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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Perspectives / Postcards from the Capitol

      Playing tourist this summer with my house guest, I noticed that in this her first trip to our nation's capital, my teacher friend was storing away tidbits of information to share in class with her students. I'll wager that the height of the Washington Monument (555 feet, 5 and 1/8 inches, for those who want to know) is going to figure in some geometry students' homework this year.
      Imparting tales of her own experiences is one way Pat manages to personally connect with kids in her classes. In fact, she regards this connection as so essential that as a department chair who hires new teachers, she screens out candidates who fail to volunteer some personal information about themselves during the interview. "If they can't chat with me, they won't be able to be a person with the kids," she told me.
      Something else happened the day we toured the monuments. Back at my home that evening, Pat was remarking how friendly the people in D.C. had been when the TV newscaster interrupted to say that two Capitol police officers had been gunned down that afternoon. This tragic event brought home once again the extent of violence in our society—and served as a reminder of the shootings that penetrated our schools last spring.
      Although creating a positive school climate is a matter of engaging students' minds and hearts, it is also about keeping students safe at school. To engage them, we need first to ease their fears. At the same time, we must make them more aware of the repercussions of violent actions—actions that children—perhaps even more so than their parents—are getting used to. Too accustomed to violence in the media to be shocked at graphic displays and growing up amidst random danger, some of our children are learning to accept violence as part of the natural order.
      This theme issue is dedicated to exploring ways to realize a positive school climate. Our authors remind us that a vital task is to make one-to-one connections with students. Although we must secure buildings and take all manner of precautions, we must take care not to make schools sterile, bureaucratic, and impersonal—places where it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to learn.
      Herb Kohl (p. 8) starts off with explaining the phrase "the discipline of hope." In his new book by that name, he chronicles his 36-year journey as a teacher. Throughout his career, he has designed alternatives to traditional classrooms, continuing to seek ways to reach the alienated, the bored, the angry, the hopeless, and the typical kid. His message rings clear: There is absolutely no place in school for humiliation. And there should be plenty of room for rich content learning about subjects that are interesting and important to the learners.
      Elizabeth Cohen (p. 18), another master teacher, writes about how to make sure that group work furthers the achievement and participation of all kids, especially those children who live on the periphery of cooperative groups. The strategies she describes start with convincing the class that most tasks require multiple intellectual abilities and that no one child will have all abilities. The teacher must set the stage by "assigning competence" to each child—a public recognition that lets children know their teacher knows them and that raises the whole group's expectations for learning.
      Several authors suggest ways to help students confront the consequences of aggressive or irresponsible behavior. In "Making Violence Unacceptable," for instance, Carole Remboldt (p. 32) details a systemic plan that begins with every adult staff member's promise not to ignore violent behavior. In "Effective In-House Suspension," Marilyn Gootman (p. 39) describes ways to teach students responsibility without shaming them.
      In a new column we introduce this month, "Policy Link," Joan Montgomery Halford reports on various safety legislation proposals that lawmakers are debating. For example, what is the best response to the appalling statistic that tells us that 5,000 minors in the United States are killed by guns each year? Educators who wrestle with the difficult task of creating a safe and positive climate at school may want to drop their legislator a postcard.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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