A Little Respect, Big Results

Educator Theodore Sizer tells a conference that disrespect for children may be cause of violence

PERHAPS it should be a multiple-choice question: The violent behavior of many young people today is caused mainly by: (1) handguns, (2) dysfunctional families, (3) ineffective schools, (4) violent TV and movies, (5) genetic disorders, (6) disrespect, or (7) all of the above.

Answer? According to Theodore Sizer, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University here, all of the above are factors. But the ``smoking gun'' answer, he says, may well be a profound and widespread disrespect for children, most visibly seen in ineffective schools.

Tall and burly, Mr. Sizer spoke at an anti-violence conference at the university this week. His message was clear and experiential: Children have been disrespectfully devalued for too long by schools and society.

``There is no more delicious elixir than being authentically needed,'' he said before a crowd of about 125 people, including Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island.

``We treat kids as if they are not to be trusted, not to be respected. And they say: `If that's what you think of me, then I can do anything,' '' Sizer says.

His reasoned approach in restructuring United States schools to respect children has been adopted by more than 500 secondary public schools in the last 10 years. In December, publisher Walter Annenberg, recognizing Sizer's success, awarded his institute $50 million out of a total $500 million that will be awarded to a host of school-reform organizations.

``A typical American high school boy or girl today isn't known by anybody,'' Sizer says.

``Anonymity is the rule. They are the `unspecial majority.' The antidote to this is small schools with caring teachers who really know the kids unequivocally and involve them in learning. When this happens, the incidence of violence in the schools drop dramatically,'' he says.

He indicated that many high school surveys around the country conclude that pupils think school is ``boring.''

``We ask kids to memorize other people's answers to other people's questions,'' Sizer says. ``The way we dish out our schooling contributes to violence. In a way, we are the problem, not the kids. When we turn to the kids and ask them: `How are we going to solve this problem?' they are engaged.''

Sizer said after a Midwest school adopted some of these reforms, attendance soared or reached the level it should have been at all along.

``Kids aren't dumb,'' he explains. ``Schools will always have trouble as long as violence pays, as long as the shadow economy of drugs is better than what they can earn in the official economy. Kids don't need just jobs, but they need respectful jobs in their neighborhoods.''

Mary Mohr, founder and director of University Heights High School, an alternative high school in New York City, told the conference: ``In our school, which has a no-fighting policy, we are working against the prevailing attitude.

``Many of the parents introduce kids to violence; they teach their kids to fight, to stick up for themselves. But even when kids ride the subways, many of them are terrified, and when people are afraid, they threaten each other,'' she says.

At her school, conflict resolution is taught ``every day of the week.'' Along with a curriculum that minimizes students going from class to class so teachers can spend longer periods of time with fewer students, every child is considered to be part of the solution.

``In the end, what the kids say they want,'' Ms. Mohr said, ``are good jobs so they can afford to live in uncrowded housing, and all the guns should disappear.''

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