A controversy over crayons broke out at some Fayette County high schools last week, but Superintendent Stu Silberman says it's really a misunderstanding.
It began midweek at Bryan Station High School, where a student said dozens of his classmates began wearing homemade necklaces made from crayons tied on a length of cord or ribbon. Students said they donned the neckwear to show their displeasure over an alleged directive from Silberman to "ban" crayons from high school classrooms.
Although Bryan Station officials say fewer than 10 students were wearing the crayon necklaces, some students at Henry Clay High School said they joined in by Friday and were wearing crayons around their necks too.
Silberman said he did tell Bryan Station administrators during a meeting about two weeks ago that he did not want students to be coloring in classrooms.
Silberman said it all apparently started after he discussed academic achievement with the school's leadership team and department heads.
"This really wasn't about crayons, it was about rigor," he said in an interview.
Silberman said he told the group that classroom time should be used as productively as possible, which should not include students spending time coloring graphs, posters or similar types of assignments.
"Instructional time is precious, and using it for coloring is not the kind of challenging experience I expect our kids to have at the high school level," he said. "I sent out a pretty clear message that I don't expect students to be spending their time coloring in high school."
Silberman stressed that he was speaking mainly in "symbolic" terms at the meeting, and that his real message was a need for greater academic rigor.
"No one in the meeting disagreed with that," he said. "None of the teachers said, 'Oh, we're going to have to stop coloring.' Everyone understood it was about rigor."
But William Waun, a Bryan Station senior and one of the protest leaders, gave a differing account of how the protest got started.
"What I heard was that Stu Silberman and the director of high schools were doing a walk-through at Bryan Station and saw a social sciences class where students were using crayons and markers to make a poster representing something they were learning about," Waun said. "They (Silberman's group) thought the learning level was too low and they wanted to get rid of it, because they thought it would take away from us achieving higher test scores."
County schools spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said Silberman was not present on such a walk-through. She also said Silberman has been stressing academic rigor at all of the system's high schools, not just Bryan Station.
Waun contended that any move to eliminate coloring could hurt students who are "visual learners."
"Most activities are not like a coloring book anyway," he said. "In social studies, a teacher might ask you to make a poster about propaganda in World War II. What better way to understand propaganda than to make a poster that represents it?"
Waun said his friend, Bryan Station senior Kelsey Truman, came up with the idea for a protest and other students quickly joined in. (Kelsey's mother, Cheryl Truman, is a reporter at the Herald-Leader.)
Justin Simpao, a senior at Henry Clay, said he later learned about the protest from Waun and then made some crayon necklaces himself. He said he passed out about 40 to Henry Clay students on Friday.
By week's end, the crayon cause had moved to the Internet, with a group titled "Protest Against the Ban on Coloring" on Facebook, the popular Internet social networking site. More than 180 individuals had joined the group.
Silberman said no disciplinary actions are planned against protesters.
"I guess students have taken from this that they can't bring crayons to school," he said. "Kids can bring crayons; that's up to them."