Issue #2 | May 2011

Letter from the Director

Dear Character Education Community,  

Welcome to the inaugural issue of the online CCSR Newsletter. We hope that the articles in this and in future issues will serve as an outlet for educators and scholars who want to share their ideas about character and social responsibility. We encourage you to participate in our community by submitting your stories to our “From the Trenches” section. We also welcome your feedback via our website contact page on how this newsletter can serve you better. 

Sincerely,

Hardin L. K. Coleman
Faculty Director of the Center for Character & Social Responsibility 
Dean of the Boston University School of Education

Leaders in Education

Interview with Eric Dawson, founder and president of Peace First 

Whether students are steeped in violence, feel scoured down by peer-to-peer verbal abuse or struggle to connect to their communities, Eric Dawson said a teacher must always remember his or her obligation to a school at-large when times get tough.

“You need whole school change,” he said. “Pulling out one individual or one classroom is important, but ultimately it is the culture of the school.”

And the culture of youth education is something Dawson said he first noticed needed attention nearly 20 years ago while at Harvard University. He said youth homicide rates were skyrocketing in the early ‘90s, and students often felt powerless to respond.  If their worlds were crumbling around them, Dawson said, all they felt they could do was stand by and watch.

Now, independent nonprofit Peace First reaches more than 40,000 students in five states across the country under Dawson’s founding philosophy that children can be the catalyst to changes within their schools.

“Ignorance is an enabler of great things,” Dawson said, who started the movement as a once-annual festival when he was 18-years-old. “What saved us is an intellectual curiosity about what works with teachers and students.”

“[Children] have the wisdom,” he added.  “So ask them, listen and apply what you learn to strengthen the system.”

Once a week, delegates from Peace First travel to schools and discuss with students who are Kindergarten-age up through eighth grade the value of communication, peacemaking, conflict resolution and civic engagement. Since the organization first officially formed in Boston in 1996, Dawson said participating schools have seen a 60 percent decrease in violence and an 80 percent increase in instances in which students break up fights they see.

“Kids are hungry for skills and positive messages and thirsty for someone to believe in them,” he said. “Our job is not to block out the negative messages, but let them know how to view such messages with a critical eye and to look at those messages thoughtfully without absorbing them.”

Now that Peace First has partnered with The Center for Character and Social Responsibility, Dawson said he advises the CCSR to “reinvent” itself on a regular basis to help reach a wider audience and better promote the importance of character, social responsibility and service learning within the School of Education.

“Academic centers are engineers for innovation and talent,” he said.

Dawson said while Peace First is looking to expand, he knows it is not readily available to every kid in need, and for the schools and classrooms that do no have access to the organization’s teachings or volunteers, Dawson said remembering to always act as a peacemaker will lead teachers to find resolution within the student body.

“I tell educators that the most important thing you can do is let young people know they are loved,” Dawson said. “It is not enough to say that the problem is just to great.”

From the Archives

How Do We Care? Locating the Heart of a Noble Profession
By Bernice Lerner

We teachers, ideally, care about our students, our respective subject areas, and managing our time well. More specifically, we care about that which affects our students: the particular milieus they must navigate and the events that shape their lives. We care about how we can best help them learn and hone skills, while upholding high expectations and offering needed support. We try to transmit information that resonates, to develop rich curricula and lesson plans. We search for methods that suit our temperaments and those of our classes, and that reflect good practice. Many of us care about our professional development, our career trajectory, attending to the various demands in our lives, and taking time to recharge. Rarely, however, do we stop to reflect on the ends to which all this caring is aimed. In Aristotelian terms, what is the telos, or ultimate goal, with which we are concerned? 

Our work-related endeavors shape, in part, our destinies. Having chosen a noble profession, we have opportunities to regularly practice (and model) wisdom, justice, and compassion; in other words, to lead good lives. Must we not care about helping each of our students make strides toward this same overarching goal?

Lest such caring seem esoteric, listen to the voices of educators who work in an extreme setting—a large urban public high school in Boston. In this school, 85 percent of the students qualify under federal law for free lunches. The students’ parents, a number of whom are single moms, struggle to make a living, and few earn more than $24,000 a year. Many of the teenagers are exposed to crime, violence, and drug addiction. Some feel they live in a war zone, with school being their only safe haven. Some carry knives, which they hide around the school’s grounds, to protect themselves. They must be vigilant, understand “the code,” never squeal, and know how to steal and manipulate to get what they need or want. They have low expectations of themselves and others, and low self-esteem. Other students fare well, and are engaged in their classes and work outside of school. Many own the standard fare of American teenagers—cellphones, iPods, and coordinating sneakers and clothes.

How do the educators of these students aim to help them lead good lives? In three ways: by enabling them to discern right from wrong, by fostering in them the desire to do what is good, and by encouraging them to take responsibility.

Teachers cannot assume that their students know right from wrong. The most troubled of this public high school’s students bring with them to 9th grade a horrifying history. They have had difficulty in school settings for years and lack basic skills. One counselor notes that parents are “the whole key”: If they neglect to think about their children’s needs and don’t consider education important, the teacher must care enough to impart fundamental lessons. Here are the words of this counselor on the subject:

“Part of my job is moral education. Students need to make their own decisions, so we must teach them how to make the right decisions. I call what I do ‘milieu therapy.’ For example, something happens—there is a fight in the hallway. And then the kids are all excited; it’s like watching a soap opera. So I process it with them, right then and there. One fight we had, the kids were watching, so my job was to get them back into the classroom. I promised to tell them the whole story, all the details. They would say, ‘Oh, you should have let them fight, you should have done this, you should have done that.’ Sometimes what they are saying is what would get them the results they wanted. So that’s why they consider it ‘right.’ But then, you flesh it out, asking, ‘How would that be if you were the other person?’ You don’t tell them the golden rule. You have to actually let them talk, and you have to listen to them.”

No matter where or what we teach, the goal to which our efforts should be aimed is helping our students lead good lives. This counselor describes how, within certain groups’ mores, it is expected that boys will sexually harass girls, that girls beat up boys, that fighting between girls is vicious. She explains that students lie to her because they fear they will otherwise get into trouble, that she has rewarded those who tell her the truth for an entire day by taking them to Twin Donut. She has found that when she treats students with kindness and respect, they respond accordingly. And that she must also be “incredibly strict.” She will not tolerate swearing in her presence. Her students must say “please” and “thank you” or they will be asked to leave.

For students to lead a good life, they must not only know right from wrong, but also desire to do what is right. Countless newspaper columns January of 2007 were devoted to the behavior of Wesley Autrey, the man who leaped in front of a New York City subway train to save the life of a stranger who had fallen onto the tracks. Why the fascination with this courageous deed? I believe we need exemplars of human goodness to inspire us to want to act well. We need to be shown what is within the realm of human possibility.

A career-pathways program at this high school puts before students choices that they would not otherwise be exposed to. Between menial jobs and roles dramatized on television are a host of positions in areas such as law, government, and health care. Students who wish to contribute to society and live a solidly middle-class lifestyle do have realistic aspirations.

Beyond schoolwide initiatives, individual teachers try to foster in students the desire to do well. After the 9/11 tragedies, one teacher was disturbed that a majority of his students felt that the attacks did not concern them—they touched no one in their neighborhoods. This teacher cares that students register his own appreciation of history and its lessons, that some will want to expand their horizons. He tries, he says, to “work toward students’ interests as much as possible given the nature of the curriculum,” and to give them the opportunity to discuss sex, drugs, jobs, and other topics about which they need honest information. Perhaps most importantly, he and other of the school’s teachers debunk myths. They tell students who are disinclined to participate in extracurricular activities or put effort into their schoolwork (because that’s “acting white”) that they are making a huge mistake. Minority teachers in particular serve as authentic role models.

An English-as-a-second-language teacher at the school fears for her students who are recent immigrants. Though integration is desirable, she does not want them to adopt the unseemly behavior typically seen in the school’s hallways. She has observed that those who come from countries to which they cannot return put great effort into their studies. She names and reinforces positive habits. She cares that her students desire the good.

It is not enough, of course, to know right from wrong and to want to act well. One must, in order to lead a good life, take responsibility. In this urban high school, it is not unusual for abusive and/or lawless parents to blame “the system” for their children’s lack of effort or suspensions, thereby perpetuating a cycle of apathy and self-destruction. And when parents are satisfied with report cards full of C’s and D’s (as they had not done better themselves), teaching responsibility falls on school personnel.

One caring counselor gives concrete instructions. Sometimes this means making clear to students and their parents that teenagers must be provided with an alarm clock and breakfast, and be in on weeknights at a reasonable hour; that there are expectations regarding handing in homework, and consequences when a student breaches school rules.

Of course, there are many situations in which parents want what is good for their children, and where students assume responsibility. One special education teacher in this school is proud of a boy she believes will lead a good life. She says:

“Once somebody wants something, and then you give him the formula to get it and he has the strength and perseverance to go for it, he can succeed. We have one boy, we think he is going to be successful. He’s got low intelligence, tested almost borderline. His mother is low intelligence and doesn’t understand the system. So here he is: low intelligence, no support, but he wants to own his own business at Fenway Park, be a hot dog vendor. He’ll probably make it. The teachers say he’s such a nudge. He always gets what he wants. He goes after it.”

The ways in which these Boston educators care also apply to school communities in general. No matter where or what we teach, the goal to which our efforts should be aimed is helping our students lead good lives. Toward this end, we must care that they know right from wrong, desire what is noble, and exercise their will to act.

Undergraduate Note

Character and Ethics Club

The Character and Ethics Club (formerly Character Education Club) has undergone many new and exciting changes this year. Beginning this semester, CEC has teamed up with Peace First to spread peacemaking into Boston Public School classrooms. Seven volunteers attended training on September 25th for a full day of peace games, speakers, debriefing, and skill building workshops. We were on our feet playing games such as “Pass the Pulse” and “Stand Up, Sit Down” followed by group sessions to debrief our experiences. The training was an incredible experience and an excellent opportunity to learn Peace First’s mission and curriculum, as well as learn how to implement their work in classrooms. The group was introduced to the new AmeriCorp volunteers that will be paired with them to develop curriculum in the Edison K-8 School. Our volunteers enjoyed their first semester co-teaching in the Fall and learned a great deal from participating in Peace First’s program.

Our mission is to expand awareness of character development and social responsibility on campus, in classrooms, in our community, and globally. The club has expanded its presence through community service projects and involvement opportunities. Our kickoff bake sale funded a campus-wide awareness event-”Character Approved,” which took place October 12th-14th in the Student Union Link. The event was modeled after USA Network’s program that recognizes individual’s that “are innovators in their field who influence our opinions, our style, and our view of the world. They surprise us and inspire us with fresh ideas. They are celebrated by their peers and they have an authentic style that’s all their own.” We handed out “Hi my name is…” nametags for students to fill out. Students were encouraged to replace their name with a character trait they embody, a reminder that we are more than the “character” we play in life, but also the personal characteristics that make us who we are.

CEC also organized a team to participate in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk on October 9th with proceeds benefitting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This cause aligned with our mission to promote individual responsibility and respect for oneself and others, to better humanity and to find one’s role along that journey. Our team of eight fundraised over $1100 in just one week for this incredible cause.

The club put together a book club focused on Greg Mortenson’s “Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan” and a fundraiser to benefit his organization, the Central Asia Institute. Members read the book over Winter break and met together to discuss it. We are currently running our weekly “Pennies for Peace” campaign, collecting change to donate to the Central Asia Institute for supplies and school development. We also hope to begin our next peace project this Spring titled “Piecing together Peace.” The project will ask students to write down a peacemaking story on a puzzle piece-(How are you a peacemaker? How have you witnessed peacemaking? Etc.). The puzzle pieces will be put together in the form of an oversized peace sign and potentially displayed throughout campus.

A movie screening of “Pay It Forward” will coincide with our “Great Peace Challenge” which is scheduled to take place Sunday, March 27th. Contestants will complete a scavenger hunt list of peaceful acts throughout campus, such as putting a coin in an empty parking meter and picking up litter. The team to complete all of their tasks and has documented photos of their adventure will win the competition. We hope that these acts of kindness will catch on not only with the participants, but also with the people that they help.

We are very excited to see where the remainder of the year takes us. The Character and Ethics Club welcomes any suggestions for future volunteer opportunities or campus/community events. We can be contacted at charedu@bu.edu.