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Another view: Schools often suppress individuality and bully students into molds

Monday, March 17, 2008 | 8:15 a.m. CDT; updated 12:13 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Last month, a Columbia middle school drama teacher, cast and crew were already in rehearsal and fired up about sharing with classmates and teachers two plays intended to entertain as well as provide tools for identifying, confronting and defusing volatile situations.

Out of the blue, the plays were canceled. Why?

The administration’s letter to parents says time for staging the plays and presenting pre- and post-play sessions would cut into Missouri Assessment Program testing preparations. It also says the plays require “a level of abstract thinking that a lot of middle school students are just starting to develop.”

These reasons seem suspect. Many kids are already bullies or are being bullied, so it’s urgent for them to think about it now. The plays could have been held in the evening or delayed until the MAP tests were over. If any parents objected to children’s participation in or viewing of the plays, why couldn’t they have been made optional?

We will probably never learn who actually objected to the plays or why the administration’s original approval was reversed, making it difficult or impossible for the plays to be produced.

We wouldn’t think twice about taking our kids to a play based on a familiar fairy tale — the one about a girl mercilessly bullied by her stepsisters and stepmother.

Why is “Cinderella” OK for kids to see, but Jon Dorf’s “Thank You for Flushing My Head in the Toilet and other rarely used expressions,” also about bullying, is perceived as threatening and unsafe? Is Cinderella safe because it’s “only a fairy tale” and not about “our” kids?

Could the cancellations be an attempt to downplay the existence of bullying in “our” schools? One wonders whether the school, like Cinderella’s father, is effectively detecting bullying or protecting its victims.

In one version, the stepsisters come to regret their bullying, Cinderella forgives them, and they become upstanding women. Similarly, Dorf’s play, in his own words, is all about the “message of healing by creating community.”

By going online to jondorf.com, you can read excerpts from both plays, including “Now You See Me,” plus the playwright’s and viewers’ comments. You can then judge for yourself.

But here is the more difficult, overriding issue.

Our authoritarian, lock-step school system seems to motivate and control students through intimidation and anxiety by stressing the importance of tests, grades and threats of failure. Whether it is anyone’s intention or not, this might push — or bully — kids into an unquestioning mold that smothers curiosity, creativity and original thinking.

Kids are generally denied the opportunity to discuss real problems in their lives, which can be dangerous. Lack of choice, lack of adjustment for the individual’s needs and interests, lack of communication and repression breed frustration, resentment and alienation — the very causes of bullying and violence.

A Columbia parent who is the mother of a bullied daughter confided to me her opinion that “it’s really about the broader presence of suppression of ideas and expression in general in our schools.”

One would wish for our kids to be allowed to grow up in a truly democratic school where their interests, concerns and points of view are heard and honored. Those seeking more information on such educational models can Google sites on John Taylor Gatto and the Education Revolution. I highly recommend Gatto’s “Dumbing Us Down” and “The Exhausted School.”

A Columbia middle school teacher, posting an online message recently on the Columbia Public Schools’ budget survey, says, “Currently, we are not meeting the emotional and social needs of our students. If we continue to skimp on these services, this will have a direct impact on student learning. If they are not equipped with the tools to manage what life throws at students, then student achievement will be greatly impacted.”

Are not Dorf’s two “edgy” plays preferable to the violent, real-time high school fracas that made headlines two weeks ago?

A newspaper photo of a 13-year-old Columbia teen taking part in the recent True/False Filmmakers’ Bootcamp triggered an idea.

Perhaps such a teen could create a documentary that sheds light on parents’, kids’ and teachers’ experiences with bullying and violence in Columbia schools — a film that would push the boundaries of our thinking and allow us to see a young person’s view about situations that many people, including children, face daily.

Our children need more venues for attention, support and true communication about what’s going on in their lives, in school, outside school and in the bridge between the two where kids are often vulnerable and where bullying often happens.

Ken Green is a former college teacher, small business owner and co-founder of Youth Alternative Learning Exchange.


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