by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
In spite of the cookies, punch, temporary suspension of school work, and the festive atmosphere of this atypical school day, Betsy, a third grader in a suburban Michigan elementary school, was not having a good day. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that she is 30 pounds overweight and just opened her fifth valentine containing a picture of a pig.
Jerrod, a fourth grader in the same school, sulked his way through afternoon recess because of the inordinate number of skunk and cross-eyed boy valentines he received minutes earlier.
Are these incidents isolated and extreme? We think not. Actually they are a part of an annual February ritual called The Valentine's Day Massacre.
Each year, February 14th is unknowingly used in classrooms to complete the covert task of allowing children to silently and symbolically inform their classmates of how they feel about them. This process, the sorting and distribution of valentines, delivers messages to children as to where they fit in the social hierarchy of the classroom. It's a pictoral sociogram of sorts, with one major flaw -- each child, due to the collection of valentines he accumulates in front of him, is handed a personalized and public signal of where he fits in socially. Since children are able, either consciously or unconsciously, to decipher the silent messages sent through valentines, the experience is potentially damaging for many youngsters. The February ritual can also negatively affect the overall classroom atmosphere.
Examine a box of 50 valentines. Look for the messages they convey. Typically, valentines send one of three messages:
• "You're a winner"
• "You're a loser"
• "I have no strong feeling about you one way or the other"
A fourth message, "You're invisible," is often sent to the child who receives fewer valentines than other students.
Some children randomly sign their name to any valentine, stuff it in an envelope, and invest no time deciding who gets which particular one. Other children examine valentines thoughtfully, sorting and classifying them, being careful to make sure valentines with specific connotations go to the appropriate people. It is the later who creates problems that result in hard feelings on Valentine's Day.
To prevent a Valentine's Day Massacre in your classroom, why not use the event to help your students learn some valuable lessons about themselves and each other? How about bringing in a packet of valentines two weeks before February 14th? Display them on the board or let cooperative groups examine a handful before exchanging them with other groups. Challenge students to look at them for biases. Have them complete a questionnaire similar to the one below.
• Which one would you give your teacher if you wanted to get on her good side?
• Which one would you give to your teacher if you didn't like her?
• Which ones would you give to the most intelligent person in the class?
• Which one would you give to the best liked person in the class?
• Is there one to give to a thin person?
• Is there one appropriate for an overweight person?
• Which one would you give to the class "show off?"
• Are there valentines that are appropriate for an athlete?
• Which one would you most likely to give a person with unusual features, (nose, ears, height, etc.)?
• Is there one that is appropriate for an artist or musician?
How would you feel if...
• You received the elephant valentine from several people?
• You got a skunk valentine that was unsigned?
• You received 12 valentines from a class of 26?
A. Pick a valentine that you feel is biased because of the picture and/or the wording. How would you change it to make it less offensive?
B. Design a valentine of your own choosing. See if your partner can guess for what stereotype it is intended.
C. What ideas do you have to make Valentine's Day a happier time for all the class and bring us closer together?
D. Write a paragraph telling valentine manufacturers what you think of their product.