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Hunger Games Field Trip Gives Parents Indigestion

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“The Hunger Games” might be the most widely anticipated film based on a young-adult novel series since “Harry Potter,” but does that make it an appropriate field trip for sixth graders?

The bestselling trilogy explores life in a futuristic totalitarian regime, where children – armed with arrows, swords, knives and mutant killer bees — are forced to fight to the death in public spectacles.

Students at Hamilton International Middle School in Wallingford, Wash. read author Suzanne Collins’ book in class, and had been planning to see the film. That’s until parents called administrators to complain, according to the Seattle Times.

Principal Christopher Carter told the reporter the film was appropriate because it related to content areas the students were studying, but he decided to cancel the outing after hearing from concerned families. Carter said the trip that “has become a distraction in our school community.”

Schools in Washington State are hardly the only ones dealing with “Hunger Games” mania. In New York City this week, hundreds of students cut class to stay out all night and win a chance to attend a public appearance of its stars.

Parents and educators contemplating the relative value of the book trilogy need to weigh its literary and educational merits against the risks that come with exposing a youthful audience to potentially graphic depictions of kids killing kids. However, there is anecdotal evidence from at least two states – Texas and Michigan – that the trilogy isn’t just getting students to read, it’s also getting them to write.

As the Amarillo Globe-News reported, an eighth grade reading teacher in Wolfforth, Texas assigned the book to her 134 students in late 2010, and also had them write letters to the film’s director – Gary Ross –and suggest what key plot points they wanted to see preserved when the book jumped to the big screen. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly in January 2011, Ross made a point of praising the quality of the students’ insights.

In Michigan, students at Gobles Middle School recently wrote letters to the editor of the Grand Rapids Press to counter comments by a parent who said the books were too violent for younger readers. The students disagreed, arguing the video games they play contain much more gore (which might actually be a whole other problem) and that the trilogy’s underlying messages were valuable.

“”The Hunger Games” to me, is teaching us a lesson, and that lesson is to be active learners about politics because we will be voting in the next four years, and we would not want a government that becomes too powerful,” wrote student Brooke Hurley.

While the film is rated PG-13, the books are particularly popular among preteens. But there’s a difference between reading a book that describes violence, and seeing the images on film, especially when the audience is children.

“It’s a gut experience as opposed to a head experience,’’ Michael Rich, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center on Media and Child Health, told the Boston Globe. “A movie is very direct. You are seeing it, you are hearing it, as compared with translating it from black ink on a page into something in your own mind.’’

A bazillion years ago, my sixth-grade teacher sent a letter home to parents warning them that a controversial mini-series was set to air on television, and that they should carefully consider whether to let their children watch it. The miniseries was “The Day After,” depicting the fallout of a nuclear war with Russia.

I wanted to see it, and after some negotiations (including that they might revoke their permission mid-viewing if they felt the material was too intense) my parents agreed to let me watch with them. The televised images of mushroom clouds, firestorms, death and destruction were indeed scary, but I didn’t have nightmares. However, I had more than a few bad dreams over “Lord of the Flies,” which we were reading in class that same year.

Perhaps, then, the answer is that while some students in a particular grade might be ready for the“Hunger Games” megaplex experience, others are not.

Similarly, it’s possible even the books are too much for some young readers,  Dr. Eric Rossen, director of standards for the National Association of School Psychologists, told me in an interview Thursday.

Films can be easier to evaluate for appropriateness in the classroom than books, Rossen said. Educators must consider factors such as whether the text relates to the curriculum, whether the content has strong language, violence or sexual content or potentially controversial religious themes, Rossen said. School guidelines typically require parents be notified if the subject matter is potentially upsetting, and educators need to stick to those rules, Rossen said.

“With movies there’s an applied ratings scale which can help teachers make their decisions,” Rossen said. “Books don’t necessarily come with that, so it might take a little more oversight.”