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From Legos to Logos

Tweens and teens today know that displaying more logos than a NASCAR driver can help secure a place at the cool table at lunch. That’s creating growing headaches for educators.

By Cynthia Kopkowski

Walk into middle and high schools these days, and the hallways double as runways. Girls in designer jeans by Seven and Lucky Brand that ring up at $140, topped by Baby Phat and Juicy Couture hooded sweatshirts costing $80 to $120. Guys in North Face and Phat Farm jackets carrying $200 price tags. Even the flip-flops can cost as much as $50 if they come from J. Crew. And that’s just the clothes. Cell phones are ubiquitous, and the $300 Razr is a coveted model. Apple iPods, which cost between $100 and $300, are another thing to have—and have taken away by exasperated educators.

It’s not just out in the O.C., although the television shows named for that particular stretch of California beachfront have something to do with it. Educators across the country say students’ increased focus on clothes, gadgets, cars, and money is evident in their classrooms, and it’s starting to cause problems. “When the fire drill rings, we just can’t go very fast, because they’re worried about leaving all their stuff in here,” jokes Dawn Shephard-Pope, a high school business and marketing teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Kidding aside, deleterious effects on learning and discipline present problems, she says. “Some of these kids are working 25 to 30 hours a week to earn the money for all of these things, and that affects their schoolwork.” Even more troubling is the mindset of students simply handed money and expensive accessories by their parents. “My concern is that they think it’s normal to have a $300 iPod or a $60 a month cell phone bill and have no idea how it gets paid for,” says Mike Flinchbaugh, a high school journalism teacher in Greenville, North Carolina.

In class, commercialism often translates to lack of attention to the task at hand. “The iPods, the MP3s—always plugged in and always entertained is hard to compete with,” says Janet Joseph, a Miamisburg, Ohio, high school teacher. Shephard-Pope sometimes has to reprimand students browsing the county tax Web site during class, looking up the value of friends’ and teachers’ houses.

Dawn Shephard-Pope, a high school teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina, sees a growing influence of brand names and products on her students.

Then there’s the problem of students showing disrespect for the authority figures they regard as out of touch—or worse, pity for being unable to afford the goods they flaunt. There is a growing chasm between students living the high life and the teachers trying to educate them, says Flinchbaugh. “We’ve got an assistant principal who drives a 20-year-old car, and the kids have new cars, and they notice that,” he says.

There’s little mystery about what’s influencing tweens (the much-coveted demographic made up of 8- to 12-year-olds) and teens these days. Peers, movies, music, and the offerings from television networks such as Fox, BET, E! and MTV rule. MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 highlights outrageous teen birthday parties. No less influential is its reality show Laguna Beach, which serves as a type of live-action clothing and lifestyle catalog for tweens and teens nationwide, brought to life by the students at Laguna Beach High School. (More from an NEA member at that school later.)

Think this is an age-old problem just wearing a new set of designer labels? Not so, says James McNeal, a consultant and expert on marketing to kids. While children have always linked their identities to certain brands, in the last decade, “working parents turned over their kids’ ‘gotta haves’ completely and in effect told them, ‘Whatever makes you happy, you can have,’” says McNeal, a former academic who has been researching spending by and on children for decades. That attitude has given rise to a new financial hierarchy in families, with children perched at the top, he says.

Today, children ages 4 to 12 wield power over roughly $300 billion of their parents’ annual spending. Advertisers are pumping the trend, too, spending more than $15 billion annually on youth marketing. It’s affecting an increasingly younger crowd, McNeal says, pointing out that 2-year-olds now recognize brand logos. This past year, teacher Stephanie Johnson of Douglasville, Georgia, noticed girls discussing clothing and labels—in her first-grade classroom.

“Now, kids want their entire world defined by a specific brand,” says Alissa Quart, author of Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. Money and brands have “become a shorthand for them to create an image for themselves.”

Some school districts are taking a stand, requiring uniforms and drafting rigid policies governing the use of cell phones and digital media players. Those that require uniforms tout reduced peer pressure and economic division among students.

Even without such policies in place, educators who’ve gone head-to-head with the fashionistas and gizmo fans advise their peers not to panic if students pay more attention to the latest InStyle than their French Revolution handouts. They suggest turning the commercial craze into teachable moments.

“My concern is that they think it’s normal to have a $300 iPod or a $60 a month cell phone bill and have no idea how it gets paid for.”

Mike Flinchbaugh

Talk with students about creating a budget to reinforce math skills, or use luxury and discount clothing store ad campaigns to illustrate concepts like class stratification. If students are reading The Grapes of Wrath, transition the discussion of Depression-era poverty to the present. In Des Moines, Iowa, high school teacher Stefanie Rosenberg-Cortes confronts the issue directly, talking to her students about the influence of media and marketing.

But take heart. Even at Laguna Beach High—the school turned reality-show set—what the students wear doesn’t eclipse what they’re learning, says theater teacher Mark Dressler. “When we see abject materialism,” he says, “it’s from students in other parts of the country who want to have the kind of fortunate lifestyle that these kids do.”

Finally, laugh a little at the label mania, says Shephard-Pope, who jokingly warns her students that she’ll confiscate their expensive goodies because she can’t afford them herself.

“Ultimately, you can’t let it bother you, because there’s a sense that it’s all a little ridiculous,” she says. “And it’s not going away.”

Illustration: Lisa Henderling, Photo: Jerry Wolford

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