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Singing for Societal Change... Again

Disrespect has become rampant in U.S. society, according to singer/songwriter activist Peter Yarrow of the trio Peter, Paul & Mary. Yarrow's curriculum, Don't Laugh at Me, teaches children to respect themselves and others. Included: A description of the Don't Laugh at Me curriculum.

For four decades, the folk music of Peter, Paul & Mary ("If I Had A Hammer," "Blowin' in the Wind") has been synonymous with a cry for social change. Now Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary is lending his voice to another cause: combating what he calls the "epidemic of disrespect" in today's society, and teaching children to respect themselves and others.

The founding director of Operation Respect, a curriculum aimed at instilling consideration and caring in children, Yarrow tours the United States, speaking and singing to educators, legislators, and other professional groups about the program and the need to resurrect respect in society. And yes, singing partners Paul Stookey and Mary Travers are providing back-up for Operation Respect as well.

Peter Yarrow and friends.
(Photo by Paul Nestor)

One of the goals of the program is to turn classrooms into "Ridicule-Free Zones," where children can grow academically and emotionally. The program's free curriculum, Don't Laugh at Me, with a signature song performed by Yarrow, is available to educators through the Operation Respect Web site. Since Operation Respect was founded in September 2000, more than 74,000 kits have been mailed and more than 20,000 teachers have been trained to use the curriculum, which is based on Educators for Social Responsibility programs. In a survey about Don't Laugh at Me done in 2001-2002, 86 percent of teachers and school counselors who responded said that implementing the program was valuable and beneficial to their students.

Yarrow talked with Education World about Operation Respect and about why he is so passionate about the project.

Education World: How did you become interested in character education issues?

Peter Yarrow: This is the most important work of my life. It's only an extension of all the work I've done over the years in relation to civil rights, gender equality, peace, apartheid -- you name the movement. In a sense, I'm returning to my roots. Even as a kid, I always was unhappy when I saw anyone treated unfairly.

We [Peter, Paul and Mary] have been attempting to make the world a more humane place. All those movements have one thing in common; they were about extreme disrespect. We've seen a lot of progress, but also a lot of "one-step forward, two-steps back." You can change the way people follow the law, but you also have to change the heart. You and I know we're not going to change the hearts of adults very much. We must allow kids to be educated to become good citizens. We have to get to children before they repeat the cycle. The only route to peace is to inoculate children with certain values and allow them to appreciate who they are for what they are.

Ultimately, I don't think anyone is interested in huge cars, big houses, and diamond rings. People want to be respected and valued -- and if they can grow up to feel like they are valued and respected, that's the way they will vote; that's way they will participate in society.

EW: What are the goals of Operation Respect?

Yarrow: The program is one part, advocacy is the second part. The excitement of Operation Respect for me is comparable to the emergence of Peter, Paul and Mary and the civil rights movement, [when advocacy and music merged.] But the need is more critical now. Education is the only road to peace. We have to interrupt the cycle of animosity, hatred, and antipathy before kids get into it again.

The message needs to spread to people who are willing to be activated by one program or another; forming alliances that might not have been in place before. That is the mechanism of Peter, Paul and Mary. If we can present this to the American Pediatric Association as a medical crisis, not just an educational crisis, then we will get society's attention and have credibility in other sources.

Peter Yarrow performs at Patterson Elementary School in Jefferson County, CO.
(Photo by Barry Gutierrez)

To change the perspective of what education is about, you're talking about alliance building and about making it clear that this is not a kid's problem, but a societal problem. We are not the only answer. We are one tool.

What we're trying to do is have the next generation grow up thinking of themselves as valuable -- not because of fame, money, and power, but because of who they are. If we can do that, we can sustain democracy.

EW: On the Operation Respect video, you talk about an "epidemic of disrespect" in the United States. How do you think our society has gotten to that point?

Yarrow: A lot of it has to do with the fact that kids are not watching Leave It To Beaver and I Love Lucy anymore. Now the media celebrates, and pays money for, the exhibition of dysfunctional behavior. The pervasiveness of the media is the main cause of antisocial and dysfunctional children. We've had a degeneration of social skills in the United States, and a further degeneration brought on by television shows -- not in terms of violence, but in the lack of respect shown to people on those shows.

And parents often do not have the skills to discipline their kids without using put downs or shame. Now kids can be partners with parents [in learning to respond differently.]

EW: What about teachers who say they already have too many mandates and are too busy to take on another program?

Yarrow: Today, teachers look at any new program, no matter how powerful and no matter what its efficacy, as another thing on their plate -- with some justification, I might add. Most of those teachers, though, are the ones who are not teaching after five years. Learning to respect others is not another thing on the plate -- it is the plate. We don't have a problem convincing teachers to do this. In fact, we don't have the infrastructure to meet the demand for it.

I asked teachers, during a presentation to the Michigan Education Association, to draw at the top of a page a dollar sign, representing their salary and benefits. Then I had them draw a schoolhouse in the middle of the page, illustrating how new or dilapidated their school was and representing all the tasks of being a teacher. Third, I asked them to draw a heart -- representing how they are treated by students, parents, colleagues, the public, and the press. Then I asked what would be the most important thing in keeping them on the job, not just for five years, but for a whole career. The heart came out most important.

Teachers are on overload; but if you can stand back for a moment and connect with your heart, you realize you have to devote your real effort to managing the classroom and creating an atmosphere of civility, grace, compassion, and safety.

Kids are frightened. The atmosphere in [many] classrooms is such that they are not going to be able to learn. It stands to reason that the establishment of a safe climate is fundamental, to allow them to grow to their potential, academically and in every other way.

This e-interview with Peter Yarrow is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World


Originally published 12/11/2003; updated 04/24/2006