Making Nice

Does character education lead to kinder, gentler schools?

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Early last year, Monica Viega's class was so loud and raucous that it resembled the Jerry Springer Show. Sometimes her 5th graders became so angry that they even tossed furniture across the room.

Today, Viega's classroom no longer seems like the tabloid talk show. Every morning, her Blalock Elementary School students sit in a circle and discuss how they treat one another. They talk about what they see on the television news and about keeping drugs and violence out of their neighborhoods. "This amazes me," says the first-year teacher. "These are tough kids. I used to have to pull them apart."

Viega and other staff members credit the changes to the school's three-year involvement in a character education project funded by the Georgia Humanities Council. The 540-student Blalock is one of 28 pilot sites in the state to receive grant money specifically set aside for programs that build character.

Recently, the Humanities Council decided that simply funding schools wasn't enough. With the backing of the Georgia Department of Education and some financial support from the Atlanta-based Georgia Power Foundation, it will start a center to train teachers to develop character building programs and use their relationships with kids to model compassion, honesty, and respect for others.

The Character Education Center, expected to open in January, is just one sign of the renewed interest across the nation in character education. Soon after last spring's shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and at Heritage High in suburban Atlanta, Georgia Governor Roy Barnes signed into law a measure that requires the state's districts to "implement a comprehensive character education program for all grade levels" by the 2000-01 school year. Meanwhile, new character education laws also took effect this summer in Florida and Mississippi.

Experts caution that focusing on values is only one way to make a school safer. "Character education is not going to make evil go away," says Paul Weimer, director of Georgia's new character center.

Indeed, observers say character programs won't have their full effect unless teachers first come to grips with these sensitive issues. "Teachers have never been trained to make this a part of what they do," says Esther Schaeffer, executive director of the Character Education Partnership, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition.

Ironically, on the day of the Columbine killings, Schaeffer's group released the results of a survey showing that most schools of education don't emphasize character education. More than 90 percent of the deans and department chairs in teacher education programs who responded to the survey agreed that core values should be taught in school, but less than one-quarter called character education a high priority within their departments.

Though Georgia's new law mandating character education may appear overwhelming to educators with little training, Weimer points out that many schools already have elements of such a program. School-based activities meant to prevent pregnancy and drug use are a venue for discussing values and character, he says, and there are many opportunities in the regular curriculum to slip in talk on such topics. A class discussion about 1776 and the American Revolution could touch on any number of key issues, says Weimer. "You can get kids to answer the multiple choice questions. But if a child can't write a few more lines about why we remember that date, all they've learned is a number."

Educators involved in school sports, service learning, school-to-work transition programs, and other such activities are often the first to see a natural connection between character education and what schools are already doing, experts say. Some teachers believe that instilling values such as citizenship, patriotism, and tolerance is something schools and teachers have always done.

"When you're 6 years old, you're very selfish," explains Ernestine Curry, a veteran 1st grade teacher at Blalock. "This is the perfect time developmentally to focus on kindness."

Character education programs are easiest to implement at the elementary level. Young children respond with enthusiasm to songs and plays that incorporate words associated with character learning. Finding effective strategies and teaching materials for middle school and high school students is more difficult, but teachers are discovering ways to weave important themes into everyday lessons.

In a Campbell High School literature class in Cobb County, Georgia, students recently discussed the character flaws shown by the central figure in T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." And when some students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, business teacher Tomeka Hart used what could have been an awkward moment to encourage a class discussion about the American flag.

Some teachers are skeptical of character education and see it as a fad. Blalock administrators seem indifferent to the new program, according to some observers at the school.

Other educators worry that teaching about values can be interpreted as promoting religion. Georgia's list of 27 character traits includes on--"respect for the creator"--that has raised some eyebrows. But John Roddy, director of federal programs for the state education department, says he has consulted with such groups as the Anti-Defamation League and received no complaints.

Whatever the doubts about character education, the new Georgia teachers' center has an ambitious agenda. It will operate a Web site featuring lesson plans and a chat room, and it will publish a newsletter to highlight successful programs and announce upcoming conferences and workshops. As part of the planning, Weimer is surveying public schools in the state to find out what they are doing with character education. "We don't want to open the doors officially," he says, "until wee feel that what we have is what everybody wants and needs," he says.

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 24-26

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Making Nice
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