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Leading 21st-Century Schools: Pushing Against Jurassic Values

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Schools face the challenge of helping children learn and become, hopefully, empathetic, compassionate, and courageous, and contributing adults. Schools, in preparing students for work and life in this century, fight gender stereotypes and all other preconceptions that will limit their capacity to find value in others. Leaders and teachers model moral indignation and advocacy by courageously speaking up with respect for others. This involves leaders and teachers ensuring gender-neutral encouragement when it comes to courses, careers, clubs, sports and how children are treated in general. 

Schools, Culture, and Hollywood
Meanwhile, on the main stage of the Republican presidential race, these issues of gender and respect play out. We have among us as a society those who feel suppressed by "political correctness" and enjoy the opportunity to let the worst be said out loud. Respectful language, itself, is now devalued. Hurtful and mean language is applauded as free speech and admired as speaking one's mind. Get ready, because these behaviors will come to the schoolhouse door.

Jurassic World, the latest in the Jurassic Park franchise, is, as expected, an action packed movie. Threaded throughout the movie is the question of morals and ethics as they apply to messing with DNA, animals, epochs, and people. As always, the message was clear...don't mess with Mother Nature.  But, it cannot go without notice that the female lead spends most of the movie running away from the dinosaur, artificially designed from a combination of several predator dinosaurs' DNA.  In obvious stereotypical fashion, she runs IN HIGH HEELS THROUGHOUT THE MOVIE. 

Now, this may be considered an athletic feat (feet) but what is the message to young women and to the young men growing up beside them?  This summer students have been watching this movie. And, some of them will have been watching the news repsorts on the Republican presidential race. As they return to classes this fall, they wil encounter our efforts to offer equity: girls can do what boys can, STEM careers are for girls too, women can coach in the NFL and run for things, not just away from them. 

We can take on this task and try mightily to make inroads. In fact, we must. But it is only fair to acknowledge that we are pushing against society, and especially Hollywood, when a heroine, the woman in charge of the park, spends her entire adventure running through the woods, away from hungry, angry, carnivorous dinosaurs...IN HIGH HEELS!

Schools, Culture, and Politicians
This is also an exciting time. The presidential election cycle has begun in full swing.  We want students to pay attention to the campaigns, to the issues, to the candidates. As educators, we advocate for developing learning environments in which collaboration, creative thinking, communication, and creativity can flourish. This can only happen in environments that have shared values resulting in safe, accepting, respectful, and encouraging behaviors. If our students use the behaviors exhibited by many who are running for office as a frame of reference, we have our work cut out for us.  Verbal violence, rooted in behaviors like name-calling, is the manifestation of more than a lack of civility. It is evidence of lack of compassion and respect. 

...I do know this: violence comes in many forms, from spiritual to physical, and every form is rooted in a failure of compassion, a lack of empathy and respect (Palmer, p. 190).

Educators work to create environments of respect and empathy and compassion, while students are exposed to the media. Increasingly, the media is filled with adults, some of whom are being disrespectful to each other, calling each other names, exhibiting bullying behaviors and other behaviors we do not accept in our school buildings. Yet, these are the models for young people. They are, after all, those who aspire to be leaders of the free world. We stand in the difficult place of asking children to behave differently, to step away from the popular images and become a new and better generation.

Don't Ignore the Lessons, Use Them
We can use Hollywood and the news, and the political election cycle, as a lesson if we boldly call attention to it. If we leave all these messages as the background noise in students' lives, the struggle for our schools to accomplish what has become stated in mission, goals, commitments, and signs on our walls will be without progress.  

"No Bullying"

"Respect One Another"

"You Can Do Anything You Set Your Mind To"

All these are signs found in schools, with the best of intentions. They are not only challenged by the behaviors of some in schools where shared values have not been established but are also challenged by what our students are exposed to outside of our walls.

We think bringing the cultural messages to their attention, with a corrective intention, is worth the time and effort.  Engaging students in conversation about how women are portrayed in movies or how the candidates spoke on television can bring awareness to the students. It might be risky but don't we need to bring these underlying and unspoken issues to the surface? And shouldn't it be done in homes and schools where adult guidance can hold the discussion with care?  Giving students the opportunity to examine their own feelings, beliefs, and reactions, not only empowers them as thinkers, but allows them to be active in the formation of their own values as they are developing. We cannot ignore the effect culture has on our students but we can use it. Not doing so is akin to sticking our heads in the sand.

As educators, we are responsible for much more than teaching subjects. And even those who hope to only teach subjects...can't do so without an environment that supports good teaching and learning.  Exploring the cultural values that students are exposed to, and guiding them through an honest exploration of what they think and feel about those values before embracing them, is future building. If we begin this practice today, perhaps the next generation will portray gender differently in movies and insist on civility in political races.

Resource:
Palmer, P.J. (2011).  Healing The Heart of Democracy. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass

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