Occupy third grade? A song that uses protest rhetoric creates furor in Virginia.

January 12, 2012

A classroom of Charlottesville third-graders wrote songs in a music workshop about the holidays, laughter, daffodils, best friends — and the divisive Occupy protests that have spread across the country.

That song, “Part of the 99,” has outraged many because the lyrics include lines that echo the protesters’ slogans. The song describes people who were part of “the 1 percent,” who had it all yet always wanted more, then lost everything when the bubble burst. Despite losing their yachts and planes, the third-graders at Woodbrook Elementary sang, they are better off now: “I’m happy to be part of the 99.”

Conservative bloggers wrote about the song, first on the site WeaselZippers.us and then on other Web sites, skeptical of claims that the children wrote the lyrics and warning that young children were being indoctrinated in the rhetoric of class warfare. The Albe­marle County Public Schools offices were flooded with phone calls and e-mails from across the country.

This week, Paul Reisler, the founder and artistic director of Kid Pan Alley, the Virginia-based nonprofit group that runs the songwriting workshops, acknowledged in a statement that he inserted phrases such as “1 percent” into the lyrics.

Kid Pan Alley said in a statement that the group “does not promote or condone any personal or political agenda” and that it has clarified its guidelines for lyrics.

“People are so volcanically mad about this,” said Christian Adams, a lawyer in Alexandria who wrote about the song on the Web site BigGovernment.com, because it involves a number of issues important to parents, including, who gets to instill values and political points of view in children: the government or parents? And why would taxpayer money be used for this?

It wasn’t the only time Kid Pan Alley imposed its left-wing ideology on public schools, Adams said, pointing to examples such as a YouTube video of children in Fairfax County singing President Obama’s praises soon after his inauguration. In Charlottesville, Adams said, it was “with the Marxist rhetoric of the Occupy movement.”

School officials and others have defended Kid Pan Alley for promoting creativity, music and writing skills in the classroom. The group, which receives private and public funding, including from parent-teacher organizations, has been leading workshops in various school systems in Virginia and elsewhere in the country for about 11 years. Schools can choose to pay for workshops, each usually about a week long and costing several thousand dollars, in which students write songs and then perform them for parents and others.

“The reason most principals participate is they think it benefits kids in two or three different ways,” said Phil Giaramita, a spokesman for the Albemarle schools. “It’s a form of creative writing, as if writing poetry or book reports or something else. It helps students think through ideas and how to present ideas. And it teaches collaboration.”

Foster Billingsley, the deputy director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, said it’s the first time he has heard any concerns about Kid Pan Alley, which received a $3,500 grant from the commonwealth this year for operating expenses. The agency also gave just over $16,000 to schools for grants to bring Reisler and the group in for workshops.

“They take these young children and take them through the whole songwriting process,” Billingsley said. “The children usually choose the topics. . . . Students write the lyrics, help write the tune, then put it all out there. The students love it, and the parents love it. We get a lot of applications from throughout the state. . . . The Albemarle schools every year are clamoring to get [Reis­ler] to come into the schools.”

But school officials said they were surprised when Reisler ­acknowledged that he introduced some phrases into the song performed at Woodbrook Elementary.

In a statement, Reisler said the children chose the topic for the song, “about setting priorities in life, but that message has become overshadowed by the use of phrases that are currently politically charged. . . . It was my personal mistake to introduce these phrases, and I take complete responsibility for it. I will not make a mistake like this again.”

It was disappointing to learn about Reisler’s contribution after the fact, Giaramita said. “If you bring in a facilitator and he or she is the one writing the song, offering the thoughts, you’re really not teaching creative writing in the best possible way.”

Adams said it’s not the only song with political overtones. “They’ve gone into Fairfax County schools with songs praising Obama using extremely strange language like ‘the cold white winter is over’ and ‘now we have new skin.’ ”

Mary Shaw, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County Public Schools, said the school system has not received complaints from parents about the song or about Kid Pan Alley’s work.

A February 2009 video from Bailey’s Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Falls Church shows the children singing about the new president. “Welcome Barack Obama, he’ll save the day — hip-hip hooray. Barack Obama, hip-hip hooray, Barack Obama, hip-hip hooray, Barack Obama, hip-hip hooray. Barack Obama!”

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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