the administration?

Surely, surely, surely there is a person who would see your point and want to get her confirmation that she wasn’t going to repeat this particular exercise? Not with THIS word?? Not in this way?!

I’m glad your daughter is out of her class. Very. I still wonder if other parents know what their kids are hearing? I don’t believe they’d like it. Not one bit. Not the sane ones, anyway.

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Carol September 26, 2014 at 12:15 pm

WOW!!! I’m shocked! To me that teacher gave a lesson on how to verbaly bully the overweight kids. So not Cool! You gave the teacher the benefit of the doubt, I would now address it with the school administration.

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Chris September 26, 2014 at 4:46 pm

I agree with everything Carol is saying! I think I’d address it with administration (school board) too! Very sad and disappointing that this teacher didn’t realize the negative side of this ‘learning exercise’

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Pam Holmes September 26, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Glad that comments are opens morning. When I read your blog late last night, comments were closed—and I had SO MUCH to say. I’ll keep it short this morning, but this is really unbelievable. There are so many POSITIVE words she could have picked….Fun, Pretty, Clever, Sweet, Caring. Why “FAT?” WHY, as you said, “were we were calling “fat” people names AT ALL.”? I can imagine the discomfort of every overweight kid in that classroom, and whether the exercise lasted 5 minutes or 5 weeks, it was just WRONG! I remember many times as an adult, being in a group and the topic of diets and weight would come up. I would just clam up, and feel so humiliated and stressed. It has to be worse when you are young, and the teacher calls finding synonyms for “FAT” a topic of learning and you are surrounded by normal-sized classmates.
I also, like you, remember every single time that some rude comment was made to me about my weight, whether it was from people I knew (rare), or strangers (not so rare). EVERY SINGLE ONE…Clear back to high school, when a rude classmate loudly proclaimed to me, “Nice legs…if you like telephone poles.” Back in the 60’s, we were forced to wear dresses/skirts to school, pants were not allowed until the year after I graduated, and my legs were probably my worst feature. My legs are short, stubby and FAT, even when I wasn’t all that overweight. I still remember the pain that comment caused me, and all the others that were made to me over the years. Why would a teacher basically encourage this behavior?
Teachers do not take enough responsibility for stopping “bullying” as far as I am concerned and this teacher was actually actively promoting it. We didn’t call it bullying so much when I was in school, but of course I was a victim, due to being overweight. And more recently, I have been worried about bullying since my 8-year old grandson was diagnosed as an Albino when he was an infant. I still worry about how he will be treated, especially when he gets to middle school in a couple years. I’m glad your daughter is no longer in that school and exposed to this kind of thoughtless teaching.
Pam Holmes recently posted..Maintenance Isn’t Easy, But It’s Do-Able!!!My Profile

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Melissa September 26, 2014 at 3:37 pm

I am mortified. You are absolutely right…that teacher is clueless. Even if every student in her class was skinny, it was a horrid lesson. I would be furious if my two sons, neither of whom is overweight, were asked to come up with terms of hate as part of an academic lesson! I’d let the teacher know I had grave concerns that she was choosing “descriptors” of people instead of the endless other choices she had available to her and that I was planning to voice those concerns to the school’s Principal and central office administrator for secondary schools/middle schools. They can’t work against bullying and teach some terms to bully with simultaneously…just horrid. Sorry for ranting, but you’ve touched a nerve we all share…and we owe it to children to try to stop it. My kids know you don’t call people fat…it’s hurtful and mean and unnecessary. I would have died if I was a student in that class…or rather wished I was dead. Unbelievable.

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Karen September 26, 2014 at 4:42 pm

I never post comments…but I felt strongly enough about this that I felt the need to comment. You are absolutely correct and your letter was kind and open which is most likely why the teacher didn’t react- you weren’t screaming and threatening and therefore you get nothing. Whatever the reason you withdrew your kids- I encourage you to bring the letters and your concerns to the principal at that school. Middle School is really tough and there is a TON of pressure- like your stats showed- kids who don’t have weight issues are on diets or taking pills or at a minimum are worried about their weight and this teacher needs to be corrected so that no other child is made to feel uncomfortable! Thank you for sharing your story and always being honest- your realness is inspiring!

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Kaira September 26, 2014 at 5:05 pm

I have “normal” weight children and I posed this “lesson” to them, explaining a teacher asked this of her class and what would they say. My 13 year old said, “I don’t really call people names” and my 9 year old said “I am trying to think of nice things”. We need to teach our kids, and I reinforced this with my own because they can’t hear it enough, that it is never okay to call people names. And even if an adult is doing it, our kids need to be the defenders of others being picked on. I’m so disgusted with this teacher and I 100% encourage you to take it up with the administration.

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Tess September 26, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Totally agree with you!! Actually, I thought your email was “too nice”, I would’ve ripped her a new one! There are many words she could’ve started out with, but she picked THAT one? Yeah…not good. I’m sorry Annabelle had to witness that. I’m glad she doesn’t go to that school anymore! I think all that teacher was doing was giving the kids more ideas of names to call each other.

The statistics you listed are sad and shocking. Thank you for posting them, it’s a good reminder for me as a parent.

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Ronda September 26, 2014 at 6:27 pm

Oh, I would have had a big problem with that lesson! We teach our kids that the word fat is not a nice thing to say EVER. So, hearing it from a teacher would be quite confusing to them.
A relatively neutral term? Um, no! How about ‘bright’ or ‘healthy’ or ‘smart’. I’m thinking you should send a note to the principal, and include some of the statistics that you quoted here.
Sorry you and your daughter had to go through that.
Chin up!

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PaulaMP September 26, 2014 at 11:01 pm

Could she have been that ignorant? Why not use a word like “strong” or something positive? How many kids, especially young girls, end up with an eating disorder. I too think your email was “too nice”. It’s so true, that was bullying whether she recognized it or not. I think all of us remember every unkind word said to us as a child, I sure do. (or in my case even as an adult).

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16blessingsmom September 27, 2014 at 1:13 am

I think you are totally justified to be offended at this lesson. 8th grade students, especially the girls, all think they are fat, even if they aren’t. They are so unsure of themselves at this age. I remember getting to school and absolutely hating what I had chosen to wear, just never being comfortable in my own skin. If one of my kids were in that class, they would no doubt think of their own mother, and cringe for me. I know they have had to endure comments from kids on the bus, or kids who saw me at Open House. No matter how the teacher tries to spin this, she used very bad judgement.

Della

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LN September 27, 2014 at 3:17 am

I am just dumbfounded that this teacher would think that the word “fat” is rather neutral when she explains that it has positive and negative substitutes. That lesson could not have been a mere five minutes. I hope the self-esteem of none of the students was further damaged.

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Rhonda W September 27, 2014 at 3:30 am

I find it APPALLING what this teacher did in every sense of the word. My guess is that she has never had a weight problem and sees fat people as inferior. Oh please… do mention this to her supervisor. This little lesson was out of line and insensitive to the inth degree!

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LHA September 27, 2014 at 9:47 am

Wow. This is unbelievable…..except I can totally believe it. Having raised four children I can state absolutely that their education was the very hardest thing that I ever had to be involved in. This teacher was IN. THE. WRONG. To say she was insensitive is a gross understatement! I could also add the adjectives “cruel”, “clueless”, “uncaring”, and “abusive”. You are absolutely right that there were kids in the class who were cringing with embarrassment and those kids might not even have been overweight. In our society they might have been normal weight but not built like a super-model so they felt fat and ugly. You are also right that middle school is a tough time for many kids and encouraging name calling and body shaming is an offense that, to my mind, should be punishable by dismissal of the teacher.

Your email was incredibly kind. Her email was demonstrative of her unfeeling attitude. I am glad your daughter does not go to that school any more. Good for you! I would add that you would be brave if you took this matter up with the principal and then on to the supervisory level above him/her. I had to do this several times over the course of my twenty-plus years as a school parent and it is never easy. However, I like to think that my actions might have spared some children the agony of being treated badly by a teacher in the future. I consider what this teacher did as a form of bullying, and that doesn’t stop unless people stand up and demand it.

By the way, I also used to teach middle school and I will never understand why a teacher could be so obtuse that she would think this lesson was appropriate in that age group. There were many less threatening words that would have made a much better lesson out of this. Perhaps the teacher could have chosen “dumb” and applied the various expressions of that word to attach to her own behavior.

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Stacey October 1, 2014 at 2:47 am

Hi Holly,

I rarely comment on here but as a former teacher also, I felt a duty to play “devil’s advocate” as you will. You’re absolutely right, this was a terrible thing to introduce to children. I also agree with another poster’s comment saying that the lesson more than likely taught more kids how to be more mean with more hurtful words!
However, in an 11th grade classroom I starting a lesson on Huckleberry Finn. We had to discuss the “N” word because it’s so prevalent in the book. I had scheduled an entire period to discuss the use of the word, how often we would be encountering it, and the general feelings about that word. Anyone who wanted to speak was able to say when they hear the word in real life, how its used, and how they feel about it. I’ll say that this was singlehandedly the most “heard” discussion of the entire school year in my classroom. Just the shock factor of hearing a bad word makes kids interested. It was an incredibly effective lesson and I’d do it again in a heartbeat (opposed to trying to ignore the word, like others do).
I *almost* want to say that was the intention the teacher from your area. Maybe trying to create a shock factor to make kids interested? I dunno, just a thought….Don’t know if this was a helpful response or an infuriating one! Sorry if I got it wrong,
Stacey

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