By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010; GZ14
I learned at an early age from my mother that there was more to school than reading, writing, arithmetic and lunch. She was a teacher. I was an eager student of the academic sort. That didn't impress her. She told me later it was clear I was ready to read when I was 4, but she refused to teach me because I needed more work on my social skills.
She will turn 93 at the end of this month. I am tempted to call and ask her to evaluate how I turned out, but I fear the answer. My life has been a lot of reading and writing, with some arithmetic. Even as a parent I rarely considered how well my children's schools were teaching life skills that went beyond what is assessed under No Child Left Behind.
The habits of the heart are probably learned almost as much at school as at home. But which ones can we reasonably expect teachers to address? What should we look for to make certain these immeasurable but invaluable traits are being reinforced?
With help from Local Living Editor Liz Seymour, whose children are just starting school, I came up with eight essential life skills. I sought expert opinion on their importance and how to teach them. If you have your own suggestions, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle and post a comment.
Here are mine, in no particular order:
Linda Allen, a star math teacher in Arlington, said helping students absorb a sense of structure is key to her middle school's success. "A good teacher, regardless of the content area, has today's main idea and homework in the same area of the room every day. That teacher reminds students every day to copy the information down at the start of the class, and gives them time to do that." She gives parents timely feedback about work completion "so that intervention can happen sooner rather than later."
A related lesson is deferring gratification. Psychologists Angela L. Duckworth and Martin E.P. Seligman, by seeing what happens when children have the choice of a dollar today or two dollars next week, have concluded that self-discipline and self-denial are keys to success. Katherine Bradley, president of the Washington-based CityBridge Foundation, says it "means sticking with something even if it's boring, pushing yourself to finish even if it's a long assignment."
Kenneth J. Bernstein, a much-admired social studies teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County, is also a piano player. "I do not think every child needs to learn to sing or play an instrument," he said, "but each may need to learn how to listen, because different kinds of music may require different kinds of listening. In a sense, being exposed to several kinds of music is like learning a second language: It begins to empower one to learn further on one's own, because one has gone beyond the limitations of what one grows up with."
Allen said students should also learn how to be a good audience. "If a child can hold it together in the company of hundreds of their peers, they can hold it together for any event," she said.
Games aren't the only way to learn how to cooperate with others toward a shared goal, but for many students such contests have lifelong importance. Frazier O'Leary teaches Advanced Placement English, one of the toughest courses at Cardozo High School in the District; he is also the baseball coach. "Sometimes it is hard for high school students to understand the value of working together until they grow up and realize that teamwork is essential to success," he said.
Sarah Melanie Fine, a writer, went for a run every morning when she was teaching in a D.C. school. She needed the exercise to survive tough days. Her students often did not have the same chance. "Particularly in an environment where seat time is the ever-growing end-all, kids desperately need time where they're using their bodies and learning a different kind of discipline," she said. Not only does it relieve stress, but it clears the head for dividing fractions, declining nouns and other feats of concentration.
Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, which emphasize character, said an essential ingredient of learning to be a friend is what some call social intelligence or emotional intelligence. It includes "not giving in to peer pressure, becoming self-aware and using that self-awareness to self-adjust as necessary," he said. He acknowledges that many people think this is something parents should teach, but sometimes they don't, and students' futures depend on it.
Bernstein has a favorite trick for teaching this correctly: "I remember once asking students to prepare a debate, three for the affirmative and three for the negative. When they came into class and I checked that they were prepared, I made them argue the other side, not the one they had prepared. With the exception of the class president, who as a politician did not trust me and thus had prepared both sides, they flopped. And in that failure they learned an important lesson: One is far more effective in debate and discourse when one has thought through both sides of an argument."
7 Thinking critically
I remember that my favorite teacher when I was in high school, Al Ladendorff, encouraged our American history class to criticize the textbook. I wondered: Was that legal? Much later I realized the contrarian habits he taught were vital. I am a better writer, a better voter and a better parent for learning to examine popular assumptions and judge if they are correct.
"In learning to make a persuasive argument, one has to learn how to address an audience," Bernstein said, "be it one person or a large group." As adults we often learn the hard way how important it is to be prepared, maintain eye contact and dress appropriately for the situation. It is better to learn this in school than while shaking in fear two minutes before our first job interview.