16-11 Segment 1: Character Education For Kids

 

Synopsis: Character in a person is something we admire, and something we all would like to think that our kids grow up to achieve. But how do you teach them character? What are some of the virtues that go hand-in-hand with character and how can we instill them in our kids? We talk to two people who work with character education efforts to find out how two very different organizations are teaching kids teamwork, responsibility, fairness, friendship and other character traits in some very trying environments.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Glenn Wilke, Executive Director of the Midtown Educational Foundation, Chicago; Cynthia Levinson, journalist, author of the book, Watch Out for Flying Kids! How two circuses, two countries and nine kids confront conflict and build community.

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Character Education for Kids

Gary Price: There’s a lot of talk about kids and education these days: Are we providing enough funding for schools in all neighborhoods? Is “teaching to the test” robbing kids of a well-rounded education? These are important issues, but there’s one that we seem to be spending little – if any – time on at all: Character education. It’s what underlies every student’s success but it often gets lost in the political and economic arguments of the day. This week, we talk to two people who have seen up close how instilling virtues such as hard work, trust, perseverance, friendship, respect and teamwork can change students’ lives for the better no matter what their situation. Glenn Wilke is the Executive Director of the Midtown Educational Foundation in Chicago, an organization that has helped low-income students in the area since 1965. Wilke says the program – Midtown for boys and Metro for girls — starts in fourth grade, and continues on in various forms up to high school graduation. In addition to one-on-one tutoring, sports, internships, classes to help with math, science, English and other subjects, students are also schooled in those attributes that build character…

Glenn Wilke: First of all our staffs at both of our centers are handpicked. They’re outstanding young men and women of virtue and character themselves, so they emulate and really show each of the young men and women what we’re talking about by their lives. And they get it. And then how do we teach it? We have actual classes where we go through various virtues, whether it be hard work or industriousness, or integrity, key virtue honesty, what is friendship, responsibility to live up to your commitments. So we take them through these virtues and then throughout the program, throughout the classes and the counseling, the sports these virtues are constantly brought up: How does this apply to what we’re doing at this moment?

Price: Wilke says that parents are a big part of their child’s education, so they have classes for them as well…

Wilke: In terms of the parents, they learn the same virtues in many cases because we have parenting nights during the school year and during the summer they come. And at one point one of the high school girls came down to where the parents were having their parenting session and the mother said, “Well, what did you learn tonight, dear?” She said, “Oh, whatever.” Because that’s what they say, “Oh, whatever.” She (mother) said, “I thought you learned about the virtue of responsibility, and I thought responsibility meant this, this and this.” Her (daughter) eyes lit up and she said, “Oh, you’re learning what we’re learning. So you really want us to do these things.” And she said, “Exactly.” So we try and reinforce it. We have the classes that give the basic idea, and then throughout the program we try and show it in everything we do.

Price: Teaching kids that industriousness or friendship are important, but it isn’t the whole story. Wilke says that their mentors and tutors try to show students how these virtues play out in their everyday lives…

Wilke: It might be something about friendship. You don’t look at that as a particular virtue but it really is. And we would talk about what a true friend is, how you know if someone really is your friend. Is it someone who’s going to be loyal to you? Who’s going to be with you in times of need? Is it someone who really cares about you just for who you are, not for what you can do for them? It’s an overarching virtue that we teach in both the centers. So then they begin to think, well is this in the route in their school, in their neighborhood or whatever? Is this the right person? There’s a lot of gangs in Chicago, a lot of murders on the West Side and the South Side as the whole country knows about, and they need to know that. How do I find out who’s the person who cares for me for who I am and not for what I can do for them. What I do with the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders who would go through a virtue, maybe it would be orderliness. So I would sit with my young fourth-grader and I’d say, “Okay. Do you have an assignment notebook? Do you have a place to study at home that has a lamp and a good place of quietness where you don’t have the radio on? Do you know what the most important subject is to study first?” So we get really practical in how we bring these things across.

Price: Wilke says that there are many success stories from the program. One young man even went on to become a social media pioneer…

Wilke: Randy Duvall is the name the name of a young man who went through our programs and he came to the programs for many years. He went to Stanford, of all places. After Stanford he started working for a company that was a new company at the time called Facebook, and he was one of the top first 100 employees who worked at Facebook. He worked for a number of years there with Mark Zuckerberg and now he’s back in Chicago giving back. He’s getting a degree in teaching and he’s teaching this semester, the second semester of the school year and he’s getting his degree to be a teacher. So he’s a success.

Price: Sometimes the students who attend the Midtown and Metro programs need a little extra push to succeed once they leave to go to college. Wilke says that one young Latina girl, Ariel, stumbled a bit at first…

Wilke: She went to a good high school, and then she got in to a college, Loyola here in Chicago, and during the first semester she didn’t do too well. She was living there, one of our donors gave her a scholarship to live at Loyola, and she didn’t do very well at all. I saw her after that and I said, “Ariel, how are you doing? You know, are you okay?” She looked at me and smiled and said, “I’m just fine. I will do well. Next semester I will pass everything. I know what I’ve learned here at Metro and I will do just fine.” And she did. She passed everything. That’s that character aspect, she said, “I’m going to have that grit, that tenacity. I’m going to work it, I’m going to focus more.” And she’s well on her way to a college degree.

Price: Making it in college and in work requires tenacity and focus; two things our second guest says are just what’s needed to succeed in the programs that she found in Missouri and in Israel. Cynthia Levinson is a journalist and author of the book, Watch Out for Flying Kids! How two circuses, two countries and nine kids confront conflict and build community. She says that “Circus Harmony” in St. Louis was founded by Jessica Hentoff, a long-time performer under the big top…

Cynthia Levinson: She got a job working with a circus in St. Louis that involved her reaching out to minority communities, especially Black kids and families in St. Louis, to try to bring them to the circus to teach them circus arts. She got so enthralled with that, that even when the circus she was working for changed its priorities, she decided to keep going with the kids because she saw how circus could help children who, in many ways, were lacking discipline and structure in their home lives, how it could help them in many, many ways. So she started a circus whose mission, Circus Harmony, is to cause social change through circus arts.

Price: The kids at Circus Harmony are from various backgrounds in the St. Louis area. Levinson says that the idea behind this is to bring young people together who would not normally hang with each other, in order to promote understanding of each other’s lives and circumstances…

Levinson: The circus kids come from communities like Ferguson and, in fact, Jessica has started a sort of satellite circus program in Ferguson. Ferguson is not far from where a number of the circus kids, the minority circus kids in St. Louis live, and it’s also composed of kids who live in some of the western suburbs of St. Louis such as Clayton — some White, upper-middle class kids. So the St. Louis kids come from a wide-ranging geographic, socio-economic, racial-ethnic background.

Price: In Israel, “Circus Galilee” was started by a rabbi who was disturbed by the hostilities between Jews and Arabs on the Israeli-Lebanon border…

Levinson: In order to try to bring together his Jewish community and the Arab community whom he had gotten to know there, he cast about for some activity that he thought would be fun and appealing to kids, and spontaneously came up with the idea of a circus. Managed to get it funded, partly with the help of a donor in New York City who had helped found The Big Apple Circus, which is a sort of a now large, but formerly sort of alternative circus in New York City, that Jessica Hentoff had also helped found. So the two of them found each other.

Price: But what do circus performances do to teach character to kids? Levinson says that the nature of circus acts requires that each child rely on his or her colleagues to stay safe and succeed…

Levinson: A lot of what’s important about circus is trust — trusting oneself and trusting the other person. You have to trust that when you leap off of a mini-trampoline, for instance, and you’re depending on somebody else to catch you, that that person will do it. And as one of the kids said to me, “I also have to trust myself.” These were Israeli, Jewish and Arab kids who were talking with me about this. They have to know, the Jews and the Arabs, have to know that they will catch each other and that they trust themselves to leave aside the politics, the history, the hostilities to catch this person who is, outside of the circus, an “other” sort of person.

Price: It also teaches them to focus and persevere because it’s not easy learning to juggle, tumble, ride a unicycle or walk on a wire – even if it is only a few feet off the ground!  Levinson says the circus environment is also welcoming, and creates a sense of belonging and family within groups that, before the programs, probably wouldn’t feel a lot of friendship toward each other…

Levinson: That’s one of the things that I’ve learned about circus. Around the world circus people welcome each other. They literally take each other into their homes, into their acts, into their tents – both physical and metaphorical – and children can find accepting, loving, supporting homes inside circus.

Price: It’s not just the young performers who benefit from the programs. Levinson says that the audience for these shows also see what is possible when politics, economics, stereotypes and animosity are set aside…

Levinson: You know what it does? Sometimes it makes them cry. I have been with Israelis, Arabs and Jews in Israel watching these kids perform together, sleep over at each other’s houses, travel together, hang out together, go shopping together, get meals together, interactions that just do not happen among other Arabs and Jews by and large in the country, and when they see that and when they talk to me about it, honestly, they get teary.

Price: Both Levinson and Wilke say you can teach character and understanding in many ways, but it’s crucial to have the right people at the helm, have the community and the families of the kids you’re helping behind you and a consistent source of funding to make it all work. You can learn more about how circuses in the United States and Israel are promoting understanding between different communities in Cynthia Levinson’s book, Watch Out for Flying Kids! Available in stores, online and on her website at CynthiaLevinson.com. To find out about the character education programs at the Midtown Educational Foundation, and to get a copy of their book, Character Education that Works, Glenn Wilke invites you to log onto their site at Midtown-Metro.org. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

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