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The Moral Classroom continued

 

The walk to Merion Elementary School from the local train station winds past stone farmhouses and ivy-bearded mansions with alarm-system signs prominently posted along the driveways. The school grounds are immaculate, save one dropped peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich being pecked away by a crow. There is no metal detector at the entrance, but the school doors are locked during the day for security reasons and visitors must be buzzed in.
    Madeleine Antonelli GEd’87 teaches second grade here in a classroom whose entrance is decorated like a gingerbread house. At 9:45 she tells her students to gather in a circle on the floor and asks if anyone has an issue they would like to discuss. One boy raises his hand.

“The only way you can create morally responsible human beings,” says Dr. Joan Goodman, “is to give them responsibility and to let them see the consequences of their behavior.” The education professor, who has been working with parents and teachers at Merion Elementary School in suburban Philadelphia on a moral-development program, has devised guidelines for six “levels of authority,” ranging from total control by the teacher to total authority in the children.
    She says, “I want [teachers] to think about those areas in which they want to take control and have no student input whatsoever: At Level 1, for example, ‘It is a rule in this class that if there is a child in a wheelchair, you cannot come and tip that child out and throw him down the stairs.’” End of story. But on the other side of the spectrum, at Level 6: “‘Do you think we should have graham crackers for a snack or Ritz crackers for a snack?’” A teacher might leave that choice entirely up to the youngest children, with older children having gradually greater input in how their classrooms are run, Goodman says. She has asked teachers to create their own lists using each of the six levels:

Level 1 Rule imposition by authority.

Level 2 Rule imposition with attempt at moral persuasion.

Level 3 Rule imposition with encouragement of children’s moral engagement.

Level 4 Modify adult rules slightly by listening to disagreements, finding common ground.

Level 5 Jointly construct rules or ways of being, foster disagreement, value opposing positions, invite continued ongoing discussion.

Level 6 Child construction of rules. Topics generated by children as well as resolved by them.

    “Very few teachers in my experience get beyond those first three levels,” Goodman says. “It’s amazing to me when we talk about one of the purposes of education [is preparing children] for democracy, for citizenship. What does it mean to educate for citizenship if you never practice any kind of democracy?”

    “Two of my friends aren’t friends” with each other, he says. “How can I get them to be friends?”
    “Tell us a little bit more about what’s going on,” Antonelli says.
    “Both of them are on my bus. They say things [to each other] like, ‘Get away from me.’ And they don’t like the same games.”
    “Why is it so important to you that they become friends?” Antonelli asks.
    “Because they’re both really good friends and I don’t want to see them fight.”
    “And you feel like you’re in the middle of it, then—like whose side am I on and who to help?”
    “Yeah.”
    Antonelli asks the other students if they have any advice for their classmate.
    One girl suggests writing a note to one friend saying that the other person wants to be their friend. Another suggests playing with the friends at different times of the day.
    “I’d like to talk about something for a minute,” Antonelli says. “Is it okay not to want to be friends with somebody? Raise your hands if you think yes.”
    Most of the second-graders agree. “I don’t think you need to be friends with a certain person,” says one boy. “You just have to be nice to them.”
    “Is being nice the same as being friends with someone?” Antonelli wonders.
    “Sort of.”
    “I’m not so sure it is. I think you have a really interesting point. Are you saying when you say to be nice that you need to be respectful and treat that person kindly?”
    “Yeah.”
    One girl isn’t convinced. “If you don’t want to play a game, you might hurt that person’s feelings.”
    Antonelli asks, “Is it your job to make sure not to hurt other people’s feelings, so then you should be friends with everybody?”
    “Well,” says another girl, “not everybody has to be everybody’s friend, because nobody’s perfect.”
   
“We should never try on purpose to hurt someone’s feelings,” Antonelli says. “That’s wrong. But if you hurt somebody’s feelings because you don’t want to play with them, I’m wondering if that’s wrong or right, and how you feel about that.” They all conclude that sometimes people get on each other’s nerves for the things that they do, and that’s, as Antonelli puts it, “one of those human things.”
    Finally one girl suggests that her classmate “get your two friends together to play one game that they both might like,” and then see if they get along.
    The boy considers this idea and thinks it might work. “They both kind of like racing cars. So maybe I can get them to play a game.” The teacher asks him to report back to the class on what happens.
    Antonelli has been holding circle time since she became a teacher 13 years ago, but working with the school’s moral-education committee has expanded her vision of how to use that time and challenged some of her own ideas about fairness.
    “Probably when I first walked into these meetings,” she says, “I would have said that a child should never be excluded. But we read some stories that showed when it could be appropriate to exclude somebody. If a child is being a real pest to you, you don’t want to include that child. There was another story we read about a child who just wants to be alone. He has the right say, ‘I don’t feel like [playing] right now.’”
    She also has used the class meetings to encourage children to be positive role models for each other rather than simply ignoring their classmates who misbehave. “I think you can do more than that,” she told them one day. “You can take responsibility to help other kids and help the classroom be a calmer class.”
    Antonelli has some reservations, however, about Goodman’s ideas on fighting. “We live in a world that has rules and we live in a country that has laws. I’m not comfortable” letting fights run their course, she says. She does agree, however, that it can be useful to discuss the motives for—and fallout from—fighting, “turning it into a learning experience for the children who are involved in a fight as well as the other children in the class.” When recurring troubles among six students escalated into a fight on the playground, for instance, Antonelli asked classmates who were not involved in the incident to share their feelings about it. Some felt very angry that discipline problems were taking up class time. Those students also helped to determine the “consequence” for the fighters: giving up indoor recess for a week.
    While Antonelli isn’t interested in creating a classroom which is museum quiet, she does believe there is a “bigger picture” to teachers’ attempts to keep order. “That’s part of living in society and working with other people and learning how to treat people.”
    This and many other ideas continue to be debated at the moral-education committee meetings. Jarmas, one of the parent leaders, says, “I do think kids need some freedom to work out the rules without someone interfering. I feel, however, that they can go too far and someone would get hurt or behavior would get really mean, because they don’t have the skills yet to sort it out.”
    She has mixed feelings about exclusion. “What we would hope to teach kids is to be sensitive to exclusion, whether they are the excluded or the excluder. Can we help the victim to be less of a victim?”
    Differences of opinion persist, even among the parents, on such issues as to what extent inappropriate language should be tolerated, she says. “My own take is that if a school wants you to wear blue, that’s okay, because I want my kids to learn they’re not the center of the universe. When you grow up you have to follow rules. But I don’t think any of us wants to create automatons. One view is that standards should be enforced [in whatever way] each teacher [thinks is] effective, but that talking through things should take place, too.”
    Regardless of their particular philosophies, Goodman wishes that more parents would be advocates for moral education in their children’s schools. “Right now, schools, if they’re interested in doing moral education, feel that parents are something to work around and not to offend rather than supporters of it.” In particular, there’s a concern that when parents hear the word moral, they will assume—falsely—their school is going to embark on a program of religious instruction. “So we need to get collaboration between home and school.”
    As the meetings at Merion Elementary prove, moral education is “very complex and can’t be reduced to a series of moral rules or pedagogical rules,” Lesnick says. “And it can only be done successfully if teachers are given both the discretion and the support they need to do it.” Lesnick criticizes President Bush’s plan to increase federal funding for character education “[so Washington can] send money to Harrisburg and Albany and Trenton, who will then hire consultants and come up with programs and mail them to local school districts. But if the president gave every school district money to give teachers a certain amount of time off so they could go to seminars and prepare in their own classrooms what they’re going to do, that would be a terrific thing.”
    Though he doesn’t know Bagamasbad, the student teacher, Lesnick says her story shows “there’s a lot you can accomplish as an individual.” She’s not trying to save the Philadelphia school system or the country, he observes. “She’s just trying to do something in her classroom that’s going to affect some of her students a lot—and that’s great. I’m not pessimistic about that.”


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