How can we create more just and democratic schools?

In Marvin Berkowitz’s Hot Topic discussion this afternoon, he didn’t hesitate to cut right to the point. “We need to make schools less like prisons,” he said. “When you think about it, it’s disconcerting how much the analogy fits. How can we create more enlightened and just schools?” Marvin’s talk focused on utilizing empowerment and democracy to accomplish this.

Interestingly, the methods we currently use to teach character are a far cry from those we seem to think are best. Proof? How many parents, when thinking about raising their kids to practice good behavior, would:

  • buy posters with one inspirational word on them
  • name rooms things like “happy hallways” and “kind kitchen”
  • hand out slips of paper for good behavior that can be redeemed for prizes
  • convene the family once a month to announce the “best character winner”

“If this stuff is so effective, why don’t we do it for our own children?”, Berkowitz asks. “We have to think carefully about what really effects character.”

Berkowitz made the point that until we fix the way adults behave in school, we will be hypocritical in telling kids how they should behave. “One of the things we do in character education is look at the way we want our kids to be…Character education is fundamentally about a way of being. We want kids to be a certain way, but we also have to pay attention to the way we ‘be’…This is the importance of role modeling, the way we ‘be’ around kids, is the way they will ‘be’ themselves…The single greatest way to impact a child’s character is in the way you treat them.”

Unfortunately, with the strict restrictions and lack of engagement in many schools today, we are more closely equipping our children for prison life and for the kind of active, engaged life that exists outside of prison.

“People take better care of their own things.”, says Berkowitz. He pointed out that we need to give kids “voice”, which is a key component of giving them part of the ownership and responsibility for their classrooms and schools. “It’s very important that kids feel ownership of their schools and classrooms… If you’ve got a bunch of kids in the room, ask them to help solve the problems. We’re wasting their brains by trying to solve everything on our own… As soon as you shift to thinking of your classroom as 25-30 people that can work together to come up with solutions to problems, the challenges are no longer insurmountable.””

Dr. Berkowitz shared the story of a teacher who was struggling with solving a bathroom vandalism issue. Frequently, boys in her class were jamming trash into the toilets and sinks, causing them to flood. It was difficult for her to monitor behavior in the restroom, and she was having a hard time coming up with a solution. So she asked the class. What should they do to solve the bathroom problem? The class thought about it, discussed it, and came up with the idea of bathroom monitors. Beyond that, they also voted on two members of the class that would take responsibility for monitoring the bathrooms. The problem was quickly solved, largely because the class internalized the problem as their own.

“Problems are opportunities to engage with students and develop characters,” says Dr. Berkowitz. In fact, one of the keys to developing character in students is learning to recognize problems and challenges as opportunities for character development, and engaging with students to solve those problems.