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by Indiewire Staff
March 30, 2012 10:57 AM
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First Person: 'Bully' Writer-Producer Cynthia Lowen Speaks Out

Never has failure been so successful: While Harvey Weinstein was unable to get "Bully" a PG-13 rating, his attempts resulted in massive public awareness, celebrity rallies and even free advertising in support of the film and its cause.

However, it's a PR coup that the filmmakers never saw coming. In this first-person feature, exclusive to Indiewire, "Bully" writer-producer Cynthia Lowen opens up about why she teamed with director Lee Hirsch to make the film, why they chose not to intervene while witnessing the bullying, and what it's been like to go through this experience with Weinstein at the helm.


When director Lee Hirsch and I teamed up to make "Bully," starting in the spring of 2009, we sensed a “tipping point” moment was occurring in our society and a nation around the issue of bullying. On YouTube, we discovered kids making videos about the terrible bullying they were enduring at school, we were reading comments on blogs and chatrooms, or on any news story that touched on bullying, accounts from parents, grandparents, teachers and administrators, and young people, speaking up about this issue. One thing all of these stories shared was a sense of frustration and helplessness, a desperate desire for their voice to be heard, and a call for change.

As Lee [Hirsch] had been bullied as a teenager, this was a film that had been on his mind, probably since he was in middle school.

As Lee had been bullied as a teenager, this was a film that had been on his mind, probably since he was in middle school. However that spring we decided now was the time to shine a light on this issue in such a way as to make bullying undeniable, and to debunk the myth that it is a “normal” rite of passage, or just kids being kids. We wanted to give voice to those who were suffering in silence or shame, and hope that things could be different.

We decided early on that we wanted to follow an entire school year. The notion of the school year itself -- the ways our lives hinge around the anticipation of going back to school in the fall, the familiar dread of the school bus, the long slog of winter, and the freedom of summer, the iconic idea of school -- was something that we knew we wanted to explore. Because for kids who are bullied, these experiences, these expectations—school dances, and football games, spring musicals and running for student council—are so often turned inside out from what they should be: these moments are filled with fear or distress where, according to legend, they should be filled with excitement and friendship.

Not only did we want to take the year to really get to know each of the families who were part of this journey with us, but also to understand the challenges of being a teacher or an administrator, how the freshness and intentions of September can become exhausted or overwhelmed by March. We also wanted to be inside the world when a school year feels like eternity. For kids who are bullied, this is especially true.

We were very fortunate to get access to the Sioux City Community School District early in the process, the summer before the school year started. After speaking with the school board, and the superintendent, they agreed to let us film district-wide for the 2009/2010 school year. This decision reflects a lot of bravery on the district’s part, hoping that we would find a lot of great things going on, (which we did, at West High, a high school 10 years into bullying prevention work), while knowing we would also discover there is still work to be done in the buildings where bullying prevention was in the early phases—which was the case at Alex Libby’s middle school.


  • Bob Rose | December 16, 2012 12:14 AMReply

    For Cynthia Lowen:

    I'll share the following article I wrote. It appeared in the October, 2011 issue of Pen World magazine.


    Many people would argue that handwriting is an obsolete skill, but no one seriously contends that reading is. Robert Rose, M.D., believes that handwriting is the key to literacy -- and he's spent years proving it.

    We retired and moved to Georgia in 1996. I began pushing for the adoption of E. D. Hirsch, Jr.'s Core Knowledge Curriculum and eventually made a big enough pest of myself to be interviewed by the then-superintendent of schools in Cobb County. An opponent of Hirsch, he finally admitted that, "ideally, all kids should learn a curriculum like Hirsch's, but too many kids just couldn't handle it."

    After thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that if they couldn't, it was because they lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills. America used to lead the world in education. Now we lead in high school dropouts.
    In Maria Montessori's 1912 book The Montessori Method, she claimed that preschoolers learn to read spontaneously once they became "expert" at writing the alphabet. I volunteered to tutor kids with reading problems at a local social agency. Within a few weeks I had cured two "dyslexic" boys, simply by working with them on writing the alphabet.

    By this time listservs were becoming popular. I joined TAWL (Teachers Applying Whole Language) and joined in their discussions. I begged members to count how many letters their first-graders could write in twenty seconds, then multiply by three to get a letters-per-minute (LPM) rate on each child, and to correlate that figure with each child's reading ability. To my amazement and joy, there was a universal and massive positive correlation -- even in classrooms of teachers who didn't agree with requiring fluency at anything. It turned out that "expert" meant an LPM of more than 39.

    The following school year (2003-04), I began my own free listserv at and enlisted five kindergarten teachers to help me prove Montessori's idea, which wasn't new or unique. In the first century, Marcus Quintilianus had written that, with regard to literacy, "too slow a hand impedes the mind". In the early twentieth century G. Vernon Hillyer wrote, "If you teach a child to write, you needn't bother teaching him to read."

    I repeated the experiment with different groups of K-1 teachers in 2008-09 and 2009-10. We always got the same result. This is a very important finding, but virtually no one in the establishment cares to investigate this possibility. Many of my acquaintances, however, are aware of the overarching importance of writing fluency. Children who can identify randomly presented alphabet letters as fast as they can write them, and who have a score of at least 40 LPM or better, are virtually assured of reading success.

    Writing fluency leads to literacy because it forces students to think about the appearances of letters, letter combinations and syllables. That is the secret of becoming literate.

    A cyber pal once mailed me a copy of an article from an obscure journal which purported to prove that if second-graders can give more than forty correct answers to simple addition facts per minute, they almost never have problems with math or science thereafter. And I believe this. It's true with music and with athletics: early fluency is an immense advantage.

    Robert Rose, M.D. practiced internal medicine in Long Island, N.Y., before retiring to Georgia.
    Further articles on the writing/reading connection are available at these URL's: (Deardorff in Chicago Tribune) (Graham/Carnegie article) (InTech free ebook, "Reflections on the Haptics of Writing".) (Zaner-Bloser info on writing/literacy) (Steve Graham article in American Educator) ( (scroll to bottom for my reading essay, "Chapter 12") (writing and literacy) (WaPost article on writing by Steve Graham) (Bob Rose on (Rand Nelson's blog on writing/reading) (Steve Graham article in American Educator) (writing and literacy) (WaPost article on writing by Steve Graham)

  • Marisol Carrere | April 2, 2012 1:16 AMReply

    I applaud the film makers for making this important documentary film, it commands attention. I know what you have been through, because I too have taken this journey with my film “I AM JULIA”. Congratulation to everyone and especially the children and their families for their courage in sharing their stories. I wish you all joy and the very best of luck…. Marisol

  • katy | March 30, 2012 11:29 AMReply

    I met the man of my dreasms on the place mentioned in my pic ==--TallLoving.c'0m---it gives you a chance to make your life better and open opportunities for you to meet the attractive young man and treat you AS a queen!