Friday, January 27, 2023 Jan 27, 2023
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What the Schools Are Doing to Your Kid’s Mind

The psychological fads of the Sixties are part of the curriculum of the Seventies in Texas schools.
By Leonard Reed |

It is a winter Thursday at the Coyle Middle School in Rowlett. In the private office of the school guidance counselor, seven third graders are sitting on the floor. They have just been pulled from their regular classes for a 25-minute group counseling session, a weekly discussion of how they feel about themselves, their friends, and even their families.

Marian Romberg, the counselor, sits on a plastic chair in the corner, waiting for the kids to settle down. Mrs. Romberg is middle-aged, dressed smartly in a blue and green print dress, and very attentive. Above her shoulder to the left is a bookcase: Games People Play, Born to Win, Reality Therapy, The Transparent Self, Your Erroneous Zones, Values Clarification, Schools Without Failure. She reaches down, picks up a stack of laminated cards, and hands them to a blonde third grader named Dianne.

Dianne fumbles with the cards for a moment, then remembers from previous sessions what to do. She holds the first card up so her classmates can read it, and glances from face to face, waiting for a response. “Johnny?” she asks, detecting a flicker of response from a boy whose brow is momentarily furrowed.

“Pass,” Johnny says. Another boy also passes.

The card contains an incomplete sentence: “What really bothers me is. . . .” There is more silence. Finally Sharon, a tomboyish blonde, raises her hand: “What really bothers me is. . . my sister hitting me every day, or every minute.”

There are a few laughs, but Mrs. Romberg keeps things moving. Another student gets to hold up a card that says, “A funny thing that happened in our family was. . . .”

There are some passes, then Sharon again breaks the silence: “A funny thing that happened in our family was. . .when we went to the lake and my sister fell out of the boat into the water and she couldn’t swim.” There is silence this time.

As the students, most of whom are eight or nine years old, relax, they begin to volunteer answers more swiftly: “When I grow up I want to be. . . ” “… a teacher.” “… a doctor.” “. . .a tree.”

Some answers are conventionally moralistic: I wish people would stop. . .fighting.” Some are poetic: “I like the sound of. . .a butterfly.” Still others are pained: One girl completes the phrase, “I wish people would stop. . . ” with “picking on me.”

At 2:00 six more third graders are sitting on the floor of the counselor’s office. Patti, a pig-tailed girl who very casually has established herself as an enforcer of silence during this session, holds up the card, “I feel sad when. . . ” Randy, a quiet boy who has been listening and passing, decides to answer: “I feel sad when. . . I get whippings.” He answers again: “I feel sad when. . . I get the door shut on my foot.”

Patti decides she has an answer: “I feel sad when. . . my Dad always gripes at my Momma.”

Patti’s face is lifted high as she says this, her eyes not fixed on anyone or anything in the room. Then she shifts her weight to one foot and, as if suddenly aware that all eyes are on her, glances down uncomfortably, her mouth twisted slightly. Swiftly, Mrs. Romberg encourages the others to respond – a direct attempt, she later explains, to shift attention from Patti’s answer.

This exercise is called “I Gotta Be Me!” I have been listening intently and am fascinated that in a span of some 25 minutes I have become aware of some very important things in the lives of a few very young strangers.

At 2:35 Mrs. Romberg’s final session files into the office. They are third graders again, but instead of responding to flash cards, they will see a filmstrip on anger. It is based on a book called T.A. for Tots. “T.A.” of course, is short for “transac-tional analysis,” the psychotherapeutic process developed by Eric Berne in the Sixties, and popularized in his book Games People Play.

In the film, anger is said to be as normal as toes, but it must be dealt with if you are to be happy. For the students it is like watching television. In the opening scene, a mother yells, “That’s enough, young man! March straight to your room.” As he does, the character thinks out loud: “Drop dead! I hate you!” There are accompanying sounds of rage.

Narrator: “You’re afraid to tell Mom and Dad that you’re angry because you’re afraid you’ll lose their love, you’ll lose their strokes. I’m telling you you won’t.”

The students are absolutely silent.

Narrator: “When you’re angry, it’s good to talk about it – you’ll feel better right away. Or you can have neat temper tantrums in your room: Pound a pillow, pound some clay, or go outside and throw mud at a tree. . .it makes a nice thud.”

At the end, an option is offered for those who fail to express their anger. “If you’re afraid to talk to Mommy and Daddy,” says the taped voice, “maybe you can talk to me, or somebody like me.” The narrator, I assume, is a counselor of some sort.

Preparing to leave, the students are allowed to sign out books from Mrs. Rom-berg’s shelves. By far the most popular choice is a copy of T.A. for Tots.

Mrs. Romberg makes one last-minute announcement: Students who have signed out T.A. for Tots must not take the books home.

Mrs. Romberg says her sessions with the third graders are not therapy sessions and that she practices no clinical psychology. But she has some clear ideas on what her mission is as a counselor. “I’m here to help people learn about themselves, to draw on their own resources and inner strengths, and that one of the basic themes is ’understand and forgive yourself – it’s important to your survival.’”

I asked what Patti gained by telling her classmates she is sad when her Daddy yells at her Mommy. “It may have had a slight cathartic effect,” she said. “If you can do that in the presence of someone who cares about you, it lifts the burden a little.”

What about Patti’s Daddy and Mommy? No parental permission is required for participation; do parents have rights, as well? “I’m doing what I believe in, and because it’s what my job requires,” Mrs. Romberg replies.

But implicit in her response, and Mrs. Romberg is a very reasonable woman, is the educator’s point of view that parents are a tough bunch to handle – especially when it comes to something like group counseling. “We’ve had a problem with this in the past, and we had the same thing with I.Q. scores, when they became available for inspection: parents misinterpreted them.”

“Let’s say,” I posed as a problem for Mrs. Romberg, “that a deeply Christian family believes anger is impure, that it is an emotion that signifies weakness, and that, as a practical matter, it has no place in day-to-day living. It is a negative emotion that must be conquered and kept in proper place. A child from this family attends the public school, is brought into your sessions, and is taught that anger is as normal and healthy as any other feeling.”

I then asked Mrs. Romberg, given her views on recognizing and expressing emotions, whether the parents had a right to say anger was bad.

“My feeling is that they don’t have the right,” she said. “But society says they can do anything they want.”

She said the reason she prohibited students from taking T.A. for Tots home was to prevent backlash from parents who might dislike it.

I am fascinated by Mrs. Romberg and the intimate knowledge she must have of the students who try so hard at “I Gotta Be Me!” What, if anything, does she do with this knowledge? Do Pat-ti’s parents, for example, have any idea that their daughter has made quasi-public comments on their behavior? And on how it affects her? If so, do they care? Do they understand why she’s being encouraged to do this?

What’s going on here is the prevention of drug abuse, through the use of psychological self-awareness techniques. In Texas, classes like Mrs. Romberg’s are taught in every part of the curriculum, from health classes to English classes, and at every level, from kindergarten through the twelfth grade.

Under the laws of Texas, students of all ages are supposed to be taught that drug abuse is bad, that it is a form of damaging behavior unacceptable to society, and that it reflects a poor and self-defeating response to life. In 1973, the Texas Education Agency initiated programs that reflected a nationwide shift in drug education. National research had shown that the practice of simply telling kids drugs were unhealthy had failed miserably. And when students were given straight and accurate information on various kinds of drugs, there were indications usage actually went up. Scare tactics were even less effective: The film called Reefer Madness, in which the protagonist tokes up and becomes a reckless gunshooter, has become a camp classic.

Professor Walter Mathews of the University of Mississippi commented on the failure of previous drug education programs at the April 1974 meeting of the American Educational Research Association:

“If our goal in drug education is to change behavior, the critical fallacy involved with the factual approach is that information modifies behavior. Consider the national campaigns against smoking and for the use of automobile seat belts. We cannot equate education with information. . . .

“We need to shift the focus away from drugs and facts about drugs and concentrate on having an effect on attitudes, values, and behavior.”

In the jargon of educators, teaching that deals with a person’s attitudes and feelings is called “affective” learning. Mrs. Romberg’s health lessons in “I Gotta Be Me!” and T.A. for Tots are merely a few of the techniques employed in the overall drug prevention effort at Coyle Middle School and within the Garland Independent School District, of which Coyle is the northeastern outpost. And the Garland schools are simply a microcosm of Dallas County school systems participating in a mixed bag of activities designated as Drug and Crime Prevention Education. If your child goes to a public school in Texas, he or she is being taught how to be a mentally healthy person.

In the last session, the legislature sent more than $7 million to school systems for Drug and Crime Prevention Education. But that figure in no way reflects the real commitment of tax money to classroom and guidance exercises focused on “personal development.” It has become so much a part of the more traditional curriculum that in Dallas public schools alone, administrators agree that millions of dollars are spent each year teaching kids non-academic “life skills.” “A dollar figure is impossible even to guess at,” says Rogers Barton, DISD associate superintendent. “That’s because it runs so much with the woof and warp of the entire educational program.”

Not all parents and teachers think the new approach is the right one, however. Last fall, I received a phone call from Mary Wilson (not her real name), a middle-aged woman who said she was a concerned parent. She said I would be amazed to find that public schools were tampering with the minds of students and that parents were being robbed of their rights to raise their children as they saw fit. She said she had some materials for me to see-manuals that teachers used in class, and other documents-that would support her claims.

When we met, Mrs. Wilson showed me a thick yellow manual entitled “Drug Prevention Education”-more popularly known as “the Wisconsin program” because it was developed by a tax-supported agency in that state. On page 71 is an exercise called the “Public Interview” or “Hot Seat.”

A student is seated in the teacher’s chair or in a chair at the front of the classroom. The teacher moves to the back of the room, and for a period not to exceed 10 minutes asks questions from among more than 100 printed in the manual. Many are innocuous: “Would you like to be a patrol monitor?” “What are some things that really interest you?” “Do you have any hobbies?” But Mrs. Wilson pointed out what she considered the zingers:

“Explain how you feel your parents are trying to bring you up.”

“How much time would you like to spend with your father?”

“What is the difference between hate and dislike?”

“What kinds of things couldn’t you tell anyone else about?”

“What do you dislike about your best friend?”

According to the manual, this activity is for use in grades 4, 5, and 6. A set of questions has been designed for the second and third grades, too:

“Do you go to Sunday school or religion class? Do you enjoy it?”

“Are you happy that you are a boy/girl?”

“What is the saddest thing you remember?”

“What are you most afraid of?”

“Is there something that you once did that you are ashamed of?”

“Is it hard for you to make friends?”

“Do you cry easily?”

In another exercise, students are required, in small groups of four or five each, to grapple with the following situation: “A plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean. There is only one raft. It holds only five people. There are ten survivors from the plane crash.” The students must “come to a group consensus as to who should be rescued’’ from a list of ten people. The choices must be ranked in order of priority, from one to five.

The ten choices are “The President of the United States; the Vice President of the United States; an only witness to a murder (if he doesn’t testify in court, the murderer will go free); a doctor who is afraid of water; a U.S. Olympic swimming champion; a 60-year-old man carrying a bag with his lunch in it; Donny Osmond; a 36-year-old woman with her two-month-old baby; a blind man; a deaf man.”

More than twenty local school systems have trained teachers to use the Wisconsin manual. It has elicited visceral responses from people other than Mrs. Wilson, including educators and people who are in the business of observing education.

Thomas J. Cottle, a Harvard- and University of Chicago-educated sociologist, writes: “With the phenomenal boom in psychology in recent years, the public has been led to believe that only those with professional training in the behavioral sciences are qualified to supervise the growth of their children’s personality and character. . .

“There has been a colossal growth in the informal practice of clinical psychology in the schools. At what point did parents give the schools the right to shape their children’s personalities through sensitivity groups and counseling? At what point does the student lose his or her right to privacy?”

May Field (not her real name) is a teacher of the fourth grade in a suburban district. She refuses to use the drug education manuals provided by her supervisors, insisting that the emphasis on “life skills” is a hindrance to serious teaching. “Education is no longer teaching children; it is changing behavior. You know, at first you look at this stuff and say, ’Well, it’ll do some good.’ It just seems so good. But when you look at it more and carry it to its ultimate limit, I think it would just prepare people to live in a society where anarchy reigns.

“I can’t even teach! I’ve got three-and-a-half to four hours a day to give them the academics, but they’re being pulled from class for encounter groups and what not. Even my best readers can’t spell. The influence of this new attitude in education pervades everything, too. In my English book there are only two pages on spelling. And we’re supposed to be making people for the Great Society. All I want to do is teach my kids to write a sentence, but you’ve got to have jokes and gimmicks to instruct. We’re supposed to be clowns or TV personalities in order to get a kid’s attention.”

On the other side are teachers like Nancy De Nardo, a fifth-grade teacher in the Park Cities. She argues tenaciously for “affective” methods in the classroom. Among other exercises, she has students role-play a situation in which one of them is found to have shoplifted. In another exercise, students take a position along an imaginary line to show graphically their position on a particular issue, such as responsibility for bed wetting.

“You cannot separate the human-emotional side of learning from the academic,” she says. “In my class, academics are number one, but nowhere is there the ability to develop a thinking process. I mean you can go all the way through life and not even think, like watching television. It’s healthy for kids to explore other avenues; this isn’t the straight and narrow.

“A lot of what I do is in response to my own education. I had very few teachers who sparked the thinking mechanisms. I could play the game very well and get good grades-right through college. But did I have any of my own opinions? What about this person,” she said, her hand on her chest. “What do I really think?”

Mrs. Field’s response is that the quality of thinking that has emerged from students exposed to the new programs is not encouraging. She thinks she can see a difference in the way students approach situations because of the open-ended discussion sessions which are central to the laboratory method. “It may be a long shot, but the first time something hit me was when one of my brightest boys in English made a comment during my health lecture, which was a true story about a boy who glue-sniffed himself into a coma. Well, this boy said, ’Why don’t they just kill him? . . . .’ I had never thought of him thinking like that before, and I thought of the lifeboat game – how judgments are made without any value placed on a life. . . . I’ve never heard a fourth grader saying, ’Why don’t they kill him.”

As with anything in education, much depends on the training of the teachers responsible for presenting the material.

At Richardson’s Brentfield Elementary School, I watched Sally Shaw, the guidance counselor and a Ph.D. candidate, conduct an elegant and compact exercise in a fourth-grade class.

The students were grouped in threes, told to sit down and take turns offering a solid reason why they should become group leader. Some couldn’t come up with any reasons. Others were extremely bashful about, as they’d later say, “bragging” about themselves. And others could only state their cases by putting others down. To one boy, whose three reasons were “I’m talented and I’m great and I’m a good writer,” she said, “Did we ask you to come up with reasons they shouldn’t be selected?” It took her repeated efforts to be heard, but she added his unspoken reason for him: “-and they’re not.”

At the end of the exercise, the students were asked to comment, if they wanted, on what they had learned. “I thought it would be hard to say something like that,” said one girl. “I sorta gained a little self-confidence.”

Sally Shaw is a well-trained guidance counselor from one of the state’s best school districts. But what of the teachers in smaller districts who get only occasional briefing sessions?

This is a touchy subject for Dr. Jacquelyn Harrison, who is in charge of teacher training for the Region 10 Drug and Crime Prevention Education Program. The training time for many of the teachers in small districts is a half day.

“It’s very frustrating to me,” Dr. Harrison says. “What I can provide is a certain awareness, but you can’t give someone the skills in a half day. I may stimulate curiosity and concern, but that is not a valid function. All you’re going to do is make them familiar with it. You’re not going to make them capable and competent in a particular skill.”

There is a certain randomness in what exercises may be selected by teachers, and so far no way to gauge the success or failure of the programs. Dr. Harrison, for one, would not use some of the Wisconsin program exercises, such as the Hot Seat. “I found myself saying many times, ’I don’t think my child is going to do that.’ It puts the child in too stressful a situation.

“Unfortunately or fortunately, there’s no way you can control it once you give somebody some material,” she says. “There is no magical formula. Some people use it wisely, others do not. 1 have a lot of mixed emotions about it. I’m not sure that what we’re doing is that good, but then, we’re addressing a problem.”

Her use of the words “unfortunately or fortunately” intrigued me. In a way, it echoed the disparity I had seen in the delivery of exercises in the classroom.

Being an observer in a variety of classrooms left me uncertain about the program. Actually participating in a training session for DISD teachers and administrators didn’t eliminate my uncertainty.

On Friday night, January 26, about 60 teachers and administrators from high schools in the northeastern quadrant of the Dallas Independent School District arrived at the Holiday Inn in Denison, checked into their rooms, ate a buffet dinner, and gathered for opening exercises in the Bluebonnet Room. These people, dressed for the most part in jeans, T-shirts, and sweaters, were members of small groups leading their schools in developing the “people-centered” approach stressed in the new drug education programs. The groups are called “Intervention Teams.” It is their job to return to their schools and inspire enthusiasm and impart skills to their fellow teachers. Along with the teams, there were also some teachers completely new to the program. All came without pay or compensation of any sort; the state of Texas, however, picked up the $3,000 hotel tab.

Participants were seated in a 50-foot circle. The first warm-up task required that everyone stand, close his eyes, and walk randomly away from his seat – bumping into one another, if it so happened, and even stopping if, in the words of the trainers, “it felt right to stop.” There would be no peeking. When the leader told everyone to open his eyes, I saw a circle of people had clustered toward the middle and that I, who went along as an observer/participant, had moved toward the wall – an embarrassing sign, I thought, of either extreme apprehension or unconscious journalistic remove. We were then told to turn to the person on our left (I had to walk toward the circle to get someone on my left), introduce ourselves, say why we were there and, in the words of the leader, “tell a secret about yourself that you’ve never told anyone before.” After this, the pairs were told to join with another pair, and each member of the group introduced their original partner and paraphrased their statements.

Individual high school teams then went off to separate rooms in the motel. I tagged along with the team from Madison High School. “Boundary breaking” exercizes were held to re-introduce people who already knew each other. We named our favorite television shows: “Battlestar Galactica,” “Soap,” “60 Minutes.” We each named something beautiful: “Thunderstorm,” “Death,” “Sunset over mountains.” And we each recommended books (I’m OK, You’re OK was one) and even stated our fears (one middle-aged family man responded, “That my wife doesn’t love me”).

We were filling in the blanks much like the third graders at Coyle, but it seemed different. I decided it was because we were adults, that constitutionally, each of us simply had more wiring with which to handle our answers – and that maybe, to borrow a TEA phrase, we understood our values better.

But the DISD teachers were here less for sensitivity training than for a spiritual recharge, a boost of social commitment to their profession, a sense of identifying the burden so it could be shared. “I really came to get a pickup,” one team member told me. “My team members back at the school have just fallen away, and they’re here, too, so maybe we can get the thing charged up.”

Saturday’s workshops were a smorgasbord of exercises with titles like: “Communication Circle: A Model To See How People Send Messages To Each Other”; “A Letter From Me to Me – Goal Setting”; “Rap Sessions, Letting It All Hang Out”; “It Feels Sooooo Good! Need A Lift? Try This”; “Projection – The Emotional Dipstick – How To Know Where You Are”; “Who Am I? Who Cares?”; “Lateral Thinking: Castles In The Sky – With Foundations In the Ground.”

I chose a session on Positive Attention in which I sat knee to knee with three teachers and received “negative strokes,” i.e., put-downs, designed to give me a chance to see how I responded to negative statements about me, and to discuss with the teachers the manner in which I had responded.

One rather comely and effusive middle school teacher asked me if I was wearing a T-shirt, implying that it would be perfectly tacky (the instructor’s word in a subsequent paraphrase) for me to be wearing a T-shirt under my sport shirt. 1 admitted that 1 was. The same teacher said I was “so quiet” and that as best she understood it, the practical theory behind wearing T-shirts was that they absorbed perspiration, and that perspiration is often created from tension, or “being nervous.” She happened to be quite right about the nervousness, although she was dead wrong about my reason for wearing a T-shirt in a cold and drafty motel. I had nothing to say, but instead was grateful to hear the instructor call it to a halt.

My silence during negative strokes, it turned out, was disturbing to her. At lunch on the buffet line, as I pulled a ladle from the Roquefort crock, she came up to me and said, “You don’t like me.”

Ironically, then perhaps unfortunately, I again had nothing to say. I decided to cling to a fast-learned theme of this weekend – listen closely. It became important to me to let her know, in some magical way without having actually to say it, that she had no reason to feel that I disliked her, that in fact I considered her a perfectly nice person. . . even with her T-shirt bias.

I failed. I sat at her table at lunch to create the opportunity. I even talked. Her distance became a minor preoccupation of mine; I began to feel guilty for having subtly insulted her. So on Sunday during the “re-entry” session, I walked up to shake her hand and say goodbye and wish her well with her classes.

“You know, you were wrong,” I said.

She looked at me as though I were from another planet.

Such, apparently, is the delicate line ofcommunication between two people. Ithought of how many different kinds ofmessages there must be in her class, and Ithought about how differently each of theteachers must deliver classroom exercisesin, for example, positive self-concept ordecision-making. I thought of a room fullof 30 kids. And I thought of the myriaddynamics at play when personalities getlaid bare.