Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Justice for All: Some Thoughts on Character Education

The start of the school year is the perfect time to think Grand Thoughts, and few thoughts are grander than those in our pledge of allegiance. Just for fun, you might try to write a variation that emphasizes what is most important to you. Here is mine:

by Janet Wong

I pledge acceptance
of the views,
so different,
that make us America

To listen, to look,
to think, and to learn

One people
sharing the earth
for liberty
and justice
for all.

Justice for all: this is a hot topic among children as young as two, as any parent or teacher who has heard "but that's not fair" knows well. What can we, as parents and teachers, do to make this world as just as possible for our children?

When my son was in second grade, his school experimented with "character beads." Children who were spotted doing something good during lunch or recess were given little beads that could be strung together to make a bracelet or backpack decoration. These beads were quite a hit. My son was so proud each time he received one. Even though you could buy similar beads at the store for a quarter each, buying them was clearly something only a child (or parent) of bad character would do.

There was an immediate school-wide spike in genuinely good behavior: sharing, holding doors open, cooperative play. But the savviest of students soon figured out clever and not-so-honorable ways to rack up the beads. For instance, my son complained that he saw a child drop trash on the playground about twenty yards in front of a friend who slowly picked up this trash in such a dramatic fashion that she managed to catch the attention of the recess teacher and earn a bead. He then saw the littering friend join the bead-receiving friend to celebrate. These girls will undoubtedly be billionaire junk bond brokers by the time they are thirty, having received an early and practical education in "how to succeed."

Children hear news reports every week that show the amazing and rotten things our leaders and celebrities manage to get away with. The message clearly is: do what you want, just don't get caught. Or, if you do get caught, say you're sorry, cry in public, and get on with your life. Bad deeds might cost you a job or a TV show, but people will forgive and forget sooner than you can spell

What can we, as teachers and parents, do? How can we teach character education?

By setting aside time for children to think about it, talk about it, read about it, and write about it. "It's not fair" invites an experienced adult to respond "that's life," but we need to restrain ourselves and let our little victims of injustice have their say. As parents, we need to encourage our children to talk about the bully who got away with bullying, the cheat who got away with cheating, the liar who told a ridiculous lie and yet went unpunished.

As teachers, we are under constant pressure with all that we are supposed to teach during our time-constrained day. But let me ask you: did you become a teacher because you wanted to prepare someone to get high test scores and make a lot of money, or did you become a teacher because it is the best way that you can make this world a better place? Will you be proud to have educated a famous mathematician, if she turns out to be an unethical person?

This new year: how about setting aside some time each day for grousing? For talking about fairness and for teaching ethics through discussion or (real or fictional) unethical situations?

Three minutes at the end of the day: can you ask your children to jot down a list of the good or bad, fair or unfair, honest or dishonest things that happened? Would they be more eager to participate if you promised total privacy by allowing children to tear their paper into 100 pieces after writing this list of complaints?

Just a thought, a starting point for discussion. Ideas, anyone?

Posted by Janet Wong, author of Me and Rolly Maloo, a "hybrid graphic novel" ideal for grades 3-5 about a cheating incident--and the justice that follows.


Clara Gillow Clark said...

I love your idea about 3 minutes at the end of the day to write on a piece of paper good/bad, fair/unfair or whatever emotions kids are feeling, and then having them tear the paper into a hundred pieces if they want. Come to think of it, that's not a bad idea for anyone. Thanks, Janet Wong!

Character Education said...

Sounds good, i am sure this idea will bring a new change in the community, thanks for posting.