Middle School Performance Group Challenges Media Violence

Based on an article by Julie Manganis in the Daily News, Newburyport, MA, March 1996

Students show media savvy in assembly program developed for younger grades.

Students at the Brown School in Newburyport, MA were asked whether they have ever seen someone get hurt. All of them - nearly 300 kids in kindergarten through fourth grade - raised their hands.

Later they were asked if they have ever felt deceived by something they brought that had been advertised on television. The response was the same.

Using slides, music, dramatic skits and a cup of household glue, a group of Newburyport preteens, calling themselves "Kids Enlightening Kids," spent last Friday trying to teach younger kids about television, violence and advertising, and how it might be affecting them. They hope the assembly program which they wrote and created, helps make kids a little more savvy when it comes to television and other forms of entertainment

Children watch hours of television each day, often unaware that the bottom line for most children's programming is making money through advertising on the show and through the sale of toys, video games, comic books, breakfast cereal and movies based on the show. Violence sells and is often a key component of shows like X-Men and Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.

Two years ago, Kelley School fourth-grade teacher Christine Morton began introducing her students to some of the ideas she was learning in a graduate program at Wheelock College. Among the exercises: students were asked to watch shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and classic Warner Brothers cartoons, and count the number of times something violent happened.

It was all part of Morton's effort to make kids "media literate." Morton believes that in an era of mass media students should be capable of dissecting cartoons and commercials as they are of interpreting classic literature.

To explore issues related to media violence, Morton relied on curriculum called Beyond Blame: Challenging Violence in the Media, produced by the Center for Media Literacy in California. They explored advertising using a series of video tapes called Buy Me That! also available from the Center.

Working with teacher aides Joan G. and Erika V., she rounded up a group of fifth and sixth grade students interested in forming a performance group to write the assembly program and take it around to area schools. The nine students in the production have rehearsed since December.

One idea that appealed to the students from the Beyond Blame curriculum, was that television seldom shows the real life consequences to a crime or act of violence. As for advertising, all students have first-hand experience with something that was advertised didn't measure up in real life. So they open the presentation by inviting their audience to learn "What Everybody Needs to Know About TV."

The students first act out a scene in which two boys watch a G.I. Joe cartoon, then decide to act out what they've seen. When the boys' "mother" tells them that she has just learned that the victim of their playground stunt has been hurt, "This is what they don't show," announces John.

"How many of you out there have seen someone get hurt?" he asks the audience. Nearly 300 Brown School students raised their hands. "They never show you what happens after the blowout scene," he reminds the students.

So what does happen? The answers come in a mock "game show" developed from an activity sheet in the Beyond Blame curriculum: "What's Missing from Media Violence?"

Scripted after the kids did research on the real life consequences of events often seen on TV, the game show host queries the team: "On TV, cars crash and explode, but no one ever goes back to the scene to remove the smashed cars. In reeaaal life?...He draws out the question like a pro.

Buzz! A student answers: "In real life, people have to pay a lot of money to get the smashed cars out of the road and that can take a long time and cause problems like heavy traffic jams."

Next question: "On TV, injured people are rushed to the hospital where they are treated immediately in the emergency room. In real life?... Buzz! Another student answers thoughtfully, "In real life, it takes the ambulance a long time to reach the scene and then it takes the ambulance a long time to get to the hospital. And then it takes the doctor a long time to see the patient. And sometimes the patient doesn't survive."

What happens when people die? "On TV, people who die are never mentioned again; they almost seem to disappear." But in real life, "when people die, their families are sad and they have a funeral. And after the funeral their family continues to miss them."

After several questions the point is made: "Look out for what's Missing!"

The performers then start a "rap" to close the first section of the performance. "If you reduce violence you will be a star," they chant, waving paper stars.

Later in the presentation the topic turns to how kids often feel "ripped off" after they get the toys they see on television.

In one skit, two girls portray a mother and daughter. The daughter wants a "Flying Hero" Barbie doll. But when Mom finally relents and buys the doll, the little girl is disappointed. Why? "She doesn't fly," the girl cries.

Another youngster describes how she spent her entire allowance on a toy plane advertised as being able to fly 30 feet, but finds that the plane can barely fly 30 inches. When asked if they had a similar experience, one third of the students raised their hands.

Amelia described how her sister asked for a Barbie hair coloring kit, which, as it turned out, didn't come with the doll. Later, they looked more closely at the ad and only then saw the disclaimer: "doll not included."

Adding to her disappointment, she used the colors on another doll and found that the dye was permanent.

Gordon mentioned his G.I. Joe boat, which he brought into the bathtub with him when he was younger. "It didn't move at all, and then it sank," he said. He looked closely and saw that there were small holes in the bottom that made the toy boat take on water, despite what the commercial had shown.

The student presenters then demonstrated how cereal is made to look crisp on the box and in commercials by pouring glue, instead of milk, onto it. The audience groans.

"Have you ever been tricked by TV?" asks Amelia. All of the students in the audience raised their hands.

After their presentation, the students involved said they had come to learn a lot about television and what effect it had in their lives. "I didn't even notice the violence before I was in Chris's class," said Kara H. "I still enjoy some of those shows, but now I'm aware of how violent they are."

Gordon B. said he thinks the presentation seems to have an effect on kids. "I think it made them think," he said. Christine A. agreed. "I think it changed a lot of things."

Kara said she believes the presentation is more effective when it is done by kids their age, just slightly older than their audience. "Young kids think we're cool," said Gordon, who explained that he thinks the younger students take the pre-teens presentation more seriously than they would if it was done by adults.

Mike K. said he used to watch cartoons when he was younger but now finds that they aren't as "cool" as he once thought. "They're not that funny."

Several of the students said they felt that some shows, like America's Funniest Home Videos are "scary" because they show people getting hurt.

Their presentation was sponsored by the Partnership for Peace, a group of people representing the schools, the hospital, government, churches and social service agencies who, each March, sponsor activities aimed at preventing violence.