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This year schools must teach all students good habits and values, such as respect and honesty. The question: Will older students pay attention?
By RON MATUS
Published July 11, 2004
Teacher Jeannie Wallace called it her "class from h, e, double toothpicks," which, truth be told, spells "hell."
Offered last year for the first time at Dixie Hollins High School in Pinellas County, the class was mandatory for freshmen and dovetailed with a state requirement for something called character education.
The goal: Teach good habits, grounded in such values as respect, honesty and responsibility.
The response: Ugly.
Despite Wallace's attempts at discipline, students in one period shouted answers without raising their hands, sharpened pencils while she lectured and threw paper balls at a trash can from across the room - again and again.
"That's just routine," Wallace said.
Her experiences help explain why nearly every state in the nation is pushing character education, a movement that seeks to make common decency a foundation of school culture. It also shows why the next step in Florida - making character education work in middle and high schools - is expected to be tough.
Many older students will view lessons about politeness and civility as "airy fairy stuff," said Darrell Hefte, a former teacher who now leads conflict resolution workshops in schools and prisons.
The concept sounds good, he said at the Gus A. Stavros Institute in Largo this week, between seminars at a character education conference for Pinellas teachers. But "how's it going to be in the real world?"
Some real-world targets offered their take: Good luck.
"They're trying," said Lorin Johnson, 14, an incoming freshman at Pinellas Park High School. "But kids don't care."
In 1999, the Florida Legislature mandated character education for grades K-5 and in 2002 required it be taught in every grade by the beginning of the upcoming school year. In many districts, individual schools are allowed to shape their own approaches.
The change can be as subtle as teachers greeting students with handshakes or as formal as listening to inspirational speakers in the auditorium. In some schools, teachers will spin "teachable moments" into lessons about courtesy. Morning announcements will carry messages about values. Even bus drivers will offer pats on the back.
Character education "can be taught in any subject," said Linda Jones, who oversees the program in Pinellas County.
The idea that schools should teach values, morals, ethics - right from wrong, basically - has ancient roots, but it resprouted in the early 1990s. Despite critics who pan it as fuzzy and feel-good and others who fear it masks a political agenda, character education has gained ground ever since.
The prompt: A belief that too many students are out of control.
If teachers and surveys are right, students have never been ruder, bullying is epidemic and cheating is rampant.
In a 2002 survey of 12,000 high school students by the Josephson Institute of Ethics in California, 74 percent of kids admitted they cheated on an exam at least once in the past year - up from 61 percent in 1992.
In the bigger picture, there is a broad belief that American society is more corrupt, too.
Professional athletes use steroids. Parents cheat on their taxes. The vice president uses the F-word.
Kids absorb it all.
"Sometimes they use some choice words. It's not just "no,"' said substitute teacher Doris Lewis. "Even in kindergarten, they can be feisty."
At this week's conference, keynote speaker Hal Urban, a former high school teacher turned national lecturer, told more than 200 teachers and guidance counselors what many already believe:
In the 1950s, home and school shaped kids. Now mass media does.
"We're trying to raise Leave it to Beaver children in a Beavis and Butt-head world," Urban said.
Character education is one way to inoculate them, proponents say.
They describe it as a process, not a program - a culture, not a class. "It should be part of the actual ethos of the school," said Alice Loeb, general curriculum supervisor in Hillsborough County.
It takes many forms.
At Sulphur Springs Elementary School in Tampa, the principal read a "character word" of the day every day, and told a story to go with it. One day, the story was about former President Woodrow Wilson, who couldn't read until he was 9.
The word: Perseverance.
In a Broward County high school, students brought keepsakes and explained to other students why they were important. One brought a junior high yearbook her friends made for her when she couldn't afford the official one.
The lesson: Empathy.
Because the field is so new, there's little data to show whether character education programs work, said Marvin Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an expert on the subject. But in a recent review of 33 programs from around the country, he found progress in many cases, including higher grades and less drug use.
A review of the Pinellas program by University of South Florida psychology professor Tom Massey found measurable change, too - "significantly" lower disciplinary referrals and suspensions in elementary schools that most thoroughly infused character education into their classrooms.
Boosters say those children will stay on a straighter, narrower path as they move into upper grades.
Will the same message work there?
At Madeira Beach Middle School last year, teachers handed out "Buccaneer Bucks" for good behavior, such as picking up trash or stopping a fight. Not a bad idea, said Tiffany Janson, 13, who was at the school last year.
But the fake cash could only be traded in for things like candy, granola bars and pencils.
"A pencil? That's like elementary school," Janson said.
Soon kids were using the do-gooder money for an edgier pursuit, she said: gambling.
Clearly, character education messages must be retailored for older students, said Massey, the USF professor.
Middle school students often think antidrinking and antismoking slogans are silly, he said. But show them an ex-smoker who needed a tracheotomy to breathe, or a paramedic who can describe wrecks caused by alcohol, and they perk up.
At this week's conference, one speaker advocated a kind of cultural jujitsu.
Since students are so immersed in pop culture, use it to "gig 'em in" and inspire debates about right and wrong, said Lee Miller, an ethics instructor at St. Petersburg College.
"What kid could resist talking about Janet Jackson and her body part being displayed on national television?" Miller said.
Dana Morgan, 16, could probably think of some.
At her school, Osceola High in Seminole, kids routinely curse teachers and thrown desks are not uncommon, she said.
Will character education help?
"No," Morgan said. "So many will say, "What? Child, please. I'm grown."'
- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified July 11, 2004, 01:00:43]