When Debbie Adair began teaching Enochs High School seniors a new unit she had introduced into her English classes called “Ending the Culture of Violence” last January, “eight or nine kids came forward.”
“Most of these kids told me about being a victim of violence, whether they had been molested by mom’s boyfriend or physically assaulted by an acquaintance,” she says. “None of them had received
any counseling. And I’m guessing there are more students who did not come forward.”
The kids’ reaction supported Adair’s decision to create the unit on ending violence at Enochs High’s Biotech/Forensics Academy, a school focused on science within the general high school in Modesto, CA. In March, student Alexa Ramirez said: “Hey, Ms. Adair – we should make a video!”
In a whirlwind three days, 70 students (out of 175 enrolled in Adair’s five English classes) wrote, directed, and produced a shocking, inspiring, and totally absorbing nine-minute video, “Ending the Culture of Violence.” When it was shown at a panel discussion on violence in Modesto, it was well received by the 150 parents, students, teachers, and school administrators who attended.
Although the Modesto population tends to be culturally conservative, Adair says nobody complained about the video or the unit. “This is what these students deal with every day,” she says. “If parents or community members are offended, they should be, because this is the world we live in.”
The video was a collaborative production. Students contributed ideas, built props, rewrote the script, and played their parts as they engaged with each other to shape the final product, says Adair. Student Austin Pires shot the video with a GoPro camera. In the video, students hold up posters with offensive language and simulate scenes of sexually harassing female students in high school corridors.
The video exposes what American high school students face every day — including sex harassment, rape, domestic violence, sexist advertising, gay bashing, and victim blaming. It ends with two popular songs, both blatantly promoting extreme physical violence against women.
“The students will never listen to those kinds of songs the same way again,” says Adair.
She came up with the idea last summer after reading a Time magazine cover story about the culture of rape on college campuses. Since 90 percent of the academy’s students go on to college, including community colleges and vocational schools, “I felt an obligation to educate them about what could happen beyond the walls of high school,” she says.
“Throughout the school year, I did some research and gathered articles,” she continues, and accumulated more than 60 pages of scholarly articles about the culture of violence. “We had many class discussions, activities, and writing assignments.” She said that students came up with their own projects to pursue, from human trafficking to sexist advertising.
Fifty percent of the students in the Biotech/Forensics Academy live in poverty, are from troubled backgrounds, or are first-generation high school graduates or future college students. Despite the significant number of at-risk students, Enochs High doesn’t screen students for ACEs.
However, two years ago it set up a care center to provide counseling services. That’s where Adair referred the students who came to her to talk about their ACEs. She said the fact that so many students opened up to her, “made me acutely aware of why we have to have these conversations.”
The takeaway for this class — besides the skills learned researching, writing, acting in, and collaboratively producing a video — was that “the students gained a sense of empowerment and realized they have a voice in changing our culture of violence,” says Adair.