Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Political Expression, part 2

So here's the end - well, really the middle - of the story about the boy who's science comic book plot centered around sending President Bush to the Earth's core where he would be squished by the pressure and burned up by the heat...

First, I took the boy aside during class, when the other students were working quietly (ostensibly) on their revisions. I told him that I liked the comic book, that the science was fine and the drawings incredible. Then I said I had another concern about the comic book, and asked him if he had any idea what it might be. No.

I had hoped to have an actual discussion with him about political humor. You see, while I am personally for freedom of expression, I'm not a judge, I'm a teacher. I think a part of my job is to help guide students to express themselves better - more clearly, more effectively, more responsibly - and yes, that is a judgment call on my part. In this case, while I would absolutely support his right to produce material like this as a citizen of the United States, I think he could make his point more effectively. I also want him to think about the implications of joking about another person's death; even though the violence depicted was pretty mundane for a comic book, it's an opportunity to talk about how we use our freedom of expression. I wasn't going to force him to agree with me, or lecture him, I just hoped to spark some reflection, whatever his ultimate decision.

Regarding the fact that the Secret Service has visited high schools to investigate reports of threats against the president, I am horrified that this is how we are using government resources, and even more horrified that members of the community would turn in their students/classmates/neighbors for this kind of expression. I strongly believe that concerns about students' artwork ought to be raised with the students themselves, their teachers, or school administrators, not the federal government (unless they reveal an immediate threat of violence). For heaven's sake, this is starting to sound like the USSR or some Orwell novel! And for those who would argue that the students' work in those schools posed an immediate threat of violence, we are talking about a Bill of Rights poster project and a cover of Bob Dylan's Masters of War.

So, I'm not trying to tell my student to self-censor out of fear of speaking his mind freely. At the same time, I want him to know what the law is and what the realities of the political climate are. That way, he can decide whether he really feels strongly enough to want to risk having the Secret Service show up (not that I think anyone is going to turn him in, this is now in the realm of the hypothetical, you understand). Anyway, what I am trying to say is that I see this as an opportunity to teach decision-making skills, and explore the question of how we use our freedom of expression.

Or at least, that's how I, an adult with an interest in these issues, saw it. My student, an extremely bright kid who, like many bright kids, swings wildly from one obsession to another, was just not that interested anymore. He didn't have much to say to the questions I asked, the questions that were supposed to get the conversation started, to draw out how strongly he felt. In the end, he had so little to say that I feel like I did end up lecturing. So, I brought up a lot of the stuff above, but it didn't lead to any real discussion. He interrupted to ask whether he could toss the comic book and just write a story with a similar plot - I think he's a little worn out from these comic book projects, which really do take an immense amount of energy. I don't think his lack of a response was because he was suppressing his own opinion or felt censored or rebellious - I think it was just a bigger event to me than it was to him.

So, we'll see what he does for the final draft. I encouraged him to stick to the comic book format because he's quite talented.

Also, one of the benefits of working in a small school is that I can just drop by the social worker's office when she has a free moment to discuss things like this with her. I asked her this afternoon what she thought, and she said that I should take it in context - comic books are often filled with fantasy violence, and it was very true-to-genre in that regard. She said, "You have to allow them freedom to express themselves." She wasn't worried, but asked to look at the final draft. My principal felt the same way when I mentioned it to her. It never hurts to get a second opinion, but I also appreciate being able to check-in about something like this without starting a Byzantine referral process that might make the kid feel pathologized for something pretty minor.


Blogger bev said...

Your social worker/counselor is very open-minded. Ours at my kids' school had a chat with my neighbor because one of her sons wrote some Star Wars fan fiction that had (*gasp*) light-sabers and other "violent" weapons in it! Your student is lucky to have a teacher, social worker and principal who understand how kids think.

My own son - age 10 - has written some comics that reflect a certain level of violence that I at first found unsettling. But he didn't obsess over them and like your student, when I talked to him about it, he seemed as though he'd moved on.

I recall once asking him about a computer game he was playing - it was a police chase type of game (no gratuitous violence) and he always chose to play the guy trying to get away from the police! When I expressed my concern, he looked at me, rolled his eyes and said: "It's just a *game* mom." Funny.

(I did tell him that while I realized that it was just a game, that it was my job as mom to check in with him on these things.)

9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personally would have encouraged him to talk about why he felt so angry at our President. It's interesting that a young person would have such strong views.

ps. I love your blog.

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Chaz said...

Ms. Frizzle;

Now you did the right thing, you told your social worker about it, you are now protected. However, 99.99% of students who write stories never use a real person for them to kill, so you could not ignore it.

7:21 PM  
Blogger leyla said...

a severe dislike of george bush is normal. the disgust or dislike is an appropriate response. and the violence is, of course, a characteristic of the genre.

sometimes students have been so alienated from expression and sovereignty (not in your class in the present but historically -- in their educational past) that they subconsciously feel silenced, even when a new and more open-minded teacher just gently questions something that they did.

make sense?

1:34 PM  

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