Singing the hate away: Alarming comments spark musical teaching moment

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Photo Gallery | The Educated Voice at Kittredge Elementary School

HINSDALE - When Kittredge Elementary School Principal Deborah White heard last June that a white student had made some derogatory comments about an African American student in the school, she was alarmed and addressed the issue among the individual parties involved.

But this school year, when on two consecutive Fridays, two more racist comments were made from children to other children, White knew the issue had to be addressed school-wide.

"We're 96 percent white at Kittredge," said the principal. "These were three separate incidents involving three separate kids making the comments, but as the years go on, it's the same kids that have to endure the comments, and that's just not right. It wears on somebody's self-esteem."

Whether it's a matter of bullying or civil rights, White said she's working to offer programs in the school to better train staff and to expose students to the kinds of diversity the school itself is lacking.

White approached the father of the students at which the racist comments were aimed, and asked what he and his family felt the school needed to do to help.

With the father's advice, the school last week, with support from the PTO, brought in a collaborative known as Creative Boys Culture (http://www.creativeboytev.com), led by Tevonne "T.E.V." Hemmans, aka "The Educated Voice."

Hemmans, 22, of Brooklyn, N.Y., started developing his school-based program from his dorm room with friends, while attending the University of New Haven.

"We started talking about how there's so many things going on as far as bullying. We had also experienced it ourselves. Then we saw that we had the resources as a music team, as artists, so we put together a tour and workshop," said Hemmans, who added that he received support and mentoring to start the program through Ted Gustus Jr., New York City basketball coach and educator.

The current Creative Boys Culture team includes T.E.V.; deejay/producer Ryan Hoang, and multimedia specialist and manager Joshua Hoang. Last year, they did a performance at Pittsfield High School, and have also brought their program to Madison Square Garden, Los Angeles, and schools throughout New York.

"We focus on different things across the board. It's about youth empowerment, not just anti-bullying messages. It's about educating them on love and respect. We use the tagline ‘Get busy,' meaning to be creative, and learn how to transform negative energy into positive," Hemmans said.

From elementary school on up through college, Hemmans said he personally experienced negative remarks and bullying.

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"I chose to be different, to be an artist and a writer, which was something people weren't used to in the schools I grew up in. They'd say it's feminine to draw, to do art, to perform for a career instead of going and doing construction," he said.

Hemmans said his goal is to help students, whether they've been bullied or are bullies themselves, to find an outlet like music or sports to help them feel good about themselves instead of feeling negative or taking negative feelings out on another person.

And for one day last week at Kittredge, all the kids, regardless of age, race or ability, were chanting, dancing and singing together with Creative Boys Culture in the school's gymnasium.

Principal Deborah White saw the program as a kick-off to a year's worth of ongoing programming to help students and staff think of ways to support each other.

Already, the school is working with Shirley Edgerton, who works with Pittsfield's Youth Alive and Rites of Passage youth empowerment programs, and will also be seeking expertise from educators in the Berkshire District Attorney's Office.

She said she's also received a lot of support from both the parents of the victims of the racist remarks and the parents of the kids who made the remarks, and has asked parents of all the school's children to talk with their students about kindness and getting to know all different kinds of people.

This week, White said there will be a staff training program to teach teachers how to respond to incidents such as racism or bullying.

The school will also revisit its anti-bullying policy, which was established in 2010, when the state anti-bullying law went into effect.

White said the school's also looking to bring in more community speakers and programs. "Part of it's exposure," she said. "We want [the kids] to be exposed to all different shades of skin color. We want them to understand that comments like the ones made do not set the right impression for people. We also want people in the community to help teach our kids, to come and read stories with them and spend some time on the playground with the kids."

Also new this year at the school is a "Buddy Bench." Installed over the summer and dedicated at the start of the school year in memory of Sam McGovern, a former student who passed away in 2011, at age 8, due to a rare childhood cancer.

The bench is a place for kids who go out to recess and might have a hard time finding a group to play with.

"Some kids don't mind walking around by themselves, but others might be too shy or intimidated to ask to play," White explained. Kids who feel this way can sit on the bench and other children and playground supervisors can know to go over to the child and introduce them to a group of students to play with.

"At this age, it's important to get more kids involved in positive socialization," White said.


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