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Schools: The empire strikes back – but just for a day

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Principal Jamie Curry may have sounded imperious when she announced to Waccamaw Middle School students last week that a dress code and cellphone ban was coming in January. At least she hoped so.

“The letter says there’s not going to be whole lot of discussion,” she said.

The word came down to seventh-graders in Downing Hudson’s and Ashton Lee’s social studies classes as they began their study of imperialism. Their journal topic for the day asked them how they would feel if a foreign power took over their community and imposed its rules at the point of a gun. A few made the connection between Curry’s announcement, but only in hindsight.

Word traveled fast by text and by phone, creating a furor that lasted until the end of the day when Curry told the school it was just part of the lesson plan. There would be no skirts for girls or khakis for boys in the new year. Cellphones could stay.

“A lot of lessons were learned, not all about social studies,” Curry said. “You have to step outside the box and take risks every now and then.”

This wasn’t the first time Hudson had used simulation to stimulate discussion in her 18 years of teaching. But they were in lessons on government where the connection was more obvious, and they didn’t run all day. “I knew it would fire up the kids,” she said. “I had no idea it would go this far.”

She wanted the students to feel oppressed. They did. They let friends and parents know it, too.

The first class wasn’t over before Curry began to get phone calls. “Obviously we have a cellphone problem,” she said. The district’s policy allows students to have the phones, but keep them out of sight.

Other teachers, office staff and the school district were told about the project. “Every parent that I spoke with, they were laughing at the end of the conversation,” Curry said.

The biggest complaint that Hudson heard was from other teachers who said their students were distracted by the uproar. Curry received letters and petitions from students objecting to the policy. “It was amazing the learning that was going on,” she said. “What are middle schoolers more passionate about than cellphones and their clothes?”

While the seventh-graders got to question Curry about the policy, Hudson and Lee directed them back to the subject of imperialism. “It got the creative juices flowing when their freedoms were taken away,” Hudson said. “It really made this unit much more real to them.”

It was only a coincidence that the lesson took place the week after state Sen. Katrina Shealy of Lexington filed a bill that would require school districts to adopt a policy prohibiting the use of “wireless communication devices” during school hours. “I don’t know how that’s going to work,” Curry said, when told of the bill.

But she heard from students who favor a dress code, they just didn’t want to start it in the middle of the school year. Hudson also heard from parents who liked the idea of uniforms. While the policy change was bogus, the research behind it was not, she said. They do reduce distractions.

And, “you don’t have the haves and have-nots,” said Hudson, noting that the class just finished a unit on socialism.

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