A Teacher Fights for Childhood
By Brian Small at Apr 15, 2009
After following an e-mailed link to a Rethinking Schools' article on Obama's Secretary of Education I got distracted by "Six Going on Sixteen." It had pretty much the same effect on me as Juliette Schor's Born to Buy (bizweek 1 and 2)and Susan Linn's Consuming Kids (interview 1 and 2). It's nice to have free online resources with the same impact. I have to gear up for my meeting with 6 year old daughter's principal tommorrow during parent's day. The teacher responded to my comments that all the milk PR the school sent home didn't convince me that my daughter should be made to drink milk. She said she'd consult with 'the school.' It was amusing that somebody had to be consulted about a decision families make about what goes into their bodies.
'The school' turns out to be the principal who wants to talk with me about my milk 'PR' written exchange during parent's day. I figure I might as well make the most out of this opportunity and take in the Japanese versions of Born To Buy (Kodomo Wo Nerae) and Alice Water's The Edible Schoolyard. Hopefully it will be an opportunity to get a constructive dialogue started on sensible food policies, edible schoolyards and the commercialization of childhood("It's Creepy" video). A dialogue would be much better than an experiment where we chug some warm milk out of bleached paper (cardboard? blah-Pak?) containers and see how we feel afterwards. It could be a scientific experiment. 10 random teachers drink 500 ml of milk after lunch, another 10 drink regular tap water. Then everyone sprints around and obstacle course for a while. Now, wouldn't they rather just cut the sugar shit out of the diet and eat however many turnip, spinach or even fish servings it takes to get 600mg of calcium. Here have a TUMs if you're worried. I'd rather use the tablets in my worm box than eat them but shool-packed milk makes me nervous. Especially after they feel the need to 'sell' it to me with cute cow handkerchiefs and a PR brochure.
Once you start following up on Schor and Linn there are a lot of exciting movements around New Dream, TRUCE teachers, Campaign for a Commercial-free childhood... I think Thelma and Louise and Long Kiss Goodnight and Pirate Movie actress, Geena Davis, was doing something with DadsNDaughters. She was even on DemocracyNow!'s coverage of a media conference for her contribution.Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin's article on RethinkingSchools
' site quoted below, prompted the frenzied Link pasting above.
One friend and colleague made a suggestion that ended up being the best and most transformative advice I've received in a long time. She told me about Diane Levin, a professor at nearby Wheelock College, and she suggested I enroll in the two-day summer media institute, called Media Madness: The Impact of Sex, Violence, and Commerical Culture on Children and Society.
It was from Diane that I learned how the corporate world deliberately targets vulnerable children. I learned how child development experts now work with marketing firms to optimize the impact of commercials according to the developmental stage of the target audience and how the toy market has dramatically changed since children's television was deregulated in 1984. I also learned about "age compression." In Levin's recent book, So Sexy, So Soon, she describes age compression this way:
"Age compression" is a term used by media professionals and marketers to describe how children at ever younger ages are doing what older children used to do. The media, the toys, the behavior, the clothing once seen as appropriate for teens are now firmly ensconced in the lives of tweens and are rapidly encroaching on and influencing the lives of younger children. In addition, there is a blurring of boundaries between children and adults, as demonstrated by the similarities in clothing marketed to both groups by the fashion industry. Age compression is especially disturbing when it involves sexual behavior. Children become involved in and learn about sexual issues and behavior they do not yet have the intellectual or emotional ability to understand and that can confuse and harm them. (pp. 69-70)
Here's a true story that helps illustrate my experience with age compression. It was the first day of kindergarten, fall of 2005. I had brought my class to the cafeteria for lunch. The students were assigned seats at one of our 10 round tables. I sat down next to a 5-year-old girl who was beginning to eat her lunch. "That's the popular table," she said matter-of-factly as she gestured over her shoulder. I was taken aback, but followed her finger to see where she was pointing. I looked again at her and asked, "Popular? What do you mean by that?" "Oh, you know, they have nice clothes," she explained. I thought about that for a moment, and since it was the first day she'd ever been in school, I asked, "Where did you learn about that?" Without a moment's hesitation she answered, "The Disney Channel."
In December, we sent home an excellent resource to all our families. It was TRUCE's Toy Action Guide. Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment (TRUCE) is a group of national educators actively working to raise awareness about the negative effect of violent and stereotyped toys and media on children. They are supporting teachers and parents in their efforts to promote healthy play. Their free and downloadable guide is a powerful tool for parents. The guide helps parents understand healthy play and how it is a critical part of healthy development. It helps them understand how open-ended and simple toys are actually better than the glitzy electronic toys that are expensive and limiting to problem-solving and creativity. The guide lists books, articles, organizations, and websites for further support. Again, parent response was overwhelmingly positive, though a few parents lamented that it was hard to find good toys at the stores that are convenient to shop at. Even toys such as wooden blocks and generic puppets can be hard to find, and they can be expensive.
A simpler schoolwide initiative was the Family Game Night we had in January. The entire school community was invited to come for a potluck dinner and games. It was an "unplugged" night with no remote controls, video games, or electronic gadgets. Many staff members volunteered to oversee a wide range of games. We had fun playing Twister, Uno, bingo, blackjack, charades, and more. The biggest hit was a fast-paced card game called Spoons, led by our middle school humanities teacher. Even families who usually play board games at home were excited. "We usually only get to play with our small family. It was so much fun to play with so many people." "When can we have the next Game Night?" I was asked excitedly the next day by parents, students, and staff.
More good news is that the conversations have continued. Parents and colleagues send each other links to related news stories. For example, the Feb. 2009 Scientific American Mind's cover story, "The Serious Need for Play" has been making the rounds. The staff is hosting another unplugged Family Game Night this year, and the Family Council will have a follow-up meeting about media influences. In the weekly newsletter, a "Portraits of Play" column documents how our students engage in imaginative play.
A few years ago I felt hopeless. Now, armed with more information and support from colleagues, families, and key organizations, I am hopeful and empowered. The students are better supported in their efforts to learn how to just be kids. I know that I am not alone when I join successful letter-writing crusades from Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which among other successes has pressured Scholastic to remove the highly sexualized Bratz doll merchandise from their school book fairs and book clubs. I gain inspiration from the Alliance for Childhood, which works to educate policymakers about the benefits of child-centered play, and from places such as Quebec, which bans all advertising to children younger than 13 under the Quebec Consumer Protection Act. And finally, I'm inspired by parents who share stories.
Children are complex, and pop culture and media are not the sole cause of their troubles. However, protecting them from a corporate world that forces them to grow up too soon, and promoting their creative play are two giant leaps in the right direction.