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March 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 6

Special Topic / Finding Jewels in the Rubble

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Character is not determined by what happens to us, but rather by how we deal with what happens to us. Here is how schools across the country are responding to the events of September 11.

Enough time has passed since the horrific events of September 11, 2001, to derive perspective from them. As I traveled around the country working with teachers last fall, I heard a great many stories of how students and schools coped with a crisis that they neither could have imagined nor could have been prepared for.
Schools throughout the country had to discover and select strategies for ensuring students' safety and handling their reactions to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. With no precedents to rely on, the strategies varied from closing school, to discussing the events in various degrees of detail, to holding grief and anxiety sessions.
One effective way to deal with loss and overcome a feeling of helplessness is to surmount smaller, related obstacles. Little victories are important to the healing process. We cannot stop international terrorism or erase the fear that terrorism engenders—but we can teach students how to stop a bully from terrorizing their school.
We can derive a multitude of positive, life-enhancing lessons from the terrorist attack and its consequences. Schools can and should play a major role in helping students improve the ways they treat others, participate in the school community, and understand their place in a world that we hoped they would never have to experience.
Saying that good always comes from bad is a cliché that offers no comfort to those still suffering—and that, to a degree, includes all of us. But to say that good cannot come from bad hurts us worse. All experiences change us and certainly offer the opportunity to make us wiser. Here are some approaches that schools can use to help students become wiser following the events of September 11.

Redefining Heroes

In Perry, Oklahoma, a 9th grader noted, “I have seen this on TV almost all my life, but never in the United States, except for the Oklahoma City bombing. It's scary when it's at home.”
  • Stopping fights
  • Reporting dangerous behavior
  • Standing up to bullies and defending their victims
  • Watching the school neighborhood for suspicious outsiders.
Even low-achieving students and those with behavior problems can find heroic qualities within themselves. They may not be top students or great athletes, but they can defend the defenseless. Gang members can help eliminate drug sales around the school perimeter and patrol for dangerous strangers. Why not reward those who demonstrate these qualities with New York Fire Department hats? Everyone has the potential to be a hero in small, meaningful ways.

Developing Altruism

Upon hearing of the evnts of September 11, a 4th grader from Kansas City asked, “Is this the end of the world?”
Another powerful image to emerge from the tragedy is the outpouring of charity from around the world. People have demonstrated empathy for victims of the attacks by donating time, money, and blood to help them.
Schools can ask students to consider how they can contribute to their own communities, beginning with the school itself. Schools can teach students about altruism and establish student service as an expectation of going to school.
  • Visiting nursing homes and talking with lonely residents.
  • Collecting and delivering food for the homeless. (Check with local authorities for regulations. Students in Marin County, California, were blocked from similar acts of service until they followed safety guidelines.)
  • Visiting children in hospitals.
  • Writing letters to soldiers, pen pals in developing countries, or patients in hospitals.
  • Tutoring younger students or those who are weaker in specific subjects.
  • Performing at special school assemblies student-written plays that stress school improvement themes (such as stopping bullying).

Building Community

At Colchester Middle School in Colchester, Vermont, a Bosnian refugee put her head in her lap and cried, “No, no, I don't want another war. It's supposed to be safe here.”
The sign in Paris read, “We are all New Yorkers.” The entire world was surprised by the sense of community that developed soon after the attacks. Community spirit was dramatically evident throughout the United States and the world. This sense of community helped survivors cope during the next few pain-filled days and weeks. Pundits commented that family and community had become higher priorities in people's lives as they hunkered down. We found support, comfort, and safety in the sanctity of community.
  • Identifying and “adopting” students who need more than usual attention, seem to be friendless, or are generally unwelcome in the school. One or more faculty members can informally take them under their wing and provide missing support.
  • Being more inclusive. Identify or invent strategies for including more students who are generally excluded from school opportunities. Find alternative ways to give students consequences for misbehavior rather than removing them from field trips, the playground, the lunchroom, or the classroom.
  • Recruiting the gangs, the crews, and the hoodlums to become more involved with helping the school. Find tasks especially related to their particular skills to contribute to your school.
Students, too, can be involved in developing ideas for improving the community of the school. Various classes—such as science, art, language arts, math, music, and social studies—can incorporate interdisciplinary projects with a community theme. Drama classes can offer performances with community as the central theme.

Accepting Others

At Lexington School in Oklahoma, a 2nd grader said, “Some people had their feelings hurt and did bad things. A lot of people were hurt by what they did, so we should try not to hurt anyone's feelings anymore.”
One of the negative outcomes of the attack was the hatred shown to people who appeared to be of Arab origin. Bigotry remains a serious problem in the United States, and one that permeates our school system. In schools, cliques and bullying are often the result of negative stereotyping. Now is an excellent time to help students learn about bigotry and stereotyping and relate it to their personal lives.
Wilma Carlyle, a 4th grade teacher from Boston, begins discussions of these topics by asking groups, What is good about stereotyping others? What is bad about it? Where does it exist in our school? What can we do about it?
We talk to students about the importance of accepting others, but these discussions often take place on a theoretical level. Now we have an opening to drive home the practical necessity of tolerance.

Valuing Democratic Ideals

In Greenbrier, Arkansas, the school board has encouraged high school students to recite the Lord's Prayer before football games—in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling last year. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry joined 7th and 8th graders in prayer at school assemblies since September 11 and now touts school prayer as a campaign issue.
Another negative outcome of the attack has been the willingness of some who are fearful of terrorism to sacrifice U.S. Constitutional rights for public safety. Government agencies have been granted new powers to increase wiretapping, detain immigrants for interminable times, and reduce the number of student visas.
What better time than now to discuss with students the compromises involved in balancing safety and freedom? The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights take on no greater importance than when they are under attack.
For students to become well-informed, wise citizens, they must understand that our freedoms are precious and difficult to protect under dire circumstances. Begin with discussions of school rules and how they provide safety to students. Then look at student freedoms. You may want to discuss controversial issues, such as whether locker searches are constitutional. How about discussions of whether the students in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who warned of a plot to terrorize their school, are heroes or snitches?
The United States faces hard questions about safety versus freedom. In the future, we may face even more questions. Our future depends on informed citizens who understand the sacrifices on both ends. The place to create these citizens is in school.

Finding Common Ground

Students identified as coming from dysfunctional homes in King-Westwood Elementary School in Kalamazoo, Michigan, impatiently wanted their regular TV programs back. They couldn't focus or talk about the pain.
The events of September 11 and the ongoing conflict underscore the urgent need to learn to get along with those who disagree with us. Letters to the editor and our public discourse in general frequently show an “us versus them” mentality that on occasion takes a nasty tone—conservatives versus liberals, warmongers versus peaceniks. I often wish that we could begin from common ground before offering differing opinions: “Although I agree that terrorism needs to stop, I do not believe that bombing Afghanistan is the right answer” or “I know that those who believe that killing leads to more killing are often right, but in this case a stronger response is required.”
Students can benefit greatly from learning to find common ground with others in resolving conflict. In academic debates, we can teach students to begin with statements that seek this common ground. For example, rather than say, “That's stupid—Native Americans should never have been moved off their land by European expansionists,” we can teach students to begin with, “I understand the need that led to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, but I still believe that there was a better solution than displacing the native people.”
In interpersonal situations, the first step is for teachers to communicate with students from a common-ground perspective: “I'm glad that friendship is an important value to you. It is important to me, too, but I still need you to come to class on time. Can you check in with your friends and still not be late?” We can then teach students to communicate similarly during interpersonal conflict: “It's obvious that we both want to sit in this same chair in the lunchroom, but there must be a better way than fighting to decide who gets it.”

Avoiding the Blame Game

One of the most controversial consequences of the terrorist attack is the attempt to blame others for causing it. Critics have blamed U.S. policies, Israel, all Muslims, poverty, and U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Understanding underlying causes plays an important part in creating a better future. But such causes cannot negate individual responsibility. Students must learn to acknowledge responsibility for their actions: “I hit her because I decided to solve my problem with that choice” instead of “She made me hit her.”
  • If Sally hits Liza because Liza called Sally a bad name, who is responsible?
  • If a student is addicted to cigarettes, does he choose to light up each time he smokes?
  • If Randy works after school and is too tired to study, is he responsible for his poor grade on the test?
These situations and others like them get at the complexity of determining where responsibility rests. Students can learn that no matter how complex the issues, we are still responsible for the consequences of our choices.

The Next Great Generation

High school students from San Francisco, noting a change in the general attitude of people toward one another after last September, speculated that now maybe people would become less focused on what they own and more focused on how they treat others.
The World War II generation has been labeled the “last great generation.” Because the United States has been relatively free of conflict within its borders and prosperous by international standards, some people accuse the current generation of being soft. We complain that young people ask for too much, have no concept of sacrifice, and are far too self-centered.
Perhaps out of the tragedy of September 11 we can find a new self-awareness and strength. We can teach our students that choices have consequences, that people are suffering around the world, and that character is developed over time. The next “great generation” may be the one we are now teaching.
Perhaps the greatest jewel we can unearth from the rubble is the knowledge that What do I get? is the wrong question. Maybe now our students will learn that a better question is, What can I do?
End Notes

1 Holding, Reynolds. (2001, November 11). Holding court. San Francisco Chronicle, p. D1.

Richard L. Curwin (1944–2018) was an author, trainer, speaker, and experienced education practitioner who worked with teachers, administrators, and parents throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, South America, and the Middle East.

His works explored issues of student discipline, motivation, and behavior and classroom management. He served as a 7th grade educator, a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, and a college professor.

Curwin and his colleague, Allen N. Mendler, founded Discipline Associates and created the Discipline with Dignity program.

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