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What Can Dr. Seuss Teach Us About Staff Division?
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 03/23/2015

Books stack The following is an installment in "The Bouchard 101", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

What sort of trainer would use a children’s book to teach a lesson? Is it possible to break the ice, establish trust, and impart a lesson while talking in rhymes? It may sound strange, but I have facilitated excellent classroom discussions and shattered tons of ice by reading Dr. Seuss books to adults.

Think back to your most eccentric, unusual teacher. Chances are that you may have a few to select from. You may remember that the individual had strange mannerisms, an interesting mode of speech, or other uncommon characteristics.

The instructor may also have been unusual in delivery of material. Unorthodox ways of instilling a lesson stick in your mind, whether you realize it or not. Sometimes the best lessons are given in an uncommon way. This is especially true when adult topics are covered by using children’s literature.

Dr. Seuss is an icon of American literature. Though he started his career as a political cartoonist around World War II, Dr. Seuss is best known for his odd rhyming children’s stories with simple, yet endearing illustrations. Just below the surface, though, is the message. Dr. Seuss wrote of human truisms and placed them in a strange wrapping.

Most Seuss books have a simple, yet strong lesson. For example, “Green Eggs and Ham” is really the story of a person resistant to change. “The Lorax” is a tale of wise use of resources. “Horton Hears a Who” depicts someone who remains true to a concept despite universal opposition.

How can this be applied to Corrections? Let’s suppose that you are training a class on recognizing and repairing staff division. Further imagine that you will deal with the horrible specter of cliques and their ill effects. The book that you need is called “The Sneeches”.

“The Sneeches” is a story about a group of beings who happen to have a star shape on their abdomens. They bear an elitist attitude over the sneeches without stars on their bellies. Those without stars have a deep inferiority complex when they look at those with stars. Enter the antagonist. A hustler-type comes into the story as a salesperson who can affix stars to sneeches who have no stars. This is done for a price, of course. When the elite group is faced with a level playing field, the antagonist presents a star-off machine. The elite group, eager to remain in primacy, opts for the new fad of distinction. This causes pandemonium in the sneech society and nets a big profit for the persuasive vendor. The con artist is always one step ahead of the cliques, anticipating their needs.

Does this sound like group-think in an institution? Isn’t this all about manipulation that can lead to division?

If you have read this far, you are interested in knowing how this works. I have found it helpful to start with a pseudo-serious tone and with a suspenseful build-up for the students. For example:

“Welcome to recognizing and repairing staff division. We will jump right into the lesson by looking at cliques in corrections. I performed a literature search and found the perfect book which describes the phenomenon. It is a classic work and was written by a prolific author. This person, I assume, is a PhD, as his name bears the title ‘Dr.’. He has sold millions of books, both here and abroad, and is translated into many languages. His work has touched generations and influenced many to write in his genre. His name is Dr. Seuss.”

The book must be hidden when delivering this pompous introduction. In my experience, when it is revealed, the surprise is pleasant. Now the instructor reads the story in a loud, clear voice. Have fun with the story. Become overly demonstrative. Hold the book up high so all can see the pictures. This helps draw the audience into the story. Humor can shine through the reading of “The Sneeches”. I have never yet had an audience that was not entertained by the story.

After you have read the story, ask some questions of the audience. This is the chance for the lesson to be driven home. This is when ideas of group-think are explored. Other topics can be covered such as how prisoners manipulate staff (as the antagonist did in the story) and how group vanity leaves us exposed to handling. Here is a list of discussion questions:
  1. Without naming names, have you ever witnessed elitist cliques in the workplace?
  2. Do prisoners see when we do not get along?
  3. Do some prisoners play staff against one another, like the antagonist did in the story?
  4. What are the motivations of manipulators?
  5. Why do people need to belong to cliques?
Here is a list of Dos:
  • Have fun while reading. Gesticulate, show pictures, exaggerate your voice.
  • Acquire your own copy of the book. It is a good idea at the end of the icebreaker to pass the book around for the class to sign. This not only offers the fun of writing in a book, but it is also a snapshot of participants. Additionally, you may net some useful comments from participants.
  • Do encourage stories of parents reading Seuss books. This ties the lesson into a personal memory.
  • Do solicit any other Seuss preferences. They may even be offered without your asking.
  • Do ask if those with children or nieces and nephews have read these.
  • Do encourage students to think of underlying messages planted by authors.
  • Do remain serious about the meaning within the story. The format may be whimsical, but the message is ultimately solemn.
  • Use the marker board for discussion comments.
Here is a list of Do Nots:
  • Do not lose composure if someone walks out of your story time. Once (and only once, so far), while reading “The Sneeches”, someone walked into the presentation late, and walked out directly. By missing a proper introduction, someone could mistake the seminar on staff division as a meeting of children’s librarians.
  • While it is a good idea to put on a show, do not condescend. A good trainer knows how to engage in self-deprecation in order to drive a point home without belittling the audience.
  • Don’t worry if you stammer. Seuss is not easy read aloud, at times.
  • This is not for everyone to use as a training tool. Some instructors are naturally dignified, and refuse to utilize useful lessons found in this format.
Everyone benefits from this. The audience is given a whimsical icebreaker that segues into the nature of cliques. And the lesson sticks, as it is delivered in an unorthodox way. The trainer also benefits by exercising an option that is a break from the usual reading from a manual. Time off from the normal can help recharge vocational batteries.

I honestly state that this is a fun and effective icebreaker. I have performed it in many places for different levels of custody. I have even rendered this to occupational groups outside of correction. I was even amazed to find that a group of serious psychology students found it memorable, entertaining, and useful.

So, in honor of Dr. Seuss, an American legend, I encourage you to give this icebreaker a try. I guarantee that you will never look at what appears to be simple literature in the same way.

Joe Bouchard is a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections and a collaborator with The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). He is also the author of “IACTP’s Corrections Icebreakers: The Bouchard 101, 2014”. The installments in this series include his opinions. The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency. While some material is influenced by other works, all of the icebreakers have been developed by Joe Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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