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Originally published March 20, 2012 at 6:44 PM | Page modified March 22, 2012 at 2:28 PM

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Schools debate educational value of 'The Hunger Games'

Administrators at Wallingford's Hamilton International Middle School canceled a sixth-grade class field trip to see the movie because of parent concerns about violence. Other Puget Sound-area schools are also debating how to handle the latest cultural phenomenon.

Seattle Times education reporter

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It's a best-selling book series, billed as a potential heir to the "Twilight" throne of young-adult powerhouses, and its upcoming movie release is attracting worldwide attention.

But is "The Hunger Games" an appropriate educational tool for kids?

That's the question facing families and educators across the United States ahead of the Friday release of the trilogy's first film, which chronicles a government-mandated, reality-TV-style competition that forces two dozen children to kill each other for the entertainment of a bloodthirsty society.

Around here, the debate is playing out at a handful of middle schools, where administrators are hoping to tap into the movie's popularity for educational gain while parents are worried the kids are too young to comprehend its themes.

At Wallingford's Hamilton International Middle, parent complaints led school leaders to quash a scheduled sixth-grade-class field trip to see the film. Principal Christopher Carter initially defended the outing, arguing the movie complemented content areas the kids were studying, but on Saturday he announced the cancellation.

"We have received concern from families and it has become a distraction in our school community," Carter wrote in a letter to parents.

Meanwhile, students at other places — including the small, private Seattle Girls' School — are planning to see the film in groups and then participate in class discussions about issues it brings up, especially related to violence, youth empowerment and government abuse.

The film is rated PG-13, a designation that comes with the warning that "some material may be inappropriate for children under 13."

Although the extent of the gore shown on screen is unclear — pundits have criticized producers for not showing any of the "games" in trailers — the book includes scenes in which teenagers kill other teenagers with arrows, knives and rocks.

The writers believe those scenes are important tools that propel thematic questions about identity, sacrifice, survival and, ironically enough, the decivilizing effect of violence.

Jeanne Brockmyer, a psychologist and professor at the University of Toledo, said the educational benefit of controversial books and movies depends on how they are used in the classroom. Research indicates that a discussion of the consequences of violence is the most effective avenue, she said.

In the case of "The Hunger Games" here in the Puget Sound area, schools and parents have been debating the books since the first one came out in 2008.

While the series is popular across the country — it currently occupies the top spot on The New York Times list of best-selling children's series — it has an especially strong following in this area; Seattle ranked No. 4 on a recently released list of the top "Hunger Games" book-purchasing cities on a per-capita basis.

Kelly Hambleton, a teacher at Seattle's Career Link High School, said she teaches the book to her sophomore English class. And Jessica Burns of the Soundview School, a private K-8 in Lynnwood, said the method of selecting participants in the games is used to illustrate statistics lessons. Both said using the book helps engage students who wouldn't otherwise be interested in the material.

But Ryan Gollhofer, the father of a Stanwood Elementary fifth-grader reading the book in class, said he's not sure it's appropriate.

At the Seattle Girls' School, which Head of School Rafael del Castillo says has been overrun by "Hunger Games mania," administrators are conscious of concerns. But in a world of increasing violence in mainstream pop culture, they decided to support an eighth-grade trip to see the movie because of the possibility for a teaching moment.

"I was talking to one dad the other day and he said, 'You know what, the premise, the plot, it's horrible, it's very dark, it's disturbing,' " Castillo said. "But I think a very healthy approach nowadays is to not shield the girls from the media but to talk about it because clearly there's something in there that speaks to them."

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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