Teachers are accustomed to the cacophony of frustrated kids stuck, say, in a classroom on a rainy-day lunch break. But they'd expect better from themselves - especially on a sunny summer afternoon spent learning about cooperation.
The 20 teachers gathered at Lesley College's Center for Peaceable Schools in Cambridge, Mass., have a seemingly simple task: to stand in two lines, balance a pole over their heads on outstretched index fingers, and try to lower it to the floor. Midstream, they start quarreling.
That's exactly what the facilitators want.
This exercise and others like it are designed to help educators teach skills that are gaining new urgency in schools: cooperation, civility, compassion.
They're all values teachers once assumed children learned at home. But in the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., schools are turning their attention as
much to violence prevention as to boosting reading skills. And the goal is to do it without a text or yet another in-class video. Instead, educators want the experience to be up close and personal.
"Words turn kids off. They're not head people. They need concrete things," says Marlene Husson, a participant who came from Aurora Mental Health Center near Columbine High in search of solutions.
Some states have enacted legislation mandating school-based character education programs that address such issues as honesty, cooperation and fairness. But most of the time, it's still up to individual teachers and administrators to institute programs or activities.
Educators are finding the tools to do this at workshops like the one in Cambridge, and from consultants and companies like Project Adventure in Massachusetts and Outward Bound, headquartered in New York.
"In the last year, we have heard from more people and schools who want to access our service" said Nancy Terry, director of research and development for Project Adventure, an organization that has developed activities to teach students problem-solving skills since 1971.
At the Center for Peaceable Schools, teachers learn from activities that can be fun but that are also meant to cause reactions like stress, anger, and embarrassment. Games include passing around a water can using bare feet, navigating a checkered tent canvas in a practical blend of hopscotch and twister, or walking a tightrope.
After they've been through these exercises, teachers are better equipped to present the activities to students and to lead discussions about the feelings that can arise from them. Teachers also learn a thing or two about the frustrations they bring into the classroom.
"You're learning about yourself and the students at the same time and there is a connection," says Jake Jagel, one of the group facilitators at the Cambridge workshop and longtime Boston public school teacher.
"These games are fun, but if you want to use them as teaching tools, you have to talk about them afterward," he says.
It's this post-activity discussion that administrators and teachers are hoping will draw their kids out, and elicit more than just a perfunctory response when asked about their feelings.
"It gives them a situation where it's acceptable to be uncool in a society based on the idea of being cool," says Mr. Jagel.
Taking time out to teach these skills is not new to American classrooms. Since the 1960s, when "cooperative learning" started gaining a foothold, teachers have been using it to counterbalance messages of competition already built into the American school system.
But now, some say more help is needed. "Today, the mixed messages in schools aren't even balanced," says Alfie Kohn, author of "No Contest: The Case Against Competition" and "The Schools Our Children Deserve."
"We pay lip service to the idea of getting along," he says, but notes that competition and being the best is the message that wins out more often in schools.
Critics of teaching social skills in classrooms argue that teachers already have overstuffed lesson plans, and question whether classroom exercises can really address deep-seated problems that many say result from lax discipline at home and media violence.
But those who would like to see such activities part of a regular curriculum say the transition would not be that dramatic.
"Teachers are always teaching kids how to interact," says Mr. Kohn. "It's a matter of whether they'll be taught social values explicitly, and which ones we'll teach them."
And some say these activities are only a small part of more complex and comprehensive solutions that may involve an increase in music, art, and photography in the curriculum.
"To say this is the only part of the solution is like saying a carpenter only has a hammer in his tool box," says Bert Horwood, member of the Association for Experiential Education in Boulder, Colo.
"If you're a teacher," he says, "and you use these [activities], especially at the beginning of the year, after you've done eight or 10, they've taken you about as far as you can go."
Whether the solution entails a comprehensive program or a series of simple games, a stronger bridge between teachers and students is the inevitable goal. Educators and parents are both seeking to bring the intimacy back to learning, and for some, smiles and laughter in the classrooms on a more regular basis are the first step.
"The back to the basics movement was against kids having fun in the classrooms," says Mr. Horwood. "Now people are seeing that if you want kids to learn, they have to have fun doing it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society