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. Theres bullying
in most workplaces.
schools obsessions with violence-prevention to his and his wifes attempt
to ban war toys in their household when his son was growing up. We
thought wed draw the line between intergalactic weapons, which would
be okay because thats 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 were not going
to buy bread?
Theres a certain
amount of aggression which is inevitable and okay, and theres a certain
amount of aggression which is somewhat inevitable and not too okay, and
theres a certain amount of aggression which should be responded to,
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 whos roughhousing with him, but
if two other kids are roughhousing and theyre perfectly able to do it,
[you] should leave them alone.
schools shouldnt 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 whos
to say No, thats out; thats not part of the debate. That all sense
of retribution is evil? To me, thats selling children short. They dont
need to be as repressed and rule-driven as we think.
Im not talking
about a big fight, she hastens to add. Im talking about turning your
head a bit if theres 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. Its a part of life. Im against that notion that you
cant say you cant play.
that schools fall into, they believe is values lumpingassigning moral
heft to rules of convention, such as no running in the halls, no chewing
gum, and no talking out of turn. Its reasonable to set and enforce
such rules, they say, but schools shouldnt 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 dont get
student commitment and involvement, you havent accomplished much.
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 visitors purse causes suspicion. As he examines it, the security guard
explains politely that some of the guns made today look like cell phones.
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?
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 upmost 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
You should give
them two days to make up work, one girl insists. If they dont come
back, then say, Oh well, give them a zero.
Weve 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.
you like it, Bagamasbad says.
if absent] you cant say you missed anything, because you had your worksheet.
I like the way
we do it now.
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 hes 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 cant get credit anymore?
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 Goodmans 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 whos on their side, who cares about them, thats a prerequisite
before you can do anything in moral ed, she says.
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. Thats a good
thing. If more teachers did that, more kids would be doing their homework.
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
weve got to do is show respect and theyll 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 dont care. We need to treat
the teachers with respect.
its challenging to work with adolescents on moral education because
they come to the school with pre-set values that they hold and believe,
and theyre 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 wouldnt
work because people dont respect each other in the class. They think
the monitors would be corrupt and would report on someone just because
they dont 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 theyre making outbursts or withdrawing
under their ski jackets, Bagamasbad plans to videotape them one daywith
their knowledgeand play back the tape during a class meeting.
One thing she
wont do is throw a student out of her classroom. Its really
against everything I believe in as a teacher, she explains. I believe
that every student, no matter how theyre acting up, wants to be in the
class or they wouldnt 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 didnt want to join
the group. He balked but eventually pulled up his desk to be with the
I see the kids
mostly as good people who sometimes need attention and dont 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 theyre going to start to regulate their own [and their
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
students truancy, and on this particular day, teen pregnancy.
was thinking real fast, says one student of the teen who killed her newborn
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?
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 wallspartitions quaking in the hands of practical jokers
from an adjoining classroomare about to come in on the group, Bagamasbads
students speak freely, knowing that what gets talked about in her room
Ms. B. lets
us talk about things we want to talk aboutlike boys, lifestyles, and
how society is, says a student. We show her a lot of respect because
she shows us a lot of respect.
Its a way to
let stress out, another student says of the class meetings. Sometimes
we have conflict and its a way to prevent fights.
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 GEd01, another student
teacher in English at the high school, also took Goodmans Values and
Education class. But while she recognizes the benefits of moral educationsuch
as the positive rapport it seems to build between students and adultsshe
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.