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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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When Celebrities Fall Short as Role Models

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

First, on Saturday evening's live broadcast of the U.S. Open tennis championships, we saw superstar Serena Williams throw an obscenity-filled tantrum that ultimately cost her the match.

Then, the following evening, at the MTV Video Music Awards, a reportedly drunken Kanye West grabbed the microphone away from 19-year-old winner Taylor Swift and told the world that he thought singer Beyonce should have been the winner. Beyonce came through later and invited Taylor back to make her speech, but the thunder had been stolen.

Then we have South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson, whose "You lie!" outburst during President Obama's health care speech last week was so incendiary that it inspired about 25,000 people to donate over $900,000 to his opponent, Rob Miller.

And earlier this year, one of America's most beloved athletes, Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps, was caught smoking pot.

All these folks have since apologized to some degree or another. Joe Wilson apologized to Obama but refuses to say anymore. Serena Williams apologized to everyone -- more than once. Kanye West apologized via his blog, and it got so many hits that it crashed the server. He later went on to Jay Leno's show -- a latter-day celebrity confessional -- to deliver his mea culpas in front of a live audience. Phelps issued a statement apologizing for his "behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment."

We live in a world where boorish behavior is captured and amplified and discussed ad nauseam, particularly when the boors are our heroes, celebrities, and elected officials. Then, the handlers issue an apology, and all is forgotten. Of course, this is not new -- John McEnroe was a brat on the tennis court in the 1980s, Hugh Grant hooked up with a prostitute, and Washington, DC, mayor Marion Berry was busted with cocaine. And then -- like now -- you only need an apology or two, and life proceeds apace.

All this would just be media noise if these people weren't such role models for our kids.

We were chatting about this here at the Edutopia home office today and wondering how teachers manage these types of media viruses, as writer Douglas Rushkoff once described these loud eruptions of celebrity misconduct. Do you embrace them, talk about them, invite discussion? Or do you ignore and move on? One could easily spend an entire school year with this stuff!

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
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cathig's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I was trying to understand the reactions to President Obama's speech, I read comments on blog entries and found the photo of Joe Wilson saying, "You lie." Reading the heated arguments and name calling and seeing the looks of disgust on the congressmen around Joe Wilson, I wondered what I would do if I had a class to teach right now. I would really like for them to read and analyze the comments.

Which comments presented a person well on the Internet? Which ones supported their argument well? Which ones were misunderstood? Are there any valid points in the incendiary comments? How could they have been written so the valid points were seen? Which commenter would you want to be? If you felt a certain way, what do you think would be a good way to express it?

All of the actors and sports stars messing up right now add to this. I'd love to see students recreate the incidents. How could people have expressed themselves better? How could they have done worse? It could be acted out, they could make fake blog and comment entries, write a script, etc. I think it's valuable to take some time to teach students that they have a choice about how they express anger so that as they grow up and post comments, I will have thoughtful, respectful, and meaningful comments to read. I don't see it as yet another thing to teach, but as a timely vehicle for teaching skills that are already being covered, such as writing and Internet skills.

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
Staff

Wow, Tamas, your post really hit me. It's difficult to imagine trying to teach - especially English as a foreign language - when there is so much media yammer-yammer around these scandals. The upside, I suppose, is that they do provide opportunities to practice English, albeit wildly dumbed down and downright aggressive on occasion. So maybe that's not such an upside, really.

I read an article in some mainstream magazine ages ago about how celebrities are our culture's version of royalty, and that we project various archetypes on our celebrities (warrior, genius, god and goddess, magician, etc). An interesting idea. I'm not sure how it translates into the classroom, but maybe it's one way to take it out of the realm of tabloid and into something a little more meaningful.

I would also imagine there are different ways to approach this with different age groups.

cathig, I really like your idea of reframing these blow-ups, and using them as fodder for critical thinking. I bet that's a fascinating experience, for both students and you, to put themselves in the celebrity's shoes. Isn't that what most celebrity adoration is about anyway? What are some of the factors that make this a more or less effective exercise? For instance, do they do as well when they really love the celebrity? It seems tricky, because you're crossing between the realms of intellect and emotion.

Jhamilia Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When Celebrities fall short, it affects our students and behaviors. My students could not focus Monday morning after the Taylor Swift incident. When the Chris Brown/Rhianna battle blasted through the television waves. Students reactions were turned in to disagreements with each other because they began take sides with their favorite celebrity. As teacher, there are going to moments when we need to step in, and provide quality guidance without imposing our personal views. I honestly don't believe society will transform itself changing the idea that this is acceptable behavior. We have to ensure that our students are able to recognize the quality of a real "role model".

Joshua Hyfler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that teachers can take create a valuable educational message from these events. I can hear the hordes of one faction screaming that Chris Brown apologized/paid his restitution to society as the other side is shrill with ethical considerations and abhorrence, but I can recall scenarios in my own education where a major, impacting event happened and our teacher would take a lesson or two to discuss it in depth. Not a debate. Not a syllabified topic. But a constructive, down to earth discussion about the pretexts, scenarios, outcomes, and impact of such events.

If we teach our students that taking the microphone out of Taylor Swift's hand wasn't just rude, egotistical, and insensitive, but that Kanye West was also breaking social mores in the worst of ways, then we can help them understand what it means for a multimillionaire to be a member of society even when he can apologize (and buy) his way out of the issue. If we show them why it matters that their favorite rapper's apology is not enough to excuse his behavior, we may find ourselves behind in our lesson plans, but also enriching students as to what it means to live a balanced, ethical life. This is not just to the benefit that students may choose more appropriate behavior when confronted in (dare I say) similar situations, but to think about what it really means to be a decent person. And to this end, we are a close second to the day-to-day educating for knowledge and content.

Princess Harrison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Relating to students is a key component in building effective relationships. In today's classroom it is so important to be informed and aware of pop-culture, because of the level of exposure that these students have to it and the many idols. When stars "go wild", it creates an opportunity to discuss the students interpretation of the event. Current events always have a place in the classroom. It makes learning relevant and real to students. In these extreme cases, there is an opportunity to dialogue regarding the appropriate and inappropriate ways of dealing with emotions and difficult life issues. Dialogue about current pop-culture events also humanizes their educators. In reality, these stars/role models are still human. We humans make mistakes, what we do after we have made those mistakes contribute to the shaping of our character.
Princess Harrison
Pepperdine University Education/Psychology Graduate Student
Wesr Los Angeles Campus

Princess Harrison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Relating to students is a key component in building effective relationships. In today's classroom it is so important to be informed and aware of pop-culture, because of the level of exposure that these students have to it and the many idols. When stars "go wild", it creates an opportunity to discuss the students interpretation of the event. Current events always have a place in the classroom. It makes learning relevant and real to students. In these extreme cases, there is an opportunity to dialogue regarding the appropriate and inappropriate ways of dealing with emotions and difficult life issues. Dialogue about current pop-culture events also humanizes their educators. In reality, these stars/role models are still human. We humans make mistakes, what we do after we have made those mistakes contribute to the shaping of our character.

Amber S's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Since I teach special ed, and especially since I was at a middle school in my last position, students end up asking me questions that other students might not ask their teachers. It can be particularly awkward at times, since they tend to need things explained in great detail. Most of the time I am happy to discuss current events, whether they be related to politics or the latest celebrity scandal. Other times, I suck it up and explain even when it is can be uncomfortable. For certain topics, I do definitely suggest that the student ask a parent and will then often send home a note to give their parents a heads up that their student was asking questions about such and such.

The most difficult situation, however, was when a teacher at my school got arrested for possession of child pornography. He too had been one of their role models - he was actually quite popular. And to have to explain why one of their teachers was leaving in the middle of the year and to help them understand what they were hearing in the halls or at lunch was not easy. But I couldn't have just ignored it. It was the only thing that students (and staff) talked about for days. It was also on the news. The administration lengthened home room the day after the arrest so that teachers could read a prepared statement and students could ask questions. Because my student's ability to understand was quite different from the other students in his homeroom, I had him skip homeroom and talked to him one on one instead. As other teachers have mentioned, it's always difficult to know what to say, how much to say, and how to treat the subject. Luckily, my student and I had a good enough relationship that we were able to talk about it fairly easily but boy, I hope I never have to face anything like that again.

Kay Milton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Who was your role model as a child???

My role model was my parents,my teachers, then may be an actor.
I dont remember trying to be like Madonna or Janet Jackson, because I didn't have the money and my parents taught me value of life and a dollar.
I feel the parents today give their children to much and let them see to much. I know time are different but it doesn't hurt to make your child earn a dollar. There is nothing on earth for free.

Parents must be the 1st role model before celebrities are role models.

Carol 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I cannot believe how much influence celebrities have on our children, nor can I believe that the parents allow this to happen! They actually push it on their kids (in some cases). I teach primary students where I don't really see this type of beahvior, but I do see it witht the older students. I try my best to teach my students about choosing good role models and what to look for when choosing one. I stay away from the media and focus on the qualities every good person should have; loyalty, integrity, honesty, etc... Qualities that they have or will have with correct modeling and time. We need to remind our children/students that it doesn't matter how much money you make or what movie you're in. There are so many fabulous people in your area that show the characteristics needed to be a good role model-teachers, secretaries, maintenance men/women, grandparents, neighbors, etc...

Jennifer Rose's picture

My husband and I are working very hard to teach our son to look for role models in local people. Teachers, coaches, religious persons, local athletes, and business leaders are all people who we encourage him to look up to. When he brings up a celebrity, we try to help him look at the reality of the person he is interested in. Most of the time, he chooses to look at his local "celebrities." They are accessible to him and he learns he can actually meet them, interact with them and let them become part of his life.
As I teach, I try to teach the same ideal. A role-model should be someone who is accessible to the student. To have the most impact on the life of someone, they need to be able to interact and see that person in all aspects of their life and make decisions based on first hand knowledge rather than the medias skewed view.

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