All of our daily decisions have moral implications. Our everyday choices can be viewed as value statements. Where do we shop and what do we buy? What do we read? Who are our friends? How do we treat those who are different from us? Where do we get our “news”? Do we share our riches? What do we care about? What do we think about: Global warming? Corporate control of the media? The migrant farm workers who pick our vegetables?
These questions and our ensuing actions have a moral foundation. As teachers we can bring these issues into our classrooms and invite our students to think about them to help them form their moral identities and, hopefully, to live their lives with goodness.
True goodness comes from within , and that’s the goal of a more democratic philosophy of classroom management: helping kids become managers of themselves by helping them to develop and shape their “self,” including character and self-discipline.
This exploration of goodness can be connected to classroom management and student discipline. Rather than using classroom management to “manage” students, it can be an important part of our curriculum by helping children grapple with complex moral issues. They develop their own sense of goodness and how they should behave both outside and inside the classroom, not because they are told to “be good” but because it is the right way to act in peaceful and caring communities. By helping students explore and discuss those outside-the-classroom issues-like racism, classism, or global warming-teachers can help them to shape their own senses of right and wrong, good and bad, justice and injustice.
When I taught elementary and middle school, one of the most important parts of our day was our class meeting. Class meetings were regular opportunities for students to engage in open talk and debate. Open discussion was important in my classroom throughout the day and across the curriculum, but class meetings were a time for the entire class community to come together and discuss topics that didn’t have to connect directly to what we were studying in other parts of our curriculum.
I first started having class meetings once a week, but they were so successful that they quickly became a daily part of our classroom. I’ve had class meetings with students in every grade from third through eighth, and I know other teachers who have them in the earlier grades. There are no age limits because everyone benefits from an open discussion about important issues. I always had a large rug in my classroom and for our meetings we all sat in a circle on the rug. (For teachers without a rug, I suggest arranging chairs in a circle.) I preferred having our meetings first thing in the morning, and they lasted about 30 minutes.
During our class meetings we talked about a wide variety of topics and issues. Some meetings were about current events, others focused on news from our lives. Some meetings emphasized problem solving, and many were on topics my students raised. We discussed everything from the health-care crisis to using Native-American symbols in sports, from classroom behavior problems to abuse of classroom supplies, from violence in video games to violence in our neighborhoods. All of these topics have embedded issues of goodness, and it was an important part of my job to pull those dimensions out and invite my students to share their perspectives about them. The dialogue of class meetings is a living model of the discourse that is necessary for a healthy and vibrant democracy.
Discussion on current events often started with the two newspapers I brought to school every day, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune . On some days we just talked about an item in a newspaper. But once a week we did “social issue journals,” an idea I borrowed from two teachers, Vikki Proctor and Ken Kantor. First, I passed out copies of an item from a newspaper (an editorial, short article, column, or comic). We read it, wrote our opinions in our journals, and then we shared, discussed, and debated our thoughts. Class meetings on social issue writing usually focused on controversial issues and social problems, such as the death penalty, gun control, flag burning, and prejudice. By helping children shape their opinions about issues such as these, we are helping them to shape their own sense of goodness-which can ultimately help them to “be good” in the classroom.
It is also important at times to talk about specific examples of goodness in our lives, such as discussing when countries around the world offer aid after a devastating earthquake or by reading an obituary about someone who risked his or her life during the Holocaust to help Jews escape the Nazis. One of the most important ways we can teach for goodness is by introducing children to strong role models of goodness, especially people past and present who have fought for justice. Needless to say, most of these activists are not in textbooks, which make it the teacher’s responsibility to bring their voices into their classroom.
I was the facilitator of the discussion. I did not shy away from posing questions or redirecting the conversation. As the teacher, that’s my job: to help my students see in new ways, think about issues they would not normally think about on their own, and consider different perspectives. It is also my job to help my students make connections between what we are discussing and their lives. If we were talking about sweatshop workers around the world, then I needed to help my students see how this is connected to them and to consider why they should care about people thousands of miles away that they don’t even know. Some have called this a “connectionist curriculum,” because it helps children see that we are all connected because we are all human beings and we share the same planet. At the foundation of teaching for goodness is teaching empathy, caring, and compassion, all of which can be integrated throughout a curriculum.
It takes time to make class meetings work. Many children spend their school days quiet, so expecting a class to jump right in and have excellent discussions at the start of the year is unrealistic. And in a system of schooling obsessed with facts and tests, children are seldom asked their opinions, especially about controversial political and moral issues. It’s easy to understand why teachers can get discouraged when starting to have class meetings. So teachers need to do more than just take the time for class meetings; they must help their students to understand why discussion and debate are so important to democracy and how this discourse can help us to be good people and create a better world. And perseverance pays off. Slowly, week after week, month after month, students start to talk and energetic debate begins to blossom.
For teachers, facilitating a discussion is a skill learned over many years. An array of problems can make the process more difficult, such as students talking over each other. When I had a class that did not have the self-control to take turns during class meetings, I started requiring “restating”-briefly summarizing what the previous person said. It was wonderful to see some students correct their classmates when their summaries were wrong. Restating greatly helped to teach self-control to many of my students. To help them learn through talking, I had to help them learn to listen.
Teachers as Models
Although my goal as a teacher was to encourage my students to let their voices be heard, I did not refrain from offering my own opinions during class meetings, journal writing, and discussions about newspaper articles. Like my students, I had a journal too. When my students wrote, I wrote my own responses to what we read. (And the more I wrote in my journal, the more some of my students wrote in their own journals.) After the students read their own journal entries I would often read aloud what I wrote.
Some people think it’s wrong for teachers to share their opinions on controversial topics with students, but I see that as one of my roles as a teacher. I wanted to model for them the active citizenship of staying informed and thinking about important issues. And I wanted to share my own perspectives on goodness and justice and my own ongoing engagement with moral dilemmas. Before I read my entries, I always emphasized that they were my opinions and that the students must think for themselves and form their own opinions. I did not tell my students what to think; I wanted them to think. Teachers need to trust that their students can separate the teacher’s opinions from their own opinions.
If we want to inspire our students to debate, form their own opinions, and be “good” people, we have to take a stand on bringing our opinions into the classroom. If we don’t, the discussion becomes an exercise in hypocrisy. Throughout the history of schooling in our country, teachers have been silenced. During the Iraq War my graduate students told stories in my classes about their school principals and superintendents forbidding them from bringing up the war with their students. In the nearby suburb of Evanston, Ill., administrators told high school teachers to remove their “NO WAR” and “PEACE” buttons from their classrooms. (Those who wore flag pins were not required to remove them. Gladly, some teachers spoke out against the button ban.) As professional educators, we must remove this gag and share our opinions, experiences, and even our emotions with our students.