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when things you vaguely remember from middle school might be relevant and useful today

October 8, 2010

One night after work last week, I spent over an hour watching “It Gets Better” videos. They are touching outpourings of warmth from happy adults for GLBT students, strangers-who-are-not-strangers. I really like the project, but it has its detractors, people who think it doesn’t do enough. Over on Andrew Sullivan‘s blog, people are trying to figure out how we can change high school so that it’s not so hellish.

We can do better in our schools than expecting kids to just suffer through. I think that rather than trying to keep a constant eye on every student-to-student interaction, poised to swoop in at the first sign of untoward behavior–an impossible game of whack-a-mole– we can change the culture at public schools so that there are fewer bullies to begin with. Instead of teaching to the bottom of the class, instead of letting our kids languish in what amounts to a big holding pen for 13 years, immerse students in a rigorous curriculum that keeps them so busy learning, they don’t have time to be bullies. School becomes more than just forced socializing with its often-cruel pecking order. It instead becomes a community of scholars, engaging with each other about ideas.

“I wish that I could bake a cake out of rainbows and smiles, and we’d all eat it and be happy,” but I don’t think PSA campaigns about the evils of bullying are going to do much. I remember my school’s “character education” program and I remember the fearsome, wild creatures who rode my bus, the “bad kids” who threw pencils and cut class and smoked pot and didn’t do the math homework (hilarious to me, by the way, how scary those kids seemed to me back then. They really weren’t so bad in hindsight). “If character education is supposed to make kids behave, and treat each other nicely,” I thought, “there is no way this is going to work.” I would never have dared to confront a bully with something so mild, so wholesome, so lame as school-sanctioned language about compassion or whatever.

In 1998 or 99, my eighth grade year, I remember taking time in homeroom to drag our desks across the floor with much scraping of chairs and thumping of books until we were arranged in a circle, the better to facilitate discussion. This arrangement was introduced to us as something new and exciting and different, called a Paideia seminar–a progressive Socratic/liberal arts approach to K-12 that was pioneered at UNC-G by Mortimer Adler and introduced to Guilford County’s public school in the 90s.

Paideia classrooms function the way a good college class should. Didactic lecturing is limited to a small portion of the learning period, while a bunch of different activities and Socratic style seminars are used to teach discrete, testable items as well as the harder-to-quantify stuff like critical thinking, civic engagement, problem solving, the skills that give each student the capacity to fully participate in civic life. Adler, back in 1982, saw quality public education for all–equal access to equally good schooling, one track for all– as a crucial element in fulfilling the promise of our democracy. I bring it up in relation to bullying and It Gets Better because it turns out that Paideia might have a bigger impact on the culture of the schools than does explicit “character education.” Grain of salt, obviously, since these blurbs are coming from the people behind Paideia (but most of the mentions I found in academic journals were positive, too):

In addition to Paideia’s impact on achievement, the effects we observed on several measures of student affect are important to consider. In particular, the effects on interpersonal factors suggest that students in Paideia classrooms consistently experience less friction and alienation. Because of increased concern about school violence stemming from student alienation, this is a very important finding.”
1999 UNC-Greensboro Report

There was also powerful evidence that Paideia influenced students’ perceptions of the quality of schooling. The students claimed that teachers who implemented Paideia were better at explaining information, more able in ensuring that students had a good understanding, put more effort into teaching, taught in interesting ways, and showed by example that learning is fun. There was less friction in classes, less fooling around, students were considered more calm and not mean, and they felt safe.

(John Hattie, Influences on Student Learning, University of Auckland, 1999)

If this country gets serious about school reform, and if school districts get the funding and support to implement  programs like Paideia on a big scale, I bet we’d see the incidences of bullying—of everyone, not just GLBT kids—drop. And to specifically address bullying against the GLBT group, I’ll quickly say that I will never forget sex ed in 7th grade. The teacher was great, told us we could ask any questions we wanted. “Except,” she said, “I am absolutely forbidden to talk to you about homosexuality or masturbation.” Change that. Get rid of top-down, institutional homophobia and use our schools to disseminate a culture of acceptance—that’s something our students might start taking home to their parents.

More about Paideia (

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