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The Moral Classroom continued

 




While giving a reading at the Penn Bookstore, Goodman and Lesnick shed their personas as university professors and assume the identities of three characters in The Moral Stake in Education: One is a new fourth-grade teacher named Maria Laszlo, played by Goodman. The second is Tony, a recalcitrant student in her class, played by Lesnick. And the third, Hardie Knox—also played by Lesnick—is a teaching colleague with a stricter disciplinary style. The two teachers, who appear throughout the book, represent some of the central differences of opinion within moral education. For Maria, it’s more important that her students reflect on what is right and wrong rather than become “blind rule-followers.” Hardie believes just as strongly that “conduct is central, motive incidental,” and that students must learn to exercise self-control before they can become “skilled moral analysts.”
    Baseball cap turned backwards on his head, Tony emits a series of burping sounds. Sensing that the student is struggling to fit into his peer group, Maria at first tries to ignore the distractions. They continue. Suddenly, Maria hears giggling in the classroom and discovers that he had put powder on her chair, so when she sat down, her behind was totally covered in white. Enraged, she grabs Tony and forces him down on the same powder-covered seat. She then orders him to stay inside during recess and clean up the mess. When his classmates are outside, Maria says to him, “I bet you thought of how the other kids would laugh. Did you think of how it might really upset me?”
    “No, I didn’t think of that,” Tony mumbles.
    After recess Maria launches into a class discussion, using a domestic scenario to get students to consider their own culpability when they encourage a classmate who is causing trouble.
    In the next scene, Hardie commiserates with Maria about her stressful day. “Your punishment of Tony was entirely appropriate,” her colleague assures her. “Your mistake was in not cracking down sooner.”
    Maria contends that a bit of unruliness is not “a very high price to pay for the opportunity to work out social and moral issues collectively. Wouldn’t it have been great if the kids had turned Tony’s antics off—better yet if they had figured out a way to include him as a peer so he didn’t have to resort to clowning? Instead I forced obedience by shaming him.”
    Hardie, on the other hand, insists that “Children acquire virtues by experiencing rightful conduct. That means living in an ordered classroom with reasonable rules, regularly enforced.”
    Goodman identifies with both teachers. Lesnick personally finds himself the most critical of Hardie, but admits that both Maria and Hardie care deeply about children. “In a sense,” he says, “they’re both equally good and equally ineffective.” Should teachers insist on students’ compliance with conventional rules? Or should they concern themselves more with the process of moral
decision-making? The authors don’t suggest there are simple answers, but warn that schools that demand obedience to lists of virtues are but scratching the surface of morality. Goodman says she doesn’t even care for the popular term “character education,” because it’s associated with “the acquisition of virtues” and has a “clubby” connotation.

    The Internet abounds with Web sites advertising the latest character-education curriculums. One of them, as a teaching device, likens specific body parts such as the mouth and the stomach with desirable character traits like integrity and perseverance. Another sells colorful buttons and stickers to reward and publicize students’ virtuous deeds. A third promotes a plan to reduce cussing. Even state legislatures have gotten into the act of promoting character: Louisiana adopted a “Respect Bill” last year, requiring students to address their teachers with the words sir and ma’am.
    Such programs, warns Goodman, are “shallow” and have “an underbelly of being dangerous. What do you mean by respectful? It can be doing what you’re told, minding authority, never questioning. I don’t think you should always question authority, but to be a moral person means to take issue, to resist as well as to conform.
    “That’s another thing I don’t like about the virtues,” she says. “They’re devoid of context. And moral behavior to me has a lot to do with where do you find yourself, what are the trade-offs here, what are the value conflicts?
    “Moral education to me,” she adds, “is helping kids to develop a moral identity that competes with all of their other identities so the lives they lead will not just be ‘What can I do to make the most money, to have the most power, to have the most prestige?’ it will also be ‘What can I do that will be most morally significant or most morally right?’”
    There is no need for a separate “morality class” to raise these issues, Goodman says. In some cases they might be broached through participation in meaningful service-learning projects. (Philadelphia schools are testing one such program.) Or they could even be introduced through the literature students read or the science curriculum.
    Though he identifies moral education as “critically important,” Lesnick says he’s “much less sanguine” than the characters in their book “about the possibility of doing anything constructive in the classroom. I think the problems of public schools are created outside the schools in our broader society.” Schools striving to teach moral education “have to make sure they don’t compound [those problems] by transmitting the same, success-oriented, ends-justifies-the-means values,” Lesnick says. Yet that’s what happens so often, he notes, when schools take time out from education to prepare students for standardized tests in an attempt to generate higher scores that will make them look good.
    Crusader that she is, Goodman admits that creating a meaningful moral-education program, even in a cooperative environment, is a challenge. “At its best, it’s really tough going.”

 

Dr. Audrey Jarmas, a clinical psychologist, stood on the playground at Merion Elementary School a couple of years ago and watched in amazement as 100 first-graders, including her own son, tried to fend for themselves. It was a disturbing scene, full of exclusion, bullying, intimidation and name-calling.
    “I was really quite stunned,” she says. “It became clear to me that whatever we try at home to teach children has to be put into play when they’re in social situations.” Without reinforcement from adults, “it’s very hard for six-year-olds to maintain anything they’ve learned in the face of 100 peers. There’s a kid culture and they’re all scrambling because none of them knows the rules.”
    She decided to get involved in a lunch-recess committee at school and became co-chair of that group with another mother, Joyce Krajian, who is a Presbyterian minister. They began talking with the school principal, Anne Heffron, about their desire to develop a “a schoolwide approach to helping kids develop socially and emotionally,” as well as a parent-education series, Krajian recalls.
    “We felt strongly that we didn’t want to run some kind of kindness campaign,” Jarmas says. They found pre-packaged programs being shopped around their school district to be too narrow and “top-down” for their school’s needs. So with support from the principal and superintendent, they formed a small group of parents and teachers to create their own program. Krajian lined up speakers for the parent-education series and contacted Joan Goodman, who shared her own goals for moral development in public education. “She said to me, ‘I have a dream of working with a school to make this happen,’ and I said, ‘I know just the school.’”
    Goodman has been helping teachers and parents at Merion Elementary for more than a year. They’ve been talking, among other things, about how to expand “circle time,” traditionally a sharing, show-and-tell hour at the school, to include discussion of moral issues. Another idea is to get more student participation in school service projects, which typically have drawn on the time and resources of parents.
    Goodman applauds the school’s motivation to create a moral-education program from scratch. “It’s all been a very interesting and delicate process,” she observes. The teachers and parents are “in somewhat different places. The parents have a long-term perspective and they very much want to see their children develop a moral core or moral identity, becoming self-regulated people.” On the other hand, she says, “The teachers have a short time with the kids” and many expectations to fulfill each school day. “They are much more concerned about control, order and preventing rowdiness, aggression, bullying. It’s natural from where they sit.”


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