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.
Antonelli GEd87 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.
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.
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:
1 Rule imposition by authority.
Level 2 Rule imposition with attempt at moral persuasion.
3 Rule imposition with encouragement of childrens moral engagement.
4 Modify adult rules slightly by listening to disagreements,
finding common ground.
5 Jointly construct rules or ways of being, foster disagreement,
value opposing positions, invite continued ongoing discussion.
6 Child construction of rules. Topics generated by children
as well as resolved by them.
few teachers in my experience get beyond those first three levels,
Goodman says. Its 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?
of my friends arent friends with each other, he says. How can I get
them to be friends?
us a little bit more about whats going on, Antonelli says.
of them are on my bus. They say things [to each other] like, Get away
from me. And they dont like the same games.
is it so important to you that they become friends? Antonelli asks.
theyre both really good friends and I dont want to see them fight.
you feel like youre in the middle of it, thenlike whose side am I on
and who to help?
asks the other students if they have any advice for their classmate.
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.
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
of the second-graders agree. I dont think you need to be friends with
a certain person, says one boy. You just have to be nice to them.
being nice the same as being friends with someone? Antonelli wonders.
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?
girl isnt convinced. If you dont want to play a game, you might hurt
that persons feelings.
asks, Is it your job to make sure not to hurt other peoples feelings,
so then you should be friends with everybody?
says another girl, not everybody has to be everybodys friend, because
should never try on purpose to hurt someones feelings, Antonelli says.
Thats wrong. But if you hurt somebodys feelings because you dont want
to play with them, Im wondering if thats wrong or right, and how you
feel about that. They all conclude that sometimes people get on each
others nerves for the things that they do, and thats, as Antonelli puts
it, one of those human things.
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.
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.
has been holding circle time since she became a teacher 13 years ago,
but working with the schools moral-education committee has expanded her
vision of how to use that time and challenged some of her own ideas about
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 dont 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 dont feel like [playing] right now.
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.
has some reservations, however, about Goodmans ideas on fighting. We
live in a world that has rules and we live in a country that has laws.
Im not comfortable letting fights run their course, she says. She does
agree, however, that it can be useful to discuss the motives forand fallout
fromfighting, 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.
Antonelli isnt interested in creating a classroom which is museum quiet,
she does believe there is a bigger picture to teachers attempts to
keep order. Thats part of living in society and working with other people
and learning how to treat people.
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 dont have the skills yet to sort
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?
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, thats okay, because I want
my kids to learn theyre not the center of the universe. When you grow
up you have to follow rules. But I dont 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.
of their particular philosophies, Goodman wishes that more parents would
be advocates for moral education in their childrens schools. Right now,
schools, if theyre interested in doing moral education, feel that parents
are something to work around and not to offend rather than supporters
of it. In particular, theres a concern that when parents hear the word
moral, they will assumefalselytheir school is going to embark
on a program of religious instruction. So we need to get collaboration
between home and school.
the meetings at Merion Elementary prove, moral education is very complex
and cant 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 Bushs 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 theyre going to do,
that would be a terrific thing.
he doesnt know Bagamasbad, the student teacher, Lesnick says her story
shows theres a lot you can accomplish as an individual. Shes not trying
to save the Philadelphia school system or the country, he observes. Shes
just trying to do something in her classroom thats going to affect some
of her students a lotand thats great. Im not pessimistic about that.