In the United States, we should have a leg-up on the issue of respect and human dignity because our founding documents proclaim equality for all. All – not some. The American journey has been one long pilgrimage toward the realization of that ideal: for African Americans, for women, for the marginalized. We strive not just for equality, but for “a little respect,” as Aretha would say. Respect is the antidote for many troublesome “–isms” that plague us: the evils of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, age-ism. Americans have often celebrated their nation’s “tolerance.” But respect takes us one step further on the moral and
civic journey. Not simply “putting up with,” but honoring the other’s dignity -- in our words, in our actions, and in our hearts.
Every day teachers face the challenge of how to cultivate respect in their
classrooms. They do it by modeling, of course. And in the Core Virtues program, by regular reading of the inspiring and often funny stories we recommend. Literature sets a positive tone, and does some heavy lifting, helping children fall in love with the good, but quality follow-through is necessary too. Some teachers have a jar on their desk, and give students a chance each day to jot down one observation of a fellow student being, for example, respectful of another. These are read-out at week’s end in mutual recognition of student efforts. On the playground and in the classroom teachers themselves “can catch students being good.” Respect is real when Antonio helps Margaret in a wheelchair get through the door, or Sofia listens patiently to a long story by a child with a stutter. Teachers can celebrate these moments and build up our students.
But quality teaching involves correction as well as pats on the back. Bullying or hurtful and divisive name-calling are the most common transgressions against respect in schools, and the Core Virtues approach is an inspiration to do better and a powerful language of rebuttal. (“Do you think you were acting respectfully when you called Zack a doofus?”) On the playground, teachers may also encounter instances of “dehumanizing play” -- play that mimics ugly aspects of human behavior and models contempt. Children, especially in substantive academic programs like the Core Knowledge Sequence, will be introduced to many dimensions of human history. They will learn about great accomplishments, but they will also learn about forced labor to build the Great Wall, Roman gladiator contests, Viking pillaging, Aztec human sacrifice, and race-based slavery in the United States. These are all fodder for young imaginations.
Over the course of two decades, here are some things I’ve witnessed: children on the playground mimicking Aztec human sacrifice by gathering insects, pinning them to a stone, and pulling the bugs apart. Kids re-enacting Roman gladiator contests by giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the “life” of one scared kid in the ring. Third graders who pillaged and looted, pulling posters off the walls in the halls to mimic the Vikings. And a recess instance of “masters and slaves," in which second graders divided themselves into those groups, and started to order each other around with pretend whips.
Teachers should close with a mini "history of human rights," which is this: we human beings haven’t been and still aren’t perfect, but we learn from our past and we must keep growing. Review with your class the history of human rights. Here it is in a nutshell:
You are studying the past, and learning about ways human beings in other times and places behaved. Sometimes well, but sometimes in ways that were cruel and disrespectful. Think about the evil of slavery, which used to be common, but is now illegal. It was horrible. There are many other examples. We are not proud of everything we humans did. We’ve been figuring out over time how to build a better world and become better people, and respect each other more. We don’t always succeed. But what does the American Declaration of Independence say? That ALL are created equal. Every single one of us deserves respect. Respect means treating each other with high regard, and our world with care. When you play, it’s OK to run, to compete, and to pretend all sorts of things, but play should be fun for everyone involved. If it's not, ask yourself if you’re showing respect.
Mary Beth Klee (who invites you to click above and watch the Queen of Soul in action.)
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