The Moral Classroom continued


Suppose Johnny and Bobby are engaged in a shoving match on the playground. Convention says the teacher should step in immediately and break it up. Media reports of tragedies such as Columbine reinforce the idea that early intervention is essential to prevent low-grade violence from escalating to serious injury, or worse.
    Not so fast, say Goodman and Lesnick.
    “I would stretch a guess that there has never been a first-grade or eighth-grade classroom without some bullying,” says Lesnick. “And the idea that it has got to be stopped [by school authorities] is just childish. There’s bullying in most workplaces.”
    Lesnick likened schools’ obsessions with violence-prevention to his and his wife’s attempt to ban “war toys” in their household when his son was growing up. “We thought we’d draw the line between intergalactic weapons, which would be okay because that’s such fantasy, and guns like the cowboys used,” he explains. “Then one day my son took a piece of white bread, untoasted. He cut one square out of one corner and held the short piece like the butt of a gun. He went bang bang bang! So, now we’re not going to buy bread?
    “There’s a certain amount of aggression which is inevitable and okay, and there’s a certain amount of aggression which is somewhat inevitable and not too okay, and there’s a certain amount of aggression which should be responded to,” Lesnick says.
    “If there is a kid who is shy or small and not good at fighting, and he is getting victimized, you should grab that guy who’s roughhousing with him, but if two other kids are roughhousing and they’re perfectly able to do it, [you] should leave them alone.”
    Goodman says schools shouldn’t try to silence the kid who thinks “might makes right. There is merit to that, and cultures and subcultures believe it. Our judicial system believes it: a victim has rights to get even, to punish, and who’s to say ‘No, that’s out; that’s not part of the debate.’ That all sense of retribution is evil? To me, that’s selling children short. They don’t need to be as repressed and rule-driven as we think.
    “I’m not talking about a big fight,” she hastens to add. “I’m talking about turning your head a bit if there’s a little pushing and shoving, or talking to the kids about it before you immediately clamp down on them, and finding out what they feel about the fighting.”
    Lesnick and Goodman also believe schools are misguided in their attempts to force inclusion rather than letting students work out problems with each other. Though she sees opportunities for sensitizing students to the consequences of their exclusionary behavior, Goodman says, “I think people have to experience being picked on. It’s a part of life. I’m against that notion that ‘you can’t say you can’t play.’”
    Another trap that schools fall into, they believe is “values lumping”—assigning moral heft to rules of convention, such as “no running in the halls,” “no chewing gum,” and “no talking out of turn.” It’s reasonable to set and enforce such rules, they say, but schools shouldn’t mistake them for moral education. “You can talk very politely to people and be a rat,” Goodman observes. In the Values and Education class, for instance, Goodman teaches her graduate students to understand that from the perspective of some subcultures, talking out of turn may not be a sign of disrespect. Teachers need to ask themselves, “Is it necessarily bad to have this buzz in these classrooms?” Then there needs to be some negotiation between the teacher and students on these issues, Goodman says, “because if you don’t get student commitment and involvement, you haven’t accomplished much.”


Two inspirational sculptures, an upstretched hand and an open book, rise up on columns at the foot of the steps to University City High School. Inside the building hangs a banner that proclaims, “No place for hate.” To read those words, one must walk through a metal detector and pass bags through an x-ray machine. A cell phone tucked inside a visitor’s purse causes suspicion. As he examines it, the security guard explains politely that some of the guns made today look like cell phones.
    Lesnick argues that strict security measures adopted by many urban and suburban school systems treat students like criminals and encourage them “to think the world really is a dangerous place and you have to be constantly looking over your shoulder. In that environment,” he asks, “how can you teach respect and responsibility?”
    Tricia Bagamasbad, the student teacher, is trying to do just that. This afternoon she is telling her fourth-period English class that many of them are not doing well this grading period because of incomplete assignments. She wants their input on how to change and enforce the homework policy so students will become more conscientious about making up work. This issue seems to fire them up—most of them, that is, except a boy who has disappeared into the quilted armor of a navy ski jacket, pulled up over his head and shoulders.
    “You should give them two days” to make up work, one girl insists. “If they don’t come back, then say, ‘Oh well, give them a zero.’”
    “We’ve got all this work [to make up] for our other classes!” another protests. “How are we going to catch up?”
    One student suggests following the practice used in her math class, where the teacher hands out an assignment sheet for the whole week on Monday.
    “Explain why you like it,” Bagamasbad says.
    “Because [even if absent] you can’t say you missed anything, because you had your worksheet.”
    “I like the way we do it now.”
    “They’re too lazy to do the work.”
    The boy in the jacket falls off his chair onto the floor, pretends to look dazed, and picks himself up. Bagamasbad says she needs to see his face and gives him an opportunity to go the nurse if he’s not feeling well.
    The class decides that students should be given a week to make up their assignments before they start getting points taken off their grades. “And then,” the teacher asks, “is there a time when we can’t get credit anymore?”
    “Yeah, after that second week.”
    “Now can I have a volunteer to write up the homework plan that we just talked about?”
    At first this exchange may seem to have little to do with moral education. But Bagamasbad, who took Goodman’s Values and Education class last fall, is trying through gradual steps to encourage responsibility and give her own students a taste of democratic decision-making. Moral education is also imbedded in the respect she shows them. “Making them respect you as a teacher and someone who’s on their side, who cares about them, that’s a prerequisite before you can do anything in moral ed,” she says.
    Collectively the students may sound boisterous, but individually, some of them seem to get the point of the class meetings. Lakeeta praises her teacher, known as “Ms. B.,” for seeking input on the homework policy. “That’s a good thing. If more teachers did that, more kids would be doing their homework.”
    Aaliyah says students do complain about the school but she believes they can do more. “We can change the way the [security guards] look at us. All we’ve got to do is show respect and they’ll respect us back. We can change the way the school looks. Like walking around and picking up trash here and there. The kids could also do their part by trying to understand and not always giving up or just saying they don’t care. We need to treat the teachers with respect.”
    Bagamasbad says it’s challenging to work with adolescents on moral education “because they come to the school with pre-set values that they hold and believe, and they’re already hardened against schools.” Getting the students to trust one another is one of the biggest struggles, as was evidenced by a discussion on the possibility of assigning class monitors to take turns keeping track of misbehavior.
    “They were intrigued by it,” Bagamasbad says, “but when it came down to it, they said it wouldn’t work because people don’t respect each other in the class. They think the monitors would be corrupt and would report on someone just because they don’t like them.”
    So she is trying to slowly remove the barriers and get the students to assume responsibility for improving their school experience: taking turns marking the attendance book, organizing a class trip, creating a “moral code” for the class, and coming up with constructive solutions to gripes about the school, with the possibility of presenting their ideas to an administrator. To demonstrate how they appear when they’re making outbursts or withdrawing under their ski jackets, Bagamasbad plans to videotape them one day—with their knowledge—and play back the tape during a class meeting.
    One thing she won’t do is throw a student out of her classroom. “It’s really against everything I believe in as a teacher,” she explains. “I believe that every student, no matter how they’re acting up, wants to be in the class or they wouldn’t have come to the class in the first place.” Bagamasbad told a student who refused to get in the circle one day that she could write him a pass to do work out in the hall if he didn’t want to join the group. He balked but eventually pulled up his desk to be with the others.
    “I see the kids mostly as good people who sometimes need attention and don’t get it and want someone to notice,” she says. “ Leaving is not the answer. Staying and fixing it is the answer. Sometimes they can stay and be a nuisance, but after a while they’re going to start to regulate their own [and their classmates’] behavior.”
    Her fifth-period class, a smaller group that happens to be all girls, has a calmer atmosphere. The students take it upon themselves to come up with topics to talk about during class meetings: racism, attitudes toward homosexuality, another student’s truancy, and on this particular day, teen pregnancy.
    “Probably she was thinking real fast,” says one student of the teen who killed her newborn baby.
    “She probably thought everybody would be disappointed in her.”
    “She knew right from wrong,” argues the girl who knew the teen. “She could have told someone. Probably they would have taken her to counseling or something.”
    One girl just shakes her head and says, “This world is crazy.”
    “What do you mean?” Bagamasbad asks. “What has changed?”
    The students talk about how parents used to make teenagers marry when they got pregnant. One girl marvels at her grandparents’ 40-year-long marriage.
    “I wish it was cool to get married,” a student sighs.
    Though at times it seems like the walls—partitions quaking in the hands of practical jokers from an adjoining classroom—are about to come in on the group, Bagamasbad’s students speak freely, knowing that what gets talked about in her room stays there.
    “Ms. B. lets us talk about things we want to talk about—like boys, lifestyles, and how society is,” says a student. “We show her a lot of respect because she shows us a lot of respect.”
    “It’s a way to let stress out,” another student says of the class meetings. “Sometimes we have conflict and it’s a way to prevent fights.”
    Goodman says Bagamasbad is “quite an inspiring exemplar” as a new teacher “in a challenging situation. I think what Trish is trying to do is get kids to buy in to their own schooling.”
    The class meetings are not for every teacher, however. Jennifer Felton GEd’01, another student teacher in English at the high school, also took Goodman’s Values and Education class. But while she recognizes the benefits of moral education—such as the positive rapport it seems to build between students and adults—she has opted not to hold the meetings, citing differences in personality and in the goals she has set for her students. By holding the meetings, “It seems like I would be detracting from learning time when they should be acquiring [academic] skills.” Another of her concerns is that it might get out of hand, with “a couple of dominant personalities taking over everything. I think I would have to be too much of a mediator.”

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Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/2/01