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Media, Violence and Schoolkids

Late last fall, after a long and stressful Friday, my husband suggested we grab a margarita and a snack at a local restaurant. It was about 10 p.m. and the restaurant was nearly empty, but the bar was full and the karaoke machine pumping. We took the only available table, right in front of the microphone.

There were three little girls--perhaps 7, 8 and 10--starring on the karaoke stage. Occasionally, an adult would ask the DJ to cue something up, but mostly it was the girls who were taking turns singing pop and country hits. It was a little disconcerting, frankly, to watch them mimic stars, thrusting out a hip or caressing the mic, dropping their heads to look up coyly through their lashes.

The girls were there with their parents and maybe a grandma or two and were basking in the ample and enthusiastic applause their cheering section was providing after each tune. This was pretty harmless fun--more Taylor Swift than Katy Perry--but I was bothered by their come-hither moves and vocal inflections, the "Spoiled!" slogan on one glittery T-shirt and the fact that they were all wearing just a bit of eye makeup to enhance their value as entertainers.

Where did they learn those moves and attitude? TV, of course. From Hannah Montana to Britney, these girls were a pastiche of observed behaviors and auditory stylings.

There isn't a teacher in American who can't cite some annoying remark, inappropriate tic or unsuitable clothing that made an appearance in their classroom--because a student picked it up from media. They're marinating in it. Whether this is benign or meaningful in development of human character is, of course, a matter of perspective and perhaps age.

I was thinking about this while watching the wall-to-wall media coverage of the shootings in Arizona this weekend, bemused by the very different spin on the events from channel to channel. There was the Random Lone Crazies are Everywhere take, the Cautious Facts and Only Facts version--and the outlet that tried to connect loose talk about aggression in the media with the occurrence of senseless violence.

Of all the things I heard as commentators tried to create some sort of context for such a monstrous act, I was most struck by what Eugene Robinson said (and I'm loosely paraphrasing):

The shooter was most certainly an unstable individual, and fully responsible for his own actions. And talk of violence--"don't retreat, reload"--is just that, talk. But unstable people are the ones who respond in disastrous ways to that aggressive and destructive rhetoric.

One of the cornerstones of excellent teaching practice is leading students to connect disciplinary content--the stuff kids absorb--in new and productive incarnations. The child not only reads and understands great literature, but tries out new ideas and language in the novel, comparing his own life to another setting and different values. The student uses the tools of science to investigate her own back yard. The young man looks for role models, heroes and powerful ideas in a world that seems filled with weakness and deceit. "Content" doesn't have meaning until it fits into the learner's world.

As any parent will tell you--you never know what kids will pick up, or whom they will idolize. You can't shelter your child from hostility, cynicism and just plain trashy values. But you can--relentlessly--help them filter what they see and hear. You can help them create context, seek honor and discriminate between what is worthy and productive--and what is merely attractive.

Isn't it incumbent upon those who hold the public trust--and I include both educators and political leaders in this group--to speak with discretion and a commitment to peace?

Little pitchers have big ears and eyes. Please--let this horrible national tragedy be the trigger for many productive conversations about the true blessings of liberty.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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