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It's a Good Thing

by Steven Wolk

When I taught elementary and middle school, one of the most important parts of our day was our class meeting. Class meetings were regular opportunities for students to engage in open talk and debate. Open discussion was important in my classroom throughout the day and across the curriculum, but class meetings were a time for the entire class community to come together and discuss topics that didn't have to connect directly to what we were studying in other parts of our curriculum.

I first started having class meetings once a week, but they were so successful that they quickly became a daily part of our classroom. I've had class meetings with students in every grade from third through eighth, and I know other teachers who have them in the earlier grades. There are no age limits because everyone benefits from an open discussion about important issues. I always had a large rug in my classroom and for our meetings we all sat in a circle on the rug. (For teachers without a rug, I suggest arranging chairs in a circle.) I preferred having our meetings first thing in the morning, and they lasted about 30 minutes.

During our class meetings we talked about a wide variety of topics and issues. Some meetings were about current events, others focused on news from our lives. Some meetings emphasized problem solving, and many were on topics my students raised. We discussed everything from the health-care crisis to using Native-American symbols in sports, from classroom behavior problems to abuse of classroom supplies, from violence in video games to violence in our neighborhoods. All of these topics have embedded issues of goodness, and it was an important part of my job to pull those dimensions out and invite my students to share their perspectives about them. The dialogue of class meetings is a living model of the discourse that is necessary for a healthy and vibrant democracy.

Discussion on current events often started with the two newspapers I brought to school every day, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune . On some days we just talked about an item in a newspaper. But once a week we did "social issue journals," an idea I borrowed from two teachers, Vikki Proctor and Ken Kantor. First, I passed out copies of an item from a newspaper (an editorial, short article, column, or comic). We read it, wrote our opinions in our journals, and then we shared, discussed, and debated our thoughts. Class meetings on social issue writing usually focused on controversial issues and social problems, such as the death penalty, gun control, flag burning, and prejudice. By helping children shape their opinions about issues such as these, we are helping them to shape their own sense of goodness-which can ultimately help them to "be good" in the classroom.

Good Examples

It is also important at times to talk about specific examples of goodness in our lives, such as discussing when countries around the world offer aid after a devastating earthquake or by reading an obituary about someone who risked his or her life during the Holocaust to help Jews escape the Nazis. One of the most important ways we can teach for goodness is by introducing children to strong role models of goodness, especially people past and present who have fought for justice. Needless to say, most of these activists are not in textbooks, which make it the teacher's responsibility to bring their voices into their classroom.

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