School Bully

 
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PostPosted: Thu Jul 09, 2009 2:28 pm
PostPost subject: School Bully
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You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
—Gandhi

School Bully
By Jeffrey Peyton

As the new century begins, a disease is spreading through American
schools. The newspaper page turns and the TV screen flickers with
images of children with guns. Scenes captured in the wake of violent
murder and suicide, and then subsequent clips of kids being sentenced
in a court of law document our society’s bad dream trek through time.
We make casual judgments about young Arab militants a half a world
away, but we avoid the reality of America’s young who court death and
destruction inside their own mental matrix. The news media wait,
cameras fixed at the ready to shoot anticipated malevolence for the
next public feeding of its sickening psychic diet. Elsewhere on the
media landscape, Sesame Street puppets continue to move and
gesticulate inside the box, while plush animals, in momentary
spotlight, become totems for make-shift-shrines and burials—still,
mute witnesses to children who suffer school violence at hand.

Personally, I find this tragic because, for the same reason Sara Brady
has fought to restrict access to guns, I have worked to convince
schools to “arm” themselves with a media antidote to neutralize the
poisons that have polluted our learning culture. I refer to my work with
puppets—you know, those amusing little media artifacts that people
are more comfortable with watching on TV than holding in their hands.
Nevertheless, I have come to believe that the nurturing, emotive, and
healing effect of this medium is capable of taking society a quantum
leap toward humanizing the communication infrastructure of its
schools and classrooms. Media gatekeepers who measure stories by
some mystifying criteria routinely ignore or dismiss my work. The
subject of puppets, or the perception of them, is just too lightweight to
even warrant returned phone calls with a question or two. But that is
another non-story.

The reports I routinely receive from teachers reveal how the use of
puppets has somehow transformed their view of teaching and learning.
How it changes the way they see themselves—and their kids. How the
medium provides an uninhibited avenue for kids and teachers together
to reveal themselves in a moment where defenses fall away. How
puppets alter the learning landscape from something hard and
colorless to something extraordinary, warm, and illuminating. How the
element of play suddenly displaces fear. How problems posed by
puppets are somehow much better seen and explored at some
distance in this non-threatening 3rd party. How teachers of sixth-graders,
for example, cannot imagine their preteen students responding openly to puppets—but the sheer fact of their playful response says as much about their adult misperceptions of children and the emotional learning needs of kids. How boys in families that go hunting undergo dramatic change in their feelings about guns and killing. It goes on and on. I consider myself lucky to be on the receiving end of such enlightenment. How rare it is in this heyday of educational business and accountancy to even consider such quaint explorations!

But what does this all mean? Am I daring to suggest that puppets are
some kind of panacea? At the risk of curling the proverbial lip of
contempt, the answer is yes. To the extent that puppets represent a
relatively unusual and unknown communication medium in the
classroom, permit me to offer the following explanation.
The influence of puppets as a media form is rooted deep within the
play drive and in the need for human relating and connectivity. Puppet
media has the power to permeate and penetrate an education culture
that has become, over the last 20 years, calcified and insensitive to
the needs of children.

The negative results of excessive watching television and video game
play that many say influence the young toward violence can be
neutralized through the medium of puppetry. Effectively used and
directed in the creation of meaningful learning experiences, puppets
elicit positive emotions and sensitivities in children that cannot be
obtained readily through any other medium. In this sense, the medium
of puppetry stands alone in its capacity to promote the transfer of
cultural nutrients and to foster feelings of well-being. That a medium
with this kind of power is rarely seen in classrooms suggests how far
out of reach our learning culture has drifted from the emotional lives of
children. As the absence of such media and related experiences would
suggest, the learning culture, instead of growing healthy, happy
children, has become a vacuum in which other things in stark contrast
to puppets are growing.

Bullies Thrive in a Bullying School Culture


In the search for blame behind the violence (TV? Media? Guns?), the
closest the tide of commentary has come to identifying a real cause is
its increasing focus on bullying in schools. And if bullying is indeed the
culprit, then we must look still deeper and ask where this bullying
comes from? Bullying is a cultural disorder for which the schools
themselves can be held accountable to the extent that schools
themselves have harbored and enabled the disorder to grow within
their walls. If the schools could find an effective way to neutralize
bullying, they would first be forced to examine and confront the root
causes of their angry, violence-prone culture.

The concept of school culture has been curiously absent from much of
the media coverage following violence in schools. The term ‘learning
culture’ needs more attention, and an evolving definition is in order. In
a recent interview, the new Secretary of Education referred to the
need for ‘change in school culture.’ I’m not sure what the Secretary’s
picture of school culture actually is (and, if pressed, he might not really
know either), but I can tell you that it probably doesn’t include terms
such as ‘puppets’, ‘patterns of communication’, and ‘the nature of
learning’. If we could conduct a litmus test of the culture in a given
school, we might describe its soil as too ‘acid’ or too ‘base’. In my
view, our schools try to teach and learn in soil that is dry, lifeless, and
so dense in content that nothing grows in a healthy way. More to the
metaphorical finger that is increasingly pointed at children and families
by the school: everything is taught, every day and every evening, but
nothing is communicated.

Compared to what it was 30 or 40 years ago, school culture has grown
into a highly stressed and isolated environment—a rote, aggressive
world where feelings don’t count for much. All you have to do is spend
a day at school and imagine what it’s like from the inside. The advent
of testing has placed tremendous pressure on teachers who, in turn,
pass the pressure on to children. Teachers use pacing charts to
maintain their march through the curriculum. Hours of homework
reflect the weight of the backpack. There is official school policy, zero
tolerance, zero trust, and zero communication other than the message
to kids and teachers to “get your work done.” The Fast Food answers
to dealing with education prevail—uniformity, conformity, and
production. On the surface, the teacher smiles, but the smile quickly
turns to judgment and disfavor if your child makes things complicated
for her. Teachers have little time now to creatively explore ways to
help a child, or talk at length with a concerned parent. If the child is
picked on by other kids, the unofficial policy is that adults should avoid
getting involved in bullying and abuse. “Just do your job. You’re not a
social worker--there have always been victims.” Increasingly, the
schools are ground zero: an emotional wasteland with kids on one side
of the abyss—adults on the other.

School culture has become all business. There is little time or interest
in building trust. The foundation of school experience promotes a no-talking, one-way policy (unless you have the right answer); fear
governs and top-down teacher-centered control is the primary learning
modality; the inner lives of children are irrelevant to the agenda of
testing, accountability, and to the predominant keep-the-lid-on
management models. The sword of accountability hangs over the
heads of the people who work in schools. Yet, ironically, accountability
where it counts, namely reaching kids in fun, trustworthy ways--is not
a priority. Standardization rules. We are all victims of a bankrupt,
authoritarian learning culture.

Polluted Water Seeks Its Own Level

The learning culture we have created needs to be seen for what it is:
the root cause of the violence problem. Unfair, you cry? Then why are
the schools the prime and consistent target—the very stage upon
which these violent events begin, are planned, and played out? Are the
schools merely poor innocent, hapless victims or bystanders? The
harsh truth is that educators cannot see or don’t want to look closely
at their own nest for the dysfunction it breeds. Kids at risk are
repeatedly ignored or are treated like criminals. And parents cannot
really challenge educators because they fear them. School culture and
its effects cannot really be seen or felt until their kids are fully
immersed in it. When parents do complain, they are seen as
demanding, whining troublemakers. We have turned the democratic
ideal of a compulsory system of education into an academic gulag
where intolerance and abuses propagate, authority rules, and basic
freedoms of mind and spirit are ignored. By the time kids reach high
school, their learning culture has hardened or silenced them. By the
time kids are in middle school, parents are considered irrelevant and
are rarely contacted. Kids must learn to tough it alone.

Again, why are acts of violence played out at school, as if the enactors
needed to soil and violate their social family nest with suffering,
revenge, blood, and rage? Beneath the ordered corridors of 2001
America at school, young kids are still required to walk in single file
silence and teachers still shame, taunt, and control children, exacting
their daily pound of flesh in the form of ‘tally marks’ and referral
sheets in order to achieve the primary daily objective: to tightly
monitor the activity (lives) of children. School life is ordered but not
humane, and there is a big agenda but little meaning. School is really,
as many kids still do see it, a kind of jail. The standards movement
represents the logical outcome of state-mandated public education. We
equate schooling with suffering. We equate schooling with the pew.
Children are still organized in stuffy clusters or lines where they are
expected to sit obediently for hours before priests who drone upon the
alter of academic excellence, but know little how to care how to reach
kids.

A gaping hole has evolved in the school-zone layer, a sinister
disconnect between kids and adults. For the kids whose home lives are
reasonably comfortable, this disconnect is tolerable. For kids at risk,
whether because their home life is damaging or they cannot learn
according to the school’s way of teaching, they receive a thousand
daily reminders of how natural it is to fail and how little there is to
lose. For single parents, the process of keeping up with the homework,
home projects, school communication, and the implied responsibilities
is next to impossible. Schools do not go out of their way to
accommodate or support single parents, an exploding population of
families in our society that has an enormous impact on education.
Schools have not moved to address this problem with reforms or
strategies, and that fact in itself is a prime indicator of how unfair and
destructive schools actually are.

We don’t count the dead and wounded in the war kids and families
fight in school, the war Frank McCourt describes in Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis. But we should. We should begin a body-count of all the children whom system, in its blind and sometimes maddening way, wounds and condemns—all in the name of learning.

School is For the Chosen Few


When public schools were mandated, we forgot to write an Education
Bill of Rights. We confer upon the children who know how to work the
system with “A”s. These cream-of-the-croppers are the brethren, the
elite of the next order. The rest are left to themselves to figure it all
out, the not-as-goods. We do this thinking that the best students are
what our best schools have produced. The ancient triangle and
hierarchical principle of school still holds up: Excellence is conferred
upon an academic elite whose performance reflects back on the
system. We conclude that the system must be working: every year
there are these irrefutable examples of grit and determination.

But what if all kids rose like spring water seeking its own level? What if
there were many pathways to make it to the top? And what if ‘the top’
were by definition something altogether different from the academic
box we place kids in? Kids come in all shapes, sizes, abilities, and
maturation timelines that are filled with imperfections, inconsistencies,
and abnormalities. There are the achievers, movers, dreamers,
designers, slow-motion processors, spatial imaginers, the questioners,
and the builders. The school, hell bent on conformity, compliance, and
one-size-its-all learning, shuns these differences. Those kids who can
withstand the volume of tasks, who can work independently,
competitively, religiously, and spit back the right answers are the ones
who are granted passage.

A difficult, active child in the classroom represents a threat to
classroom order and control. He is of course the one who will be
judged and pigeonholed by the teacher and by the system. But in
reality, if this child is not reached, it should be perceived as a reflection
of the teacher’s character and training and her failure to reach the
child meaningfully and emotively. (This might mean bringing in other
staff and resources to assist her.) As long as the child fits the
conformist mold, the teacher has less work to do. If the child does not
fit the mold, the child and the family are placed on probation, grades
are issued, expectations are increased or decreased as the case may
be, walls are put into place, and the child, along with the family, is left
to fend for itself.

Bullying grows in a culture like this. The ones who are different, the
ones who are not reached early on begin to resent the culture that
supports only the brethren. So-called LD kids, the kids with a label, are
themselves diminished and cut by the system. They often become
subjected to ridicule, self-negation, and bullying, but later when the
system has failed them, LD boys find ways to belittle and bully others,
or, as statistics tell us, they end up in jail. They are a true reflection of
the learning culture we’ve created. They are not people who come in
from the outside with bad upbringing and guns. The schools have been
so obsessed with their academic tunnel vision that they have forgotten
the true mission of their profession—to be with all kids, to guide all
kids, to introduce facets of the world that spark their interest and
personal meaning.

What a waste of human resources and a darkening cloud over this
nation’s future!

School leaders—and politicians—have it all wrong. We don’t need
faster processors and more information. We need richer
communication processes and more trust and investment in teachers.
We need to call a halt on big-brother state-mandated intrusiveness. If
we want teachers to perform, then let’s find ways to train, encourage,
and inspire them to reach and excel. The politicians and the state
educrats who push and bully our teachers are the ones who are failing
our children, our teachers, and our country. Instead of developing and
sensitizing teachers, instead of giving them the room to grow, we have
all allowed teachers to be bullied and confined in a role that casts them
as guards.

That violence erupts in a culture like this should come as no surprise.
The kids who reach for guns with pent-up anger lash out for ‘attention’
or ‘take control’ because they’ve been victims of bullying or familial
abuse. The other kids stand victimized like proverbial deer frozen in
the headlights. Neither their peers nor adults at school can be trusted.
The code of silence is not just for kids. It's school culture’s state of the
art. Administrations slam the lid down hard when violence erupts, but
there is no desire to dig for the root causes. Why? Because down deep
they know that the way that life is experienced in their schools is a big
part of the problem.

After the San Francisco high school shooting, commentators were
suggesting that students should be more responsible for whistle
blowing; that it’s the fault of those at ground zero. The friends and
kids who know what’s brewing and who do not take action are just not
stepping up to the plate. So, let’s see: first we take away children’s
voices in a system that has largely silenced and disenfranchised them;
that has subjected them to searches and zero-tolerance school law.
Then we ask them to trust teachers, many of whom are themselves so
bullied, stressed and unsupported by their bosses that they, as adults,
have adopted addictive inner coping policies of self-preservation,
benign or overt neglect toward students. It would be nice to care, but
in this culture it’s every man for himself. In many ways, the school
environment is much, much tougher and more stressful than many
workplaces on the ‘outside’.

We are paying an increasingly dear price for this brand of American
education. We are destroying our learning culture. But there are tools
and artful ways to alter the old, diseased learning culture. We can
begin in the preK through elementary level to enrich the nature of
communication and experience in our classrooms. The effects of such a
policy would be evident in increased trust and levels of responsiveness
to adults by children in the middle and high school years. Teachers can
be taught and encouraged to see and to work differently. They would
welcome and rise to such an opportunity. We owe it to them and to
our country. Our kids deserve so much more than the excuse for
learning we impose on them. American education should forge a
character consistent with its rich, diverse heritage and taste for the
frontier, and trust in the vitality of its students, and in the power of the
imagination

Jeffrey Peyton is the inventor and founder of puppetools.com

© Copyright 2001 Jeffrey L. Peyton. All rights reserved.
http://www.puppetools.com
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