Teaching Civil Discourse…?

At yesterday’s after school staff “Monday Meeting” we heard about an incident at the town’s QuickCheck market involving a student from our school. The incident itself was somewhat minor, however it quickly became a community wide issue due to the accusatory and heated social media discussion posted mostly by adults, and mostly parents, living in town. I went home that evening and shared Common Sense Media’s Family Resources with our principal, thinking that if the school spoke with families about their student’s interactions on social media, some of it might rub off on themselves. Tonight, while working through my own social media feeds, I happened upon a list-serve post entitled, “Helping Young People Embrace Civility in a Society Gone Nasty!” The post shared a Washington Post article about a group of Iowa High School students who were using Donald Trump’s image and chanting his name at a basketball game, as a means of taunting minority players on the opposing school’s team, as a means for highlighting a new program to help young people foster positive relations in school and Embrace Civility in the Digital Age.

“I am continually blown away by students’ disrespect and lack of care; it gets worse every year”  –anonymous educator

In the district where I’m presently working, class periods are shortened one day each week to allow for an additional period at the end of the day called “Character Ed”.  Two teachers with one group of students, from one grade level, meet for the purpose of strengthening students’ characters. A loose range of activities are provided, covering topics such as: respect, citizenship, trustworthiness, responsibility, caring and philanthropy. Considering the sentiment in the above quote, you would think this program would be well received by staff. However, I soon realized that teachers “despise”, (their word not mine), Character Ed, so much so, that when a teacher calls in sick on a Thursday, there’s a 70% chance that the “sickness” has been Character Ed induced!

“…and I blame the parents” -anonymous educator

Whether teacher ambivalence to ours school’s Character Ed program is do to the subject matter, the lack of a defined curriculum, or the fact that by 10th period, the kids and teachers have both “had it” for the day, there is definitely a lack of accordance, in the education community as a whole, about the need for the implementation of character education type programs in schools. According to Maurice Elias, the Director of Rutgers Social and Emotional Learning Lab, resistance comes from: parents, who believe character education is best taught at home; teachers, who agree with parents, (as observed in the above quote); teachers, who don’t feel qualified to teach these understandings; and districts, who are pressured to forego learning that is not directly related to tested subject areas. (Elias,2013).

That being said, there is evidence for both supporting the need for social and emotional intelligence for academic achievement in school in addition to the effectiveness of programs which foster these understandings. One such program is the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program, with results including students choosing nonviolent solutions for disputes, exhibiting less aggressive behavior and achieving higher test scores; according to a Columbia University National Center for Children in Poverty two year study of 5000 students and 300 teachers (NCCP. 2003).

Last semester, in a Digital Media class, graduate students held a lengthy discussion about teaching cyber ethics and digital netiquette practices in school. Most students saw it as necessary; a few thought that it was best taught at home. In my humble opinion, the discussion remains the same with regards to in school learning of conflict resolution, citizenship, responsibility and the like -whether in face-to-face or virtual environments. I also believe that these understandings are best learned “naturally” as integral to the learning process no matter the discipline. However, without a formal time set aside for this learning, how will we ensure that it is happening? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Aber et all, (2003). Changing children’s trajectories of development. National Center for Children in Poverty. http://www.nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_554.pdf

Curtis, Diane. (2003) Fostering emotional intelligence lets learning happen. Edutopia. http://www.edutopia.org/ounce-of-prevention

 Elias, (2013, Jan). Overcoming resistance to social and emotional character development in your school. Edutopia. http://www.edutopia.org/blog/overcoming-secd-school-resistance-maurice-elias.



7 thoughts on “Teaching Civil Discourse…?

  1. I think the problem with so many character ed programs (my own school included) is the same problem teachers are having in every other content area. Students are not interested when something is not meaningful and authentic. Reading a picture book and talking about how the character showed honesty doesn’t allow children to practice being honest. It doesn’t teach them skills to be honest when they feel the need to lie. Throwing a worksheet in the mix doesn’t help either!

    I’d be curious about the specifics in the program you mentioned that got such great results. I would bet it’s the peer mediation program and the parent education classes that had the most impact. It’s said that the best way to see if you’ve learned something is to teach it. So in order for children to mediate each other’s disputes, they have to have internalized the messages themselves.

    • Thank you for your insight Katie. I’ve heard of peer mediation, but I’m afraid to say that I know little about it. The program I was referring to was more about honest discussion about current issues.

  2. Watching that video was very disturbing. I am amazed at how hurtful some people can be. As educators it is a continuous struggle making sure that we promote kindness towards others. You may not like everyone, but that does not give anyone the reason to be mean or ugly.

  3. Deb,

    I appreciate the video that you embedded at the top of your post. It is hard to see how teens are speaking to each other on social media. I can’t imagine how life will change for me as a parent when my child becomes a teen. Hopefully he is well informed of how to properly communicate using those tools. Our school had a character education program several years ago and we had similar results. There wasn’t a lot of teacher buy-in and therefore neither the students nor the teachers looked forward to monthly lessons. At some point, where is the line between parent and teacher responsibility when it comes to morals?

  4. Hello Deb,

    First of all this is a very well written and well thought out post. I would really like to talk out the implications if for nothing else but as an exercise in closely examing our assumptions. Before embarking on a speculative discussion I want to state what should be obvious; racism and bullying should never be tolerated which is why it is so disheartening that some of our leaders are setting that example for our students. I agree with Dean above that if parents don’t do this at home schools should step in. I do think it opens a wider question of the role of education. Does education create a just society or does it reflect our society as it is? Should schools in the Bible Belt for example teach creationism and schools on the coasts Darwin? What is our criteria for curriculum when we discuss “character” education? Having lived in Europe for much of my adult life has given me a perspective on some things American that I wouldn’t have had before moving there in my 20s. Somethings that we take for granted here as building “character” would be considered damaging in their social context.
    I am not trying to talk both sides of this. I personally believe we should be teaching tolerance and communication as well as empathy. I do think however, that it is interesting and perhaps essential to consider how far we go and who decides what is appropriate and what is not.

    • Thank you for your thought provoking comments and insight from an “outside of America” understanding. I think much of our questioning as to what constitutes Character Ed and its role in schools, lies in the need for clearly defining “Why School?”, whether at the Federal, State or district level. I’m not sure if it was better “before”, but at the moment, what I see is confusion and misunderstanding. If we are not working towards the same goal, how can we be successful?

      I’m thinking I need an example to better understand your statement, “Somethings that we take for granted here as building “character” would be considered damaging in their social context.”

  5. I totally agree, that this is something that must be taught. I’m curious as to why teachers you know aren’t willing to embrace this challenge? Blaming isn’t helpful. I would agree, parents have a greater responsibility than teachers on this issue but when parents don’t do it, we have to decide if schools should step up or just let it go. I worry if we choose the latter, the consequences will be dreadful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s