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Albemarle third-graders' Occupy song draws criticism

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Kid Pan Alley, a foundation that works with elementary schoolchildren, will take more careful notice of the lyrical content of student-produced songs after an Oct. 21 concert at Woodbrook Elementary, Albemarle County schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said.

The concert, which culminated a songwriting workshop led by Kid Pan Alley, featured third-grade students singing a song that championed the Occupy movement.

“There’s no question in my mind that [Kid Pan Alley is] firmly committed to teaching kids, and they are not interested in a political agenda,” Giaramita said Tuesday. “Going forward we are going to be a little more sensitized to [content] … We’re confident that Kid Pan Alley has set the right boundaries and are committed to enforcing that.”

In a statement, Kid Pan Alley Executive Director Pat Rogers said the group has clarified its guidelines for lyrical content.

“Kid Pan Alley does not promote nor condone any personal or political agenda. As a result, our programming over the years has consistently received high praise and commendation from children, parents and schools,” the statement said. “Our sole mission has been and continues to be to inspire and empower children to work together to become creators of their own music and to rekindle creativity as a core value in education.”

In a phone interview with The Daily Progress, Rogers said that Kid Pan Alley has not codified the clarification, and may never do so.

“We have not codified that as of yet, and it’s not out of the question that we won’t. What we have done is talked about it in full at the board meeting,” Rogers said. She added that future songwriting facilitators will be trained to steer students away from controversial content.

“We just wanted to make it clear to our personnel. You learn from things, and it certainly will be part of a training manual for our songwriters,” Rogers said.

Rogers said this is the first time something like this has happened to the group.

“We’ve written probably over 2,000 songs with a little over 30,000 school kids, and this is the one point where we’ve had an issue of this type,” she said.

Giaramita added that when the song was written, the Occupy movement was not the hot-button issue that it is today.

“In today’s environment, January 2012, that is certainly true, but I don’t think when it was written that was necessarily true,” he said.

According to its website, Kid Pan Alley leads several-day songwriting workshops with elementary school students, performing the song at a concert at the end of the workshop.

Ideas for song topics and lyrics come exclusively from the students, the website said. According to the group, ideas for song topics are voted on by students, and are written with little input from an adult facilitator.

Rogers said students and the facilitator followed routine procedure with this song.

The song, called “Part of the 99,” has drawn the ire of some conservative bloggers. The story has appeared on Fox News commentator Todd Starnes’ blog.

The blog Big Government referred to the lyrics of the song as “Marxist rhetoric.”

“The simplistic left wing economic nonsense of this ditty boggles the mind. But to an impressionistic third grader, it plants poisonous seeds at odds with long egalitarian American traditions that disdain class hatred,” the blog states.

Jefferson Area Tea Party Chairwoman Carole Thorpe said she was skeptical that the lyrics to the song had come exclusively from third-graders.

“Even [after] a cursory glance at the lyrics to this song, I find it hard to believe that an eight-year-old would have something to say about the bubble bursting,” Thorpe said Tuesday. “I know it says on their website that the ideas come from the kids, but I would question how much input the facilitator had to do with writing the song.”

Thorpe said she doesn’t think political agendas should be promoted in the creations of third-graders under any context.

“I wouldn’t promote a Tea Party song in a third-grade classroom anymore than I would any other political ideology,” she said.

School Board Chairman Stephen Koleszar said he is against censoring student work for content, and worries that censorship issues could endanger programs like Kid Pan Alley, which, he said, are good for students.

“Sometimes, when kids are writing things, they say things that are controversial. I don’t think we need to be censoring what the kids are writing,” he said. “One of my fears is that, when these kind of controversies come up, are we going to stop doing what’s right for kids because we get a little flak from the blogosphere?”

Koleszar added that in some instances, such as violent content, it may be appropriate to censor content, but added that those instances should be few and far between.

“Obviously, there are certain bounds that the student content can’t go beyond, but I would set those boundaries very wide,” he said. “You kind of have to view things like this on a case-by-case basis.”

For Thorpe, not censoring for things like political ideology is a slippery slope.

“Steve Koleszar said we don’t edit our children’s work,” Thorpe said. “Well, if we go down that road, what if [the children] had chosen a song that contained some profanity or something else offensive, would the school say, ‘sorry kids, this is inappropriate’?”

Koleszar said he is for censoring for profanity.

“It’s pretty clear in the law, if you let kids write, you don’t need to censor for content,” he said. “In terms of profanity … Yes, it’s appropriate to guide kids to a more appropriate expression.”

The program is not division-wide, Giaramita said. Participation is left up to individual principals. If a school does decide to work with Kid Pan Alley, he said, students must have parental permission to be involved.

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