Bringing out the best in kids
Photo by Douglas Foulke
Scotts Ridge Middle School principal Tim Salem uses a picture of Kelly Yeomans, a 13-year-old British schoolgirl who committed suicide after being harassed by classmates over a period of weeks, to show people how quickly, harshly, and wrongly teens can judge their peers. He also shows how empathetic and open these same teens could be when hearing descriptions of Yeomans’s cheerful personality, intellect, and volunteer work.
Salem’s belief in the power to bring out the best in kids goes back almost 20 years to his days as a history teacher at Danbury High School. While trying to lead a new course in multicultural issues, he realized that the climate of the class was an obstacle to substantive discussion about difference. He hadn’t created a climate of trust. Salem re-wrote the curriculum to focus on teens and how they interact. The resulting class started students talking about issues of prejudice, injustice, stereotyping, and hate, and thinking about each other. Salem says, “It pulled back the curtain to challenge how they looked at each other and why.”
That one class grew to 17 other sections, and was Salem’s legacy when he took the job at Scotts Ridge. Since then, Salem has received numerous awards for his multicultural issues curriculum but the best reward is his students returning after graduation to tell him what a life-changing impact the class had.
Salem came to believe that schools across the country suffered from the same low morale and poor climate. And that he could do something to turn that apathy into empathy on a larger scale if he could bring his time-tested and student-focused curriculum to a wider audience. He thought if parents, students, and educators could see the transformative power of this class in a documentary film that the curriculum could start a movement to improve school climates nationwide.
Salem had already made an award-winning film with his students but the logistical challenges and privacy issues of having cameras in the classroom had him stymied. One morning in 2012, he woke up and turned to his wife and said, “I think I can do this in a different way. What if I write a screenplay?” Salem got to work, reading Paul Hegas’s Crash and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky for inspiration and form.
He finished the script for Put It Into Words—a dramatic feature film set at the fictional Fairfield County High School, which tells the story of popular student, athlete Ty Williams and the multicultural issues teacher Ms. Laws who challenges him to think how he and his friends contribute to the damaging social climate at his school.
The lead character has to confront issues of class, parental pressure, privilege, fairness, difference, suicide, and bullying, which would be resonant with high-school students in Ridgefield and across the country.
Put It Into Words has the backing of Ridgefield-based Hollywood producer Jeffrey Wetzel, whose film credits include Annie and The Hangover. It has the support of community leaders, like Bill Snellings and Carol Muhlstedt, of Project Resilience.
Together, teachers, filmmakers, community leaders, parents, and students form the organization Put It Into Words (PIIW), which dreams of constructing healthier school environments. PIIW is eager to enlist corporations like Pepsi to help them spread the word.
Carol Muhlstedt’s work for Project Resilience started in 2011 when school administrators asked to meet with her because their guidance offices were overwhelmed with anxious students. She says Salem helps kids to “be the change they want to see in the world.” Muhlstedt likens her hopes for PIIW to the ALS Bucket Challenge, which hit the Internet with such force last summer.
Salem is confident PIIW can challenge kids and their parents to be more accepting, tolerant, and empathetic. He believes his film is a starting place for a wider national conversation on how we can forge school climates where all kids can flourish. Now he just needs to make it happen.
Tim Salem’s top 3 movies for teens
››The Breakfast Club
In this cult classic, five total strangers break the unwritten rules of high school and find ways to relate to one another while trapped in Saturday detention.
››Dead Poets Society
A quirky, yet passionate English professor at a conservative all-boys boarding school turns the rigid curriculum upside down, inspiring his students to make their lives extraordinary.
››The Way, Way Back
Due to his shy demeanor, 14-year-old Duncan has had a hard time fitting in at school. Eventually, Duncan finds friends in surprising places.