Thirteen More Reasons to Talk to Kids About What They Are Watching

Dear Parents and Families,

I want to share a concern that has surfaced recently about a television show some of our students -- including some 6th-graders -- are watching. The show, now available on Netflix, is called 13 Reasons Why. It is based on a book, Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher. (Both links provided give a summary of the story for parents to preview.) Although labeled as a “Young Adult” novel, Thirteen Reasons Why contains very mature subject matter including suicide and rape. The show is produced by Selena Gomez, a former Disney child star, and this might contribute to the show reaching a younger audience than intended.

The concern is that translating these sensitive subjects from a book to the visual medium of film can intensify their effects. Some experts, like suicide prevention advocate MollyKate Cline, have been critical of the show.  You can read her op-ed article published in Teen Vogue here. Cline’s main point is that the show dramatizes the heartbreak of teen suicide without providing any examples how it could have been avoided.

 As parents, we all struggle to keep a watchful eye on what are kids are seeing, saying, and doing online. The lack of accurate and consistent ratings for TV shows make this more difficult. It can be easy to think of Netflix as a TV channel but it is not at all the same as broadcast TV. Paid subscription channels like HBO and Netflix have different standards for content ratings. Ratings are a voluntary practice by the entertainment industry and each studio has their own system. (Here is a link to Netflix general guidelines.)

Parents and students can have different ideas about age-appropriate content. I am not trying to be a censure. If your child does watch the show, I would encourage parents and students to talk together about the topics and issue. Here is one guide called “7 Things You Need To Know Before Your Teen Watches 13 Reasons Why.” Another source is the guide to this show by Common Sense Media.
I have created a Webmix of all the links above and links to Teen Suicide Prevention resources. The webmix has all of the links group in one place. As always, the school mental health team and guidance is available to talk with students and parents about these important issues.

Message to the 8th Grade

I always like to start this by thanking the parents. From all of us, your students last teachers here at Pawcatuck Middle School to all you, their first teachers, thank you for sharing your children with us for the last four years. It has been our  honor and privilege to work with them and all of you.


I always struggle with this talk. One of these days I’ll write one of those canned speeches, you know like one of those, “The world is your oyster’” kind of things. Then again after reading The Pearl with Mrs. Cassata this year, talking about oysters might not work. Still, every year I try to come up with something original that address the 8th graders or the times. Some years it’s easy; other years it’s difficult. This was one of those difficult years for me to come up with something that is appropriate for everyone and for the times we live in. So here it goes. I call it Legacy and Lies.


I few weeks ago I attended the Connecticut Association of Schools Scholar Leader banquet. They had a terrific motivational speaker names A’ric Jackson. He was an awesome speaker. I feel bad that you folks are stuck with me. In his message, Mr. Jackson talked about a very interesting concept - legacy - in a very different way.


The legal definition of a legacy is a gift of personal property or money from someone who died. We also tend to think of legacy as a list of accomplishments left behind by someone. Oh, you know, like, well Tom Brady comes to mind. Mr. Jackson, however, had an interesting take on legacy as something more transactional. I want to extend his challenge to all of you for you to build your legacy at whatever high school you go to next year. But I’ll come back to that in a few minutes. First, let’s talk about lies.


You’ve been lied to. Reality TV is not reality. The Kardashians are not reality and the Kardashians are not worthy of your squad goals. There are no real housewives on TV. At its core, every reality TV show has a kernel of mean spirited behavior. You’ve been punked, you’ve been pranked by this. If you strive to outplay, outlast and outwit - you will lose out.


You’ve been lied to. A social media presence is not the be all and end all. You’ve been lied to. The number of followers you have doesn’t matter. The ratio of likes to followers on your posts doesn’t matter. Social media was created to connect and unite people. Unfortunately these days it is used instead to cast a net of negative interactions even wider.


And you’ve been lied to that problems with social media is a kid problem. It’s not. It’s a human problem. Ask a female sports reporter, ask a woman who works in the video game industry, ask Hall of Fame pitcher Curt Schilling. (Not bad, see how I was able to make a Patriots and a Red Sox reference in this message.) Even I guy like Marc Maron - if you don’t know who he is - he’s a successful comedian who has had is own TV series and he has a very successful podcast where he’s had people from Keith Richards to President Obama come into his garage and talk with him for his podcast, evan Marc Maron has take to take a break from social media.


Growing up you have been inundated with negative interactions as the new normal by every  media: TV, radio talk shows, social media. All of this where what is celebrated and rewarded is the cutting comment. That’s what gets the laugh and the applause. The constant one-upmanship in a constant game of roasting or burning your friends with mean comebacks.


And you know what the worst of it is? No one ever talks about the cost of it. This is a quick economics lesson in opportunity cost. Basically, if you spend time or money doing X, you lose the opportunity to do Y. And here you lose out twice in opportunity cost.


First, there is a huge opportunity cost for yourself. When you invest so much time and energy thinking of that perfect quick comeback or being on guard against one, when you spend so much time and energy looking for and inventing drama and things to rant about, you lose so much. You lose the personal resources that you could invest in more positive things, other people, your learning, and your authentic self. You also lose your life force. All of the negative habits are like the apps that run in the background on your phone killing your battery. Whether you realize it or not, the constant hum of negativity drains your battery.


There is another cost. This constant lure into negatively silences others. It marginalizes others, and it casts a shadow on others. It robs them of engaging and participating with their own authentic selves. It robs you of the experience of interacting all together with your best selves toward the future. They lose, and you do too. Forgive me for using a little hyperbole here to make a point and to make a Star Wars reference. I think about the scene from the first Star Wars movie when Obi Wan reacts to the destruction of the planet Alderaan. He feels the disturbance in the force, “It’s as if millions of voices suddenly cried out...and were suddenly silenced.”


Then again, if you look at the big picture, maybe this isn’t hyperbole. Across all the schools in the country millions of students are made silent from their authentic selves whether by direct and overt meanness, or just by the fear of it. What a huge opportunity cost that is for all of us.


Let’s get back to the legacy part. The ancient Greeks had two concepts that were intertwined, timê and kleos. Timê was more related to honors, the tangible representations of accomplishments like trophies and awards. Kleos was about someone’s renown - what people say or hear about you. Interestingly enough both could be legacies inherited from generation to generation.


I want to extend Mr. Jackson’s challenge to all of you. The challenge is to enter high school with a conscious plan to build your own legacy. Not just but collecting awards and trophies, but by building your transactional legacy every time you want into or out of a classroom. Share your authentic self. Create the space for others to share their authentic selves. Invest more of your energy in what really matters other people and your education.

Let’s return to that legal definition of legacy for a minute. What if a legacy was not a gift of personal property, but rather a gift of a person’s properties? Make a plan now, this summer, to build your transactional legacy in your next four-year journey. Thank you.

The Nature of Friendship


“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It's not something you learn in school. But if you haven't learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven't learned anything.”

Muhammad Ali

I hate to disagree with the champ. But I do. While I agree that friendship is not taught in school like the other subjects, I think school is exactly the place where most kids learn about friendship. Friendship is one of the hidden curriculums that all students navigate as they pass through school from year to year. Without a doubt, middle school is a challenging time and environment for kids to learn friendship skills. Adolescents  struggle with their desire for autonomy and their need to be part of a group.

While the topics of school violence and bullying get the majority of the headlines, many of the office discipline referrals that come in each day are somehow related to friendship issues. These issues can be so covert and so subtle, but they often have big impacts on the students involved. Sometimes these behaviors are referred to as Relational Aggression. Relational aggression can take the form of pitting one friend against another, or in presenting the false dichotomy where  “If you’re friends with me you can’t be friends with that other person.” Excluding others from activities, spreading rumors and gossiping, or withdrawing attention and friendship are some of the other ways that this behavior can manifest itself.  The addition of multiple social media platforms available to students has not made things any easier. While social media helps kids connect with their friends, author Danah Boyd points out It’s Complicated.

Although we address many of these topics in our classrooms and in our Advisory program, I believe that all students will benefit from some additional direct instruction. To accomplish this, educators from Safe Futures will be here at Pawcatuck Middle School next week to present a program on Friendships to our 7th-grade and 8th-grade students. These sessions are designed to help students think about friendships, including what they are looking for in a friend, and why it is important for them to know what they can bring to a friendship. The lessons will also explore how friendships change and evolve over time. These lessons will also incorporate some of the online issues that students face such as: what does it mean to be loyal to someone? What do you do when someone posts something online that embarrasses you? What do you do when someone starts a rumor about you? The sessions will assist students to develop problem-solving skills and how to be an ally. 

“If you go looking for a friend, you’re going to find they’re very scarce. If you go out to be a friend, you’ll find them everywhere.”

– Zig Ziglar


How Might We......?

The other day the superintendent of schools posed an interesting question to a group of administrators. If there are magnet schools for STEM, and magnet schools for the performing arts, why couldn't there be a magnet school for kindness? He went on to ask the group to think about what we would do if money was no object, to create a school free from the scourge of bullying and mean behavior so prevalent in schools today.

After the initial "yeah, right, if only" moment passed, after the "but money is the object in public schools" moment passed, the thought remained. Tantalizing in the abstract. The idea is almost too audacious to dismiss. Despite the gravitational pull of how this could never happen given the present state of our schools and the present state of our society, the idea continued to percolate  to the surface.

Creating this school is not a money issue; it is a design challenge. Sometimes it is difficult to see it this way. After all, according to Roman Mars, good design is 99 percent invisible. To help schools grapple with these problems, Design Thinking for Educators was created in 2010 as a collaborative effort between Riverdale Country School in NYC and the global design company IDEO. (©2012 IDEO LLC. All rights reserved. ) In their toolkit, all design challenges start with these three words: "How might we...?" 

How might we create a school themed around kindness, respect, civility, and cultural competence? How might we design the systems and processes to significantly reduce mean behavior and deal with the full spectrum of all student behavior more proactively and effectively as part of daily instruction?

How might we create a middle school that truly develops its students' responsible independence as learners and as people? How might we design a school experience that helps students to consistently put forth their best selves in school, online, and in the wider community?

Every design challenge starts with these three words. The words that come after are difficult and complex, but isn't that all the more reason to make the attempt? As JFK said about space exploration, we should choose these challenges, "...not because they are easy, but becasue they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."

So, how might we?



Stewardship: 1938 - 2038

Recently, the town voted to replace the elementary schools. In a few years there will be a new K-5 school on the West Vine Street School site, and the venerable West Broad Street School will be retired. When it is retired, West Broad will be approaching 120 years of service. Wow. Because this building has been a part of the community for generations, some people have been willing to overlook its obvious shortcomings  as a modern school. Objectively, however, it is time to let the sun set on this Gilded Age edifice.

When the final bell rings at the West Broad Street School, Pawcatuck Middle School will become the oldest school building in the district. Built in 1938, Pawcatuck Middle will become the last brick school building in the district. The construction of two new elementary schools all but guarantees that Pawcatuck Middle will have to be in service when it marks it centenial in 2038.

That amounts to another 22 years of service at a minimum. Although the cost of replacing the roof of the school was added to the construction project, the cost of building two new elementary schools at the same time also makes any major renovation to Pawcatuck Middle very unlikely. 

What this means is that our students must shoulder the responsibility of stewardship of the building. As much as it's their school, it must also be the school of children born after 2028. Unless the students of today take very good care of the physical building, it will not be there for the students of tomorrow.

According to Wikipedia, stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The planning has been done. What is necessary in order to make it to 2038, is for students to understand their role in the management part. This ethos requires students to be not only users of the school, but also to be guardians and keepers of the school. In the last few years, damage inside the school has been increasing. We need to reverse that trend. Meting out consequences after the damage is done, won't get us to 2038. Talking to students both at school and at home about their roles as stewards, and getting them to take it seriously is only way to get there. defines stewardship as, "The responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for and preserving." I believe Pawcatuck Middle is exactly that.