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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"Just Because": A Random Act of Unkindness

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer

A friend of mine was bicycling through a quiet neighborhood one day last fall when, like a good citizen, she slowed to a halt at a stop sign. When my friend started pedaling again, a teenage girl who, flanked by a group of friends, was standing in the street near the corner as if she were going to cross, suddenly slugged my friend in the arm, knocking her off her bike and onto the ground.

As the gaggle of teens behind her broke out laughing, the girl looked impassively at my friend, who staggered to her feet, and said, unprompted, "Just because." After making a few insensitive comments, the youngsters headed away as my friend -- shaken, bruised, and bloodied by her impact on the pavement -- walked her bike along her intended route until she had recovered sufficiently to mount it and continue along her way.

The bruise on her arm where the girl had struck her remained visible for a couple of weeks. For just as long, she could barely use the arm she had landed on, and months later, it still ached at the point of impact. But the most acute -- and most chronic -- damage was to her soul. The thought that a group of adolescents could so callously inflict senseless pain and display such insensitivity toward another human being was a heavier blow to her than the physical impact.

This incident is minor on the continuum of inhumane acts, but its very banality is disturbing. It got me to thinking about some of the tenets The George Lucas Educational Foundation stands for: social and emotional learning, emotional intelligence, character education. It's easy to be cynical, to decide that it doesn't matter how many classroom meetings and cooperative-learning activities and affirmations and validations children experience at school if a family -- a community, a world -- can produce a child who commits an act like that, so petty yet so reprehensible.

But we, as educators, cannot surrender; a primary function of our profession is to help children, regardless of the mitigating forces in society, attain a full measure of humanity. Edutopia.org articles such as "How To: Teach Character in the Classroom" and "'We're Here to Raise Kids': Character Development Is Key" attest to the drive we have to accomplish this formidable task. (See our Emotional Intelligence page for more features on the topic.)

What do you think about this issue? Does character education in schools have a significant effect on children's emotional growth? Is it worth the effort, considering how many contradictory stimuli, including influential accounts and footage of celebrity belligerence and other antisocial behavior, exist in the world? Is it sensible to believe that the girl who said "Just because" might have pulled her punch -- or might never have considered striking my friend in the first place -- if she'd learned better behavior in school, regardless of external influences? I'd be interested to read your thoughts.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a society, what else can we expect from our children when parents have little involvement? I am constantly appalled at the music, video games and R rated movies my 4th grade students have easy access to.

I agree that parents want to be friends with their children first. I've had many parents tell me parenting is hard because they do not want their child mad at them! For this reason they never tell their kids no. These parents need to wake up and start paying attention to the kind of exposure their children are getting from all the inappropriate material that the parents themselves have purchased for them.

Stacy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The value of character education can't be replaced in the school system. It is often easiest to say that there isn't any point, as the efforts that we make aren't reinforced when the students get home. To me, that's more of an excuse than a reason. Students depend on their teachers more than we think they do and if we don't take the time to make a valiant effort in improving their character, they won't either.

This year, we, as a staff, have started a Character Building program. The students meet once a month in small groups to discuss different aspects of character development. And to keep as consistent as possible, the students are with the same teacher until they graduate, and then the teacher begins again with a new group of students. Even though this program has just begun this year, we are already making progress.

And this reminds us that it's the little things that count. Every single thing that we can do to build character with our students is worth the effort. There isn't anything worth having more than good character.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

First of all, I am sorry to hear about your friend. Senseless acts of violence shake and frustrate me. They hurt people on so many levels.
I teach in a juvenile prison. The acts these children have committed to land themselves in a maximum secuity facility are pretty bad to put it mildly. It is ESSENTIAL that we incorporate character education into our lesson plans or when the students are released, they remain the same on the inside. Unfortunately, a lot of what my students have learned came from their parents so we, as educators, can not rely on character building at home to be a given.
I have seen dramatic changes in our students during the time they are incarcerated. Character building has literally saved the lives of many students who came in apathetic and left with the notion of what empathy is and the knowledge of how to care for others as well as themselves.
I am a strong proponent of character education and hope that we continue to help children see what is accepted, on the whole, as being "right" and "wrong."

Lisa Devereux's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I fondly remember watching Little House on the Prairie as well. My parents made certain that the programs we watched were appropriate, and it was much easier with fewer channels to consider. I try to do the same with my own children, however it is difficult. My five year olds were watching a Spongebob cartoon and he was calling one of the other characters "stupid". My girls were very upset that he was being so mean. Needless to say, parents cannot leave their children in front of the TV alone because even cartoon characters send the wrong messages.
I love your idea of allowing your students time to express themselves during "talk time". I will be getting a new group of students in a few days for a marking period of Health and I would like to incorporate this activity. My 8th graders could really use a platform to discuss issues that are important to them. Please give me any clues as to how to make this activity successful.

Eric's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our elementary school has successfully adopted a literature-based character building program. We have a time period specifically for meetings to discuss/teach one of the four cornerstones: manners, self-control, kindness, and courage. In addition, we put together an assembly geared specifically for each cornerstone.

Typically, an assembly begins with an overview of our expectations and ideas expressed in the meetings. Then a teacher reads an appropriate book related to the designated character trait. The book is scanned and projected onto the large screen, and it is evident that the students are following along. It concludes with skits put on by two classrooms. It's all about getting the students actively participate. I even perform interactive gameshows based on popular television and board games.

Throughout their experience at our school, the students are constantly shown, told, involved in, and reminded of their character development. The key is making and devoting the time, which luckily, our administration supports.

Tom's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Some of the postings are very disturbing. I think we should be modeling and teaching qualities of good character every chance we get...and it should start in kindergarten. In an ideal world, character is modeled and taught at home, but we know this is not always the case. A school needs to be a place with a climate of respect and an environment where everyone exemplifies good character.

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a PreKindegarten teacher, I whole-heartedly believe that character educaiton shoud stay a pat of the school day. There are too many kids who are learning these things at home, we need to work on them at school!

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too have been teaching for four years, and it seems that at some point nearly every day I wonder, what has happened to children? Where has the idea of respecting others, other students as well as teachers/adults gone? I teach PreKindergarten, four and five year old students, and I am already wondering this. I feel it is essential to teach character education, but I also struggle with the feeling that it is not solely our responsibility as teachers or as a school. Unfortunately, sometimes we are the only ones in a child's life who will teach character education, so we must find the time to do this at school. It is true that we cannot change what is taught at home or what a child is exposed to at home, but we can control what happens at school.

Carol's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's true today's parents want to be "friends" with their children instead of being their parents. My own parents never cared if I was mad at them. They drew their line in the sand and as children, teenagers, and even now as adults my brother and sister and I all know where the line is and not to cross it. We learned manners and respect that have fallen by the wayside in today's society. In my own class my students look at me as if I've grown a third eye when I have them say "Yes ma'am" or "Please." So in my classroom and in my school character education is woven into our daily interactions with each other. My students know by the end of the first month of school that there will be no harassing, torturing, or malicious beahvior toward each other in our room. They know when they walk through the door they have entered a place where they are safe and free to be who they are without having to worry about ridicule. Many times I tell them we are like a family once we enter that room. I am the Mother and they are all my children. We may squabble about ideas but we never resort to making fun of each other or saying hurtful things to each other. By this time of the year is so nice to sit back and just observe the positive interactions between my students. They genuinely care about each other. Our principal retired last week. On Friday we had a big schoolwide assembly in her honor. I looked over to where my class was sitting on the floor just in time to see one of my third grade boys drape his arm over the shoulder of another and pat him ever so sweetly. About this same time, our principal was talking to the kids about being nice..."Because Nice Matters" was her motto. My boys have certainly learned that lesson, and it brought a tear to my eye to realize this wonderful lesson they have taken to heart.

Shannon Benzor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel that character building should begin at an early age. As a high school teacher, I see so many kids that have potential but because they have never been taught anything different they continue on the destructive path they are on. I can't elp but think that if they were taught early on good character lessons some despite their circumstances would be way better off.

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