March 29, 2020

Ethics enters school lesson plans > ‘Character education’ may lessen bullying, violence among students

BENTON – Carol Pullen asked her first-graders to form “a perfect 10 line” – straight, with zero talking. The 23-year teaching veteran at Benton Elementary School also asked her charges, as they lined up to head for lunch, to have “marshmallow feet” – no stomping or hopping down the corridor.

The pupils complied, lining up quietly without jostling or stamping.

Making sure first-graders are well-behaved may seem like a given. But now it’s part of a “character education” movement sweeping the state. Instilling ethics and responsibility in children doesn’t start with abstract philosophy in high school, but rather it begins with everyday behavioral instruction in primary school.

Benton Elementary is one school that has been singled out by educators because “ethical education” has been getting a lot of attention there for years.

Principal Suanne Giorgetti tells a story about what it has meant in one first-grade class that was learning about “respect.”

The pupils had formed a line to go to art class when a child toward the back began to push. Another pupil turned, according to Giorgetti, and told the shover that he was not earning their teacher’s respect. The pupil immediately stopped.

Character education has been a slowly growing element of public-school education since the 1970s. It has gained urgency in the past few years because of school violence, especially the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado 20 months ago. The idea is that ethical education, begun early enough, can help head off some of the problems, such as violence and bullying, that surface in many schools.

In Maine, a legislatively created commission is working on ideas to encourage schools to include character education in the curriculum. The Commission on Ethical and Responsible Student Behavior is honing its recommendations, which will be submitted to lawmakers in January.

Student morals are a high priority among Mainers, according to a poll commissioned by the state Department of Education in September 1999. The survey found that the most important issue in education today is “teaching children values and discipline.” And 63 percent of those questioned said that public schools should play a critical or very important role in teaching children ethical and responsible behavior.

Giorgetti, a commission member, said, “We need to incorporate … values because they don’t seem to be the core values of every child’s home.”

So many children were coming to school without a basic sense of how to treat other students that Benton Elementary began to teach ethics out of necessity, she said. “Children come to us with very few boundaries in their behavior. They need to learn boundaries just as much as they need to learn math and science.”

Social implications

The movement has broad implications for society.

Rushworth Kidder, the commission’s chairman and founder of the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, says modern technology makes ethical education a necessity.

“In the last 30 years, we have seen ample evidence of ways in which technology leverages ethics, so that single unethical decisions can produce world-class disasters,” he said. “With technology operating as it is today, individuals well down in [an] organization can make decisions that can get megaphoned into global consequences.”

As examples he rattled off the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, the collapse of Great Britain’s Barings Bank, e-mailed computer viruses, and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

“Ethics simply isn’t an option any longer: It’s a survival issue,” he said.

Many schools are already doing a good job imparting ethics, said George Marnik, a commission member and assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Maine.

However, while many schools have codes of conduct, rules and regulations that govern behavior, Marnik said, “my concern is that the rules and regulations don’t fully help students develop values in themselves.”

Schools must help children learn values that “stand them in good stead not just in school but in life as well,” he said.

Because students eventually become employers and employees, businesses “have a stake in making sure kids are well founded in ethical and moral behavior,” said commission member Barry McCrum, governmental liaison in Maine for Time-Warner Cable.

Schools also buttress what children learn at home, according to commission member Leigh Saufley, an associate justice on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. If schools don’t reinforce the morals children are taught by parents, students learn that ethics don’t apply beyond the home.

Adults in society at large must also bolster what schools and parents teach, she said. For example, they must embody competition without dishonesty, and disagreement without disrespect.

Yellow Light Breen, special projects director in the state education department and lead staff for the commission, said the panel has settled on five major points to make in its report to lawmakers.

The first is a call to action so the public understands the importance of character education.

The second is a list of the hallmarks of a respectful and ethical school climate.

The third is a process for school districts and communities to follow to reach common values to impart to students.

The fourth is a list of core values that Kidder’s Institute for Global Ethics has found is shared by most cultures and countries. They include honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion.

Finally, the commission will cite examples of communities and schools, such as Benton Elementary, that have done interesting things in this area, Breen said.

National movement

Nationally, Maine is one of more than three dozen states beefing up character education.

While public schools first began looking at student ethics during the 1970s when there was “a lot of moral relativism,” incidents such as the school shootings of the late 1990s ignited interest in the subject, said Andrea Grenadier, communications director of the Character Education Partnership in Washington, D.C.

The federal government has fueled interest in recent years with $28 million worth of funding for pilot programs in character education, Grenadier said.

Maine received $1 million earlier this year, which will be spread among 19 school districts. In eastern and northern Maine they include Union 76 (Brooklin-Sedgwick), SAD 48 (Newport area), SAD 23 (Carmel-Levant), SAD 38 (Etna-Dixmont), SAD 34 (Belfast area), SAD 28 (Camden-Rockport), SAD 20 (Fort Fairfield), SAD 42 (Mars Hill-Blaine), SAD 45 (Washburn area), SAD 54 (Skowhegan area), SAD 59 (Madison area) and Union 87 (Orono-Veazie).

The Character Education Partnership is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian organization that believes schools can teach ethics without religious overtones.

Issues involving morals can cause strife in public schools. School districts have waged civil wars over condom distribution and the moral implication behind condom use, and prayer on school property has spawned lawsuits. Ethical education, if based on faith, can run afoul of the separation of church and state, or it can founder on the differing beliefs of community members.

Maine’s commission hopes to navigate such shoal water safely.

Most importantly, commissioners say they see what they are doing as complementary to what many parents are already teaching children.

Word of the month

Every month at Benton Elementary School, teachers weave a different word concerning ethics and values into the school day.

The words start with responsibility in September, and run through respect, honesty, cooperation, tolerance-acceptance, courtesy, self-control-discipline, and consideration, ending with dependability in May.

Giorgetti said character education is an integral factor in her pupils’ consistently rising scores on the Maine Educational Assessment during the 1990s.

An orderly and respectful school climate is conducive to learning, she said. When students feel safe and valued they are more relaxed and attuned.

Benton Elementary’s implementation of character education began shortly after the school opened in 1990, when four small elementary schools in SAD 49 were rolled into a new 750-pupil school. The ethical component was part of a complete revamping of how and what the schools had taught.

Now, instead of issuing detention slips, a teacher walks a pupil through a questionnaire concerning what he or she did, why, and how it affects other pupils, Giorgetti said. “We make it a learning experience rather than just punishment.”

Teachers deal with incidents immediately “so kids don’t stew all day,” she said. And they call parents to let them know what happened and how it was dealt with.

“We also ask them to back us up,” she said, “and to reinforce [the lesson] at home.”

Conflict-resolution mechanisms have been put in place so pupils “resolve problems with words not fists,” Giorgetti added.

For example, Phyllis Walder’s fifth- and sixth-graders know how to defuse situations.

Four of the 25 pupils in her class have been trained in conflict-resolution techniques.

As soon as a dispute arises, those involved are taken into a “timeout room” and issues are hammered out.

Walder said, “This saves a tremendous amount of instruction time.”

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