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Bringing Character Education to the Young

Friday, February 25, 2005 at 10:07 AM

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Lots of research supports the notion that the building blocks for literacy are set early in life, but some experts also believe kids begin early learning how to behave in the world. Schools are responding to this, and to ongoing concerns about youth violence, by bringing character education to younger and younger students. Today, ideastream's Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz takes us to two schools, where character education is assuming different forms.

Remember these rules from school? Keep your hands and feet to yourself; Use your words, not your fists; Treat others as you’d like them to treat you.

Gayle Clapp: Character education is absolutely not new.

Gayle Clapp is principal of Dentzler Elementary in the Parma City School District. While character education isn’t new there, Parma introduced a system-wide program this year to bring it more into focus. The program is based on the 40 Developmental Assets developed by the nonprofit Search Institute. Assets range from the external - like parental, school, and community support - to the internal - like honesty, responsibility, and integrity. February’s focus has been positive values. Clapp says students made Valentine’s Day cards for the VA hospital in Brecksville. Plans to raise money for the American Heart Association had to be put off until March. Useful activities, to be sure, but do they change kids’ behavior?

Scott Henggeler: Interventions that just rely on cognitive changes, making folks more moral or whatever just are not gonna be effective if the environment and the context don’t support those changes.

Scott Henggeler is head of the Family Services Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, and an expert on violence prevention among children. He says specific programs are less important than the context in which they are conducted.

Scott Henggeler: I mean I think it can be useful as long as it goes beyond trying to change the way people think, that it actually restructures the environment to reinforce and to reward the good behavior.

And that’s exactly what Dentzler does, says sixth grade teacher Beverly Bryski. She says the school uses some creative means to maintain a positive atmosphere, including, Bryski says, giving new students homemade gift baskets help them feel welcome.

Beverly Bryski: ...tissue to remind you to dry somebody’s tears; lifesavers to remind you your teachers are your lifesavers; little puzzle piece, because without you our class wouldn’t be complete.

Just a few miles to the northwest, character education is taking a different form. Roadoan Elementary, in the Brooklyn City Schools, is trying out a pilot program that uses children’s literature to impart seven key values to students - courage, loyalty, justice, respect, hope, honesty, and love. It’s based on an ethics curriculum in use across the country and region. (The Shaker schools used the curriculum a decade ago, but according to a spokeswoman dropped it when costs soared). Here, State Attorney General Jim Petro is footing the bill, and quite a few of his employees are donating their time. Senior Assistant Attorney General Sharon Tassie says she loves visiting Roadoan Elementary - and Deanna Borowy’s first graders - every month.

Sharon Tassie: I feel I’m developing a relationship with these kids and I’ll hate when the year is over.

On one frozen January morning, Tassie is reading “A Chair for My Mother,” by Vera B. Williams, the story of a girl who arrives home one day to find her life turned upside down.

Sharon Tassie: Right outside our house stood two big fire engines. I could see lots of smoke. Tall orange flames came out of the roof. All of the neighbors stood in a bunch across the street.

Borowy’s students sit enthralled by the drama unfolding.

Sharon Tassie: Grandma was all right. The cat was safe too, though it took awhile to find it. Everything else in the house was gone. What was left of our house had turned to charcoal and ashes.

In the story, Rosa’s family must re-build their lives from scratch. They start by saving spare change in a big glass jar over a period of weeks, afterwards going out to buy a brand-new chair. The moral is hope, which Borowy says, for her students, is a very material thing.

Deanna Borowy: Kids at this age are looking at what they can touch and reach - ‘I hope for more Yu Gi Oh cards.’

Still Borowy says her students love the stories, and are able to remember them. They’re imprinting today’s story on their minds with an activity - drawing pictures depicting their own hopes and dreams for the future. Alexandra Eric has been inspired by TV - Animal Planet’s crocodile hunter Steve Irwin to be precise.

Alexandra Eric: (What did you decide to draw here?) Me, catching crocodiles and other animals. (What do you want to do with the animals when you catch them?) I’ll catch the ones that are hurt, then fix em up and let em go out to the wild.

Nearby, Logan Clemens is drawing a tank with a machine gun attached. The intention there is pretty clear. But it would be easy to misinterpret Megan Koplin’s rendering of a McDonald’s as a simple desire to spend a lot of time around chicken nuggets and french fries, when her reasoning is actually more nuanced.

Megan Koplin: One time I got to go there when my Dad was working. He works at the printing place, and I want to work at it because I brought my Dad McDonald’s.

So for Megan, McDonald’s means being - and staying - close to Dad. Is that an expression of hope with a capital-H? (Or for that matter, an expression of love with a capital L?) Maybe. Shawn McElroy, point person on the Start Smart program in Attorney General Petro’s office, says it doesn’t really matter. Some concepts are likely to fly right over a first-grader’s head, he says, but the program will still be helping that kid begin to build a vocabulary incorporating key values.

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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