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Bringing Back Heroes

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In April, The New York Times Magazine published an article on the growing character-education movement that implied the effort may well be hopeless. When teaching character runs into issues, it's more than a run-in, the author seemed to say, it's a train wreck, even for the best-intended program or teacher.

How can anyone teach character in a classroom in which some kids' parents support choice and others' picket abortion clinics? In which some kids have strong religious training and others none? In which some have been taught that homosexuality is immoral and others go home to gay parents?

Such questions interest me deeply because, for the last four years, the nonprofit organization I founded has been creating and testing a K-12 curriculum that is now being used to teach character in schools and youth clubs.

In the feedback we've collected and in the sessions we've run ourselves, there have been no train wrecks. There have been hundreds of kids doing the kind of turnarounds all of us in the field are aiming for.

The Giraffe Project and its Standing Tall curriculum may have found a track that works, simply because we never thought of setting up debates on issues, presenting lists of values, or laying down rules of conduct. Standing Tall gets to core principles that are shared by people who disagree about issues--and gets through kids' anti-message radar--by storytelling.

If you think about it, it's clear that in every cultural tradition, people have taken ethical guidance from stories. Humans love stories. They stick in our minds, even when we might brush off any principles embedded in them if they came at us as rules and admonitions. But the Giraffe Project can't claim that we made a big decision to teach character by telling stories-it's just what we've always done.

Since 1983, the project has been finding and publicizing contemporary, real-life heroes, people who've stuck their necks out for the common good and thus earned project commendations as "Giraffes." We've gotten their stories into local and national media, always seeing the work as educational in the broadest sense. The media may avalanche us all with junk food for the mind, but modern television, radio, magazines, and newspapers are an awesome system for the dissemination of knowledge, that is, education in the broadest sense. We feed heroes' tales into that system to nourish the body politic, believing that no society is healthy without hope, without a vision of what can be achieved by the human spirit.

Over the years, teachers who've come upon our work have asked us for materials directed at kids. We were sure we had to get into kids' lives when we read studies in which they named people like Madonna and Donald Trump as their heroes. In 1991, we got the first grant that allowed us to begin the work.

We mined our story bank, which now holds the tales of over 800 real heroes, people whose courage and compassion touch the heart, and sometimes reach into the soul. People like these:

Kaneesha Johnson, who braved the taunts and threats of fellow African-American 5th graders to befriend and champion Asian classmates.
Steve Cockerham, a U.S. Agriculture Department meat inspector who risked his career to champion higher inspection standards in the wake of the E-coli poisoning of several children.
Eileen Szychowski, the first person with a disability to become a mounted National Park Service ranger. She founded and directs a free therapeutic equestrian program for other people who cannot walk.
The Dolphin Defenders, a group of at-risk kids who take to their neighborhood's crime-filled streets to do cleanups and recycling; to create wildlife habitats out of needle-strewn empty lots; and to plant and tend a Forest of Life, each tree in remembrance of a local child who has died violently.
Daryl Smith, bedridden with a disease that has left him weighing only 40 pounds, has earned his high-school-equivalency diploma, his B.A., and an M.A. by phone and now uses that phone to counsel others with severe handicaps and illnesses.
Hazel Wolf, a 97-year-old who started working in 1911 to get equality for women, and has gone on to fight also for civil rights, health and housing programs, fair-work laws, and a clean environment.

After the kids have "met" people like these, both in print and in the public-television video that's part of the curriculum, they're ready to find their own heroes and to tell their stories. They search for them in their studies; in the news; in books, movies, or shows; in their own communities and families.

Then it's time to stand tall themselves, putting what they've learned about heroes' courage, compassion, and responsibility into action. The kids look around them, decide what they want to change for the better, then design and carry out a project to make it happen. Making their own observations and creating a response--rather than just signing up as troops in an existing service program-is critical to their sense of taking personal responsibility for something beyond their own lives. It also requires them to stretch, to get up and over their fears and their personal sense of limitation.

When they hear stories, tell stories, and become the story, the elements of character emerge in their thoughts, feelings, and actions; out of their own experience. We see kids starting out with great trepidation and ending up with a sense of responsibility and self-respect that spills out all over their lives. The process has helped them come upon their own compassion, experience their connection to other individuals and to their community. They've found the courage to overcome their fears, they've seen their taking responsibility lead to results-and that the results are good. And it's happened without the intellectualizing involved in lectures, rules, or debates; it's happened by using stories to reach straight into the heart.

There's an underlying belief in all this that, at core, no matter how disconnected and uncaring they may have become, human beings are instinctively compassionate. My favorite teacher, the late philosopher Joseph Campbell, carried in his wallet a tiny, tattered clipping from a Honolulu newspaper. He said it contained the essence of what he had learned in all his years of studying the human story. It described an incident in which a police car arrived at a bridge where a man was poised to jump. Seeing that the man was starting to go, the officer in the passenger seat leaped out of the car and lunged for him, not stopping to put on a safety harness. The jumper's momentum had almost pulled the officer over with him when his partner pulled them both back to safety. A reporter asked the first cop why he had risked his life for a total stranger. The officer replied that the moment he'd seen the jumper, he'd felt that he'd given him his own life, that he couldn't live himself if he didn't save him.

Joseph Campbell would say to his students, "That's it! That's it!" This is what it means to be human, he would explain, to experience that we are bound one to another and to act accordingly.

That instinctive sense of connection is the place we must reach in each young human, getting past all that may be separating them from full involvement in the human family. They don't need to risk their lives to get there; they do need to absorb the stories of courageous, compassionate heroes like that Hawaiian police officer, like the people who've been named Giraffes, and to experience their own courage and compassion. Perseverance, honesty, responsibility, mutual respect, and self-respect follow that absorption and that experience.

We're seeing it happen in classrooms and clubs all over the country-without train wrecks. We commend to you the heroes' path as character education that works.

Ann Medlock is the founder and president of the Giraffe Project in Langley, Wash.

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