"Logical consequences...teach kids to make choices and be responsible. Logical consequences say to kids, 'You hold all the cards. It's your choice.” Alex J. Packer, Bringing Up Parents (Free Spirit Publishing, 1992)
"Once a child has fulfilled the obligation that comes with responsibility, he or she gains a sense of satisfaction.... It's these positive feelings that help motivate the child to continue taking on responsibilities in the future." Lawrence Balter, professor of applied psychology, New York University
I joined the seminar "Stories Around the World in Film and Literature" offered by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, so I could develop a teaching unit; I did not have to think about the topic of my unit for long. As a teacher, I felt instinctively that the unit would have to deal with the moral education of my students. I was also driven by the strong belief that the earlier we focus on right and wrong with our children the more assured we may be of them growing into responsible young people in the future.
Surrounded by everyday instances of students' chaotic demeanor in the classrooms and hallways, listening to teachers' conversations about inappropriate deeds of their pupils, disciplining my students every hour in school, I had not yet discovered the actual scale of this nationwide issue, until I researched books on the subject of my unit. Some specific instances of the young generation's actions and speech shook me deeply. Many teachers say that about twenty years ago students at least knew right from wrong. Today, to our terror, we clearly see that many children simply don't know the difference between right and wrong. They believe it is acceptable to pick up another person's property without permission, or to interrupt a conversation between two adults.
Many sources scream about a new kind of illiteracy in our society – moral illiteracy(1). In addition to millions who can't read and write, there are millions more who possess confused notions about values. Fortunately, I found a good number of books for teachers laying out "character education" for our children.
The student population of an elementary school (I teach at Timothy Dwight elementary school in New Haven, CT) needs to be extensively educated in regard to moral and ethical bases and principles. Regretfully, our eight or nine-year-old children often lack the basic concepts of moral behavior. I would be elated to see our children doing their homework regularly, being helpful to their parents, speaking an appropriate language in school and at home, and acting courteously to their teachers and each other. I believe that the moral aspect of education is even more significant than the academic one. In my opinion, right in elementary school we need to do everything possible to fill the regrettable gap in the ethical upbringing of the students. One effective way to begin this process is through teaching authentic stories found in good literature and cinema.
In designing this unit on teaching responsibility to children I pursue two separate major goals: I want this unit to teach some important moral principals such as to be responsible for one's deeds and relationships with others, and I want the unit to be academically rich in developing pertinent knowledge skills applicable to understanding a story. I find that along with the lack of moral training, students need academic understanding of the tools necessary for their success: language, rhetoric, imaginative storytelling. Before they can portray their own situations as stories, they need to understand the elements involved: characters, themes, motives, settings, conflicts, solutions, etc.
How can stories contribute to student acquisition of moral values, such as responsibility? We can otherwise agree that stories provide a myriad of good examples, that our students may not observe in their day-to-day life. Stories tell our youngsters about the codes of conduct they need to know. They contain accessible scenarios of behavior, hopefully the behavior we want to instill in kids. Children just need to understand them and identify with the characters in those scenarios. We know that emotional attachment to goodness, or a desire to do the right thing, can be instilled.
Stories help to make sense out of life. Life is represented in stories where different characters are interconnected in plots that show decisions with consequences. Students can take lessons from these consequences. Knowing stories, modeling them, building on them, students can present their own lives as stories. This is especially critical for children as they search for a sense of meaning. And if this sense of meaning is not reinforced with more complex stories, then there simply can be no moral growth. Responsibility means the "ability to respond" to what happens. Most stories are about consequences of actions, thus about responsibility. Responsibility defines how characters relate to each other, to themselves, to their environment.
This unit offers written stories as well as fiction films. When we look at a film with students we will identify all characteristic elements of a story, describe main characters, and analyze the central theme or important message the film carries. It is not accidental that I have selected foreign films for my unit. I want my students to have some meaningful exposure to different cultures and their everyday routines by the vivid and available means of cinema. I strive to help students obtain a sense of belonging in the world's community. The well-being of our future communities will depend on this. To achieve this goal I have chosen to display how children of their age in other countries confront dilemmas and make choices. My students should know that it is not only for them that choices are often not easy to make, that children on other continents live through hardships and challenges as well. But with the right choices we all can overcome them and become stronger and more successful.
This unit covers a period of six weeks. I will begin by spending two weeks on
The Little Prince
, partially because this story is related in text and film, so the students will learn to work with two kinds of media during this unit. I understand that fourth grade students are developmentally not quite ready to read the whole book. So, I will reinforce the ideas about the responsibility of the Prince for his rose and planet by showing the film
The Little Prince
(2004; directed by Francesca Zambello; in English; runtime 88 minutes). We will begin by watching the film and during the screening we will stop at the chapters I want my students to read and work on. I intend to use three chapters from
The Little Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (chapters V, VIII, XXI). I am particularly excited about this choice, because this story is a classic world tale, which for a long time has been taught to children throughout the world. I would be thrilled to familiarize my students with this story, helping them to become a part of the global village.
The third week will be devoted to the African movie
The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun
the fourth week we will work with the Iranian film
Children of Heaven
. In the fifth week we'll focus on the Greek myth
Icarus and Daedalus
, and the sixth week will be used for performing culminating activities. With every week I hope to build levels of complication, so students can see their growing ability to recognize responsible actions and derive value from them. Students will, hopefully, grasp that all kinds of responsibility are interrelated.
The stories in this unit both in film and literature originate from four different countries of the world: France, Senegal, Iran, and ancient Greece. I believe that children in American public school should encounter the stories of other cultures that show perspectives on a universal notion that has no boundaries between countries. Therefore in the concluding lessons of the unit, students will use their acquired knowledge to compare the four kinds of responsibility studied - family responsibilities, responsibility in relationships (friendship), responsibility for one's own actions and words, and responsibility for the environment – and to draw conclusions about the meaning of responsibility in general. They will also illustrate and speculate about all the responsibilities of one of the characters that they became familiar with in this unit on a poster.
Although this unit may be taught with some modifications in any classroom, I developed it for fourth grade bilingual students. As an ESL teacher, I work with two groups of the student population: English language learners, who may just have arrived from other countries, and bilingual students (in our district, these are children with a Latin American background). These students completed thirty months in the district bilingual program, and are entitled to Language Transitional Support Service (LTSS). They already developed their BISC (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) - conversational language – often called playground language, but are still in need of CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) – academic language, necessary for success in school. Therefore in this unit I stress specifically working on academic skills while reading and viewing stories about responsibility.
I made a commitment to develop this unit in hopes of awakening those healthy grains of character in my students that desperately need some nurturing support - good soil, sun and water, thought-provoking humanistic stories and films - so they could grow into beautiful personalities with golden hearts and pure souls.