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A little dragon ignites a blaze in local school

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Pumsy the dragon is not having a good day at the beach.

While her friends are splashing in the surf, having picnics and playing, Pumsy is sitting under a tree and feeling sorry for herself.

Usually, Pumsy's friend Steven would step in and let her know that she needs to adopt a new attitude. In Pumsy-speak, that means she should leave her "mud mind" behind and adopt a "clear mind."

But this day, Pumsy's friend decides Pumsy should figure out what to do for herself. Is that the right thing to do? the instructor would ask a group of students at this point in the Pumsy story.

The children generally will say, "Yes, she has to do it for herself."

The lesson is designed to show children they can make decisions for themselves and make plans to accomplish positive outcomes.

But not everyone agrees Pumsy is a credible teacher. In fact, a grass-roots citizens group called Concerned Parents of Citrus County has formed to fight such a curriculum in Citrus schools. (See related story)

The group's immediate agenda is to prohibit any program that uses relaxation techniques, hypnosis, guided imagery, meditation or yoga. Those are part of a longer list of concerns including many self-esteem-building programs, drug education, sex education, gifted education, educational reforms and outcome-based education programs such as unconventional grading scales.

Leaders in a national movement with similar aims say Pumsy and related programs promote a religion known as New Age.

Pumsy's friend Steven is nothing more than a spirit guide, they say. Imagination exercises outlined in an old form of the program in use in some schools is an indoctrination to meditation and hypnosis.

Most damaging, the critics say, is that Pumsy encourages children that if it feels good, do it _ that they need to pay no attention to authority figures, including their parents and God.

Concerned Parents last week invited Craig Branch, co-author of Thieves of Innocence and psychiatrist George Twente _ two nationally known critics of New Age techniques _ to Citrus County to address nearly 400 people at the Beverly Hills Auditorium.

Several Citrus educators attended the session, but chose not to defend their curriculum in that forum.

In interviews last week, however, they expressed surprise and frustration over the objections they're hearing.

The most controversial portions of the programs that Branch, Twente and Concerned Parented have targeted are not being used in the Citrus schools, they say. Neither Pumsy nor another program known as DUSO harms children or makes them turn away from authority figures, they add.

Despite assurances from the critics that they don't oppose teachers or school administrators, some Citrus educators say the heart of the argument is an assault on their credibility.

"They're attacking the very thing that we do," said Virginia Weiss, guidance counselor at Hernando Elementary School. "They're acting as if we're all evil here and we're not.

"We are professionals also. We're church-going people. We're not going to do anything that we thought would hurt children. We're just looking for a curriculum and a way to teach kids to do the right thing."

Hypnosis or imagination?

In Citrus County, Pumsy (In Pursuit of Excellence) and DUSO (Developing Understanding of Self and Others) have been around for at least a decade.

Some schools use one or both. Sometimes they are used in the classroom, sometimes in small group-counseling sessions. No Citrus counselor contacted said he or she uses the entire program.

Each of the programs features a friendly character who gets into a variety of situations that parallel circumstances children might encounter.

The lessons, which are geared for elementary school-aged children, deal with such topics as responsibility, friendship, decisions and conflicts.

In recent weeks, the programs have created conflict of their own.

In an old version of the Pumsy program and in DUSO, portions of the curriculum suggest that teachers and counselors use a procedure for "painting mental pictures."

Branch and others say the instructions describe a way to hypnotize children. Using such altered mental states, they say, is part of New Age religious beliefs.

Citrus elementary school guidance counselors dispute that.

None contacted last week say they use the guided imagery activity. Georgiann Lanier, guidance counselor at Citrus Springs Elementary School, uses play acting instead.

"I taught second grade for eight years and I pretty much know what second-grade children are going to giggle and laugh at," she said. "When you ask children in second grade to close their eyes, they giggle and get silly."

Weiss said that when she has used the stories from the programs in the past, they were merely a tool to begin discussion.

"There is some guided imagery in them . . . but guided imagery is not hypnosis," Weiss said. "To say, "Close your eyes and imagine for a minute that you're in such and such a place,' it's not hypnosis . . .

"They're not out cold. We're not in their subconscious. It can be done for creative writing exercises, too."

Richard Hilgert, guidance counselor at Rock Crusher Elementary School, said he does not use guided imagery in his program although he does ask children to imagine situations. "I don't tell them to close their eyes," he said.

If asking children to use their imagination is bad, "then what about Walt Disney films? What about the fables that we learned as a child?"

DUSO with its dolphin character is a regular part of the program for Paul Brundage, guidance counselor at Lecanto Primary School.

After he reads the story that goes with each lesson, he can choose an activity from the list provided or he can create his own activity.

"I don't use (guided imagery) because it doesn't fit. I like to have activities that kids act through. I'd rather have them doing things with paper or clay," he said.

"I'm concerned that people think that (guided imagery) is hypnosis in some way, which it truly isn't. They're concerned that it's some kind of altered state. They're reading an awful lot into it."

Gail Grimm, guidance counselor at Floral City Elementary School, also has rejected the guided imagery portion of the programs. "It just didn't fit in," she said. "There are so many good methods to use that that would be on the bottom of my list."

Independent thinking versus authority

In both Pumsy and DUSO, a common theme is that the main character can change his or her outlook by using positive thinking.

Opponents say those lessons teach children to do what feels good regardless of what other authorities such as the law, parents, teachers or religious training may say.

That philosophy comes straight from New Age religion, they argue.

Citrus educators say their lessons are full of references to respect traditional authority figures.

"It's a secular program. It isn't religion at all," Weiss said. "It's based on sound counseling theory _ that you have a right to choose how to behave.

"The whole point of developmental guidance is to do some preventive things," Weiss said. "Many of these parents . . . do not want their kids to become independent thinkers."

When the Pumsy program talks about "mud thoughts," one example could be a child who gets a bad grade and feels bad about it, she said. Those thoughts are not constructive.

Pumsy teaches that, rather than making yourself unhappy, use the situation to so something positive such as studying harder next time.

Lanier at Citrus Springs points to one Pumsy lesson in particular when she hears the argument that the program promotes the idea that simply feeling good is enough for children to strive for.

In that lesson, Pumsy feels so good about herself because she has such a clear mind that she doesn't bother to study for a test and earns an F. "Then we discuss that self-esteem is important, but, if you don't do the routine hard work, then it's not going to get done," Lanier said.

Doris McKinlay, guidance counselor at Pleasant Grove, said some parents have taken portions of the program out of context, such as the belief that the curriculum will teach children to oppose authority figures.

"That's where they're taking a thought and stretching it too far," she said. "It's preparing them for peer pressure. . . . We're trying to teach them to stand up for themselves . . . but not by saying no to your parents or saying no to your teachers."

The program does not teach children to say no to their personal faith, local educators said.

Guidance counselors get only a short period of time in each classroom. "In 45 minutes once a month I'm not going to be able to teach them to not believe in their religion," Hilgert said.

Brundage agreed.

"I only get five hours of instruction and I'm not sure that it's having much of an effect at all, unfortunately," he said. "Hopefully it's teaching kids some sense of their responsibility toward themselves and others and some sense of social responsibility."

"It's a misunderstanding that the position is that whatever feels good to the person is right," said Julianne Keiper, Inverness Primary guidance counselor.

Keiper doesn't see any problem with a child being told that he or she is good and repeating that concept _ even though critics object to repetitive comments, saying they are teaching children to chant.

"I can't take (the lesson to the) next step and say that I get that feeling from God because it's a public school, but I believe in God," she said.

"We teach good, universal principles. Just because we aren't able to say that this comes from God doesn't mean that it's bad. That's where the parent needs to step in" to complete the child's education, Keiper said.

Self-esteem or academic achievement

Critics say the time each year that guidance counselors and teachers use self-esteem programs would be better used on the educational basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Build self-esteem, they say, by allowing children to do well academically.

That argument, more than nearly every other, raises the hackles of local educators who must struggle to teach today's children.

"We're not here just to teach academics. We're here to teach the whole child," Weiss said. "A kid who doesn't feel good about himself isn't going to do very well" in the academic areas.

Keiper, of Inverness Primary School, said that, even though she doesn't use Pumsy or DUSO, she worries about what will be lost if programs are pulled for the reasons she's heard from critics.

"I don't think they realize the magnitude of kids who come to school with all kinds of problems," Keiper said. "They're really depriving these kids."

"I've just seen some wonderful things come from" the self-esteem programs.

Academics is not enough for the modern child, according to McKinlay, who has been in education for 29 years.

"These kids nowadays come to school with so much baggage . . . and we have to get these kids back on track. Part of my job is to get these kids to become more effective learners," she said.

McKinlay said she also doesn't buy the critics' argument that only troubled children should be sent through self-esteem curriculum.

"That's not true. . . . Those children affect every other child in a class," she said. "You have to give them the coping skills ahead of time."

Keiper, too, disagrees that the kinds of skills taught by guidance counselors should be used only by troubled children. The very conditions that troubled children bring to school mean that all students need to learn how to deal with problems they might encounter.

"They (the critics) are speaking for their kids who are loved and nurtured and taught values at home. But that's not all kids. Some don't get any of that at home, and it's not fair for us to let them go by the wayside," Keiper said.

"If I could log the horror stories I hear in one week's time, maybe these people would realize how crucial this is."

What next?

Because of their questions about the school curriculum, the Concerned Parents group is circulating a petition asking the School Board to pull activities the group finds objectionable.

School officials say that would have little effect since hypnosis, yoga, meditation or guided imagery are not being used. The School Board will hear from the parents' group at its next meeting, March 22.

The experts who spoke Thursday night recommended that the group push for a policy statement from the School Board prohibiting any form of programs that might have New Age roots.

Educators say they're not worried about those changes; they do worry that those changes seem to indicate that parents don't trust them.

Hilgert said the schools are not trying to hide anything. School materials are open to the public , and the principal regularly visits classrooms to watch what is happening.

"So far, no one has been hypnotized or possessed," he said. If parents are that concerned about what their children are exposed to, "let's compare Pumsy to what kids watch on TV."

McKinlay agrees it "comes right down to trust."

As parents have asked to review the material at Pleasant Grove, McKinlay said she's gotten three different reactions. Some parents have watched the material and see nothing wrong. Others see nothing wrong but ask for their child to be withdrawn anyway because their church says the material is bad. Others have simply refused to look at the materials and pulled their children out anyway.

McKinlay said several parents have said they have been warned by their ministers that if they let their children stay in the program they would go to hell.

Concerned Parents has suggested an alternative curriculum known as Character Education, which teaches such ideas as loyalty, patriotism and generosity.

"It has some good material, but if we use this, I would not use it in its entirety," McKinlay said. She echoed comments from all the counselors contacted, who say they use the portions of various programs depending on what works for them and their students.

McKinlay said she was willing to consider any curriculum that would address the needs of the students, "but it has to be better, there must be no religion in it, and it can't be cost-prohibitive."

McKinlay said her real fear is the group's next step.

"We're just a minor part of their agenda. It's the Christian Coalition trying to get people riled up and get them enrolled for the Christian Coalition and from there head into censorship," she said.

"This is just getting their foot in the door."