Educators get lessons in building character

Teaching tolerance, respect focus of event

March 25, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- When educators met during the weekend to discuss how to teach character building in classrooms, the symposium started off a little like a 1960s sit-in.

Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul & Mary fame, picked up his guitar and took over the microphone, singing songs such as "If I Had a Hammer" and "Puff (The Magic Dragon)," which, he cracked, is not about drugs.

His message to the more than 350 teachers and administrators gathered Saturday at the University of Maryland's University College was that their work in schools is critical to teaching a new generation about respect, tolerance and peace.

The folk singer also had teachers and principals swaying in their chairs, clapping and dancing in the aisles.

"This isn't a stretch for me," Yarrow said, explaining his appearances at scores of forums like this one. "Civil rights were about respect. Gender equality was about respect. The environment is about respect. ... Let's start when kids are young -- teaching them the habits of being citizens of the world."

The event, co-sponsored by the State Department of Education and publisher McGraw-Hill Education, featured a panel of education experts and authors who spoke about how schools can help reduce youth crime and violence, and foster classrooms in which cheating, ridicule and bullying are rare.

Instead of promoting a set of textbooks or a particular program, the group discussed ways to incorporate character-building lessons and discussions into regular classes.

For example, said Charlotte K. Frank, a vice president at McGraw-Hill Education, character education can be part of a math lesson. If a teacher is having the class solve a problem about how much items would cost at the store and how much change they would receive, Frank suggested the teachers discuss what the students would do if they got a dollar too much from the clerk.

"Character education is taught all day long," Frank said. "It's absolutely necessary if we're really going to be able to say, `No child left behind.'"

In Maryland, administrators are beginning to measure the success of such teaching, in schools such as St. Leonard Elementary in Calvert County and Milbrook Elementary in Baltimore County, which received grants to make character education part of their curriculum.

In her opening remarks, Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said that "not only does character education improve the climate of schools, but that improvement is not short-term."

She said teachers at schools where character education is a focus saw students who were more likely to resolve conflicts without fighting, quicker to apologize if they hurt someone's feelings and less likely to pick on those perceived as different.

Grasmick also said character education was a natural part of service learning -- an initiative that requires middle and high school students to participate in community service projects.

"It only makes sense that character education and service learning be married," said Mary Chavis Radcliffe, a Baltimore City administrator who attended the symposium.

"The main outcome of service learning is that these students develop the habit of service," she said. "They become empowered change agents. They realize they can make their communities the best they can be."

"I know it makes a difference," Radcliffe said. "I've seen it."

Although Mary Brooke Walker teaches fifth grade at St. Leonard Elementary, where character education is a focus, she said she wanted to attend the conference because she's also interested in learning about how other teachers and administrators incorporate it into their classrooms.

She listened intently as staff from Milbrook Elementary School discussed topics such as the role of student government in the school, where each grade is a district and pupils have written a school constitution. One pupil elected as leader sent her father to take notes for her at a government meeting.

They also talked about the roles of peer mediation and parent groups.

In Walker's classroom in Calvert County, she said she finds character education helps manage pupil behavior. "Instead of always saying, `Everyone please sit down and be quiet,' I say, `Are we showing self-discipline?' They know exactly what I mean," Walker said.

"They see how their actions have a ripple effect on others, too."

Although critics of such teaching say parents should be instilling the values they want their children to exhibit, speakers on Saturday emphasized the need for a partnership between teachers and parents.

"It should be taught at home and in school," Walker said. "But because these children spend so much time in school, it would be a missed opportunity if we didn't also reinforce the importance of character."

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