One of the best ways to find out what your children are learning at school, since they can't seem to find the words when you ask, is to sort through the mess in their backpacks.
The last backpack load of the school year is especially revealing, since the teachers insist that the kids empty their desks of all the forgotten permission slips and notes home before they will promote them to the next grade. Though it is a little late in the game, you finally get a look at what your children have spent an academic year learning.
Unfortunately, this was my introduction to "values education," the addition of right 'n' wrong to the Three R's.
At my children's school, it was called "Wellness Day," and their backpacks revealed a mishmash of lessons on everything from bicycle safety and good nutrition to conflict resolution and stress.
I learned that my 10-year-old son thinks that when "Tony" grabs the ball from "Dan," "Dan" should punch "Tony." Obviously, lessons in conflict resolution are necessary for children from even the most well-intended homes.
However, when "Jan" accidentally broke "Becky's" crayons, Joe wrote that "Jan" should tell the truth or she would be in "big trubble." It is also obvious that Joe needs to spend as much of his school day on spelling as on conflict resolution.
I am a reluctant convert to the notion that values education is necessary for the sake of those children whose only exposure to social interaction is barked commands and back talk. But whose values? And what is a parent's role?
"Any exchange between a teacher and a student necessarily involves the teaching of values," says a teacher friend. "At some point during the day, you are injecting your morals. That hasn't changed. What has changed is the national focus on the thinking process. The kids today are taught to think about the thinking that they do, to think about how they arrive at the decisions they make."
It is hard for me to let go of the notion that my children should learn about human relationships in the context of literature. Kids books are richer in these lessons today than they have ever been. Making a list of the things a child likes about himself seems an idiotic route to self-discovery by comparison.
But my teacher friend saw how 30 minutes a week with a guidance counselor in these kinds of simple lessons soothed her volatile second-graders this year. "I would hate to lose that," she says.
But the debris from a child's desk can hold some nasty surprises for parents.
One sent me a copy of a "Wise Wizard" work sheet that found its way home with her second-grader. The children were instructed to close their eyes, take a deep breath, visualize a wise wizard, go to him and ask for help.
"Feel strength flowing from the wise wizard to you. Know that with this strength you will do and say the right things. Open your eyes. Surprise. The wise wizard lives within you!"
A teacher explained that it was a reinforcing and relaxation technique for children, a route to empowerment, but it gave me chills when I read it.
A parent found in her fifth-grade son's desk a workbook titled "Developing Nurturing Skills." In it was a page titled "I Think My Mom Is In Love," a lesson in working through the ill feelings a child might have toward mom's new boyfriend.
Another lesson titled "My Beliefs -- My Parents' Beliefs" included topics on which the child should interview his parents: "Women should stay home to raise their children." "Girls should not play certain sports." "Religion should be an important part of everyone's life."
This is a far cry from "I am a good friend because . . . "
At best, these lessons are harmless yak-yak sessions for kids. At worst, they are an invasion of a family's privacy. It is not hard to see why some parents think the "Wise Wizard" is a silly waste of time, while others see it as a door to the occult.
The point is, parents should know about these lessons before they are taught, in meetings with teachers and counselors. And they should be allowed to withhold their child from participating if they wish.
Values education isn't the kind of thing parents should learn about by rummaging through the debris of their children's school year.
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