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Medium Bright, Meet the School That Believes in Discipline

Children must be taught principles like justice and fairness to inculcate values they can use in life.

June 10, 2015
By Diana Shulla-Cose (source)

Brian Foglia’s article “Meet The School That Hates Rules” accurately identifies many of the problems with “traditional” education. Too many schools use a one-size-fits-all approach to education and rely on punishments and rewards, instead of helping students learn to manage their behavior. But I believe there is a middle ground between authoritarian instruction and hating rules. There are skills, habits, and mindsets that lead to success — and they can be taught.

Teaching students those skills doesn’t control students; rather, it empowers them. When schools do it right, the results are nothing short of inspiring.

On June 5, 2014, more than 2,000 students, family members, and community leaders gathered in a field on the South Side of Chicago. The field was once the site of the Harold Ickes Homes, part of Chicago’s notorious, miles-long State Street Corridor of public housing projects. On that day, however, it was the gathering point for one of the largest student-led peace marches in Chicago history.

“Who’s for peace? I’m for peace!” “Grades up, guns down!” The students’ chants echoed down State Street, as news choppers hovered above to capture the footage for the morning newscasts. On television screens throughout Chicago, a student named Janeya shared the simple message of their “I Am For Peace” campaign: “If we are going to stop violence in Chicago, we need everybody to care.”

She also shared what she saw as part of the solution — an education model called A Disciplined Life.

Twenty years ago, Kim Day and I created the A Disciplined Life education model while working as public school teachers in Chicago. We knew our students could master rigorous academic content, and also that they craved high expectations, structure, and love. We set out to foster intellectually curious ethical leaders.

We created a model using what we called the 26 principles of A Disciplined Life. These principles are designed to develop positive self-perception, healthy relationships, and tools for productivity.

They form the basis of Perspectives Charter Schools, a network of 6th-12th grade schools we founded in Chicago. Unlike the “democratic” schools that Foglia discusses, we require students to attend mandatory classes. We do this because we believe that a model that combines rigorous academics with a focus on social-emotional learning will empower our students to succeed in college and beyond.

For 180 minutes each week, Perspectives students attend A Disciplined Life class, where they study the principles and learn how they can apply them to their lives in school, at home, and in their communities. These classes aren’t about rules, but a framework that helps students develop their social and emotional skills. In these classes, students examine principles such as “show compassion”, “think critically and be inquisitive”, “show gratitude”, “be reliable” and “solve conflicts peacefully”. They engage in critical conversations using a protocol we have developed to help students consider multiple perspectives, engage in entrepreneurial thinking and create action plans.

By the time they graduate high school, our students have spent hundreds of hours reflecting on how to become ethical leaders — and learning concrete skills and strategies that will help them be successful.

“A Disciplined Life is a rare and elegant framework that clarifies for students and educators the skills and dispositions that must accompany rigorous teaching and learning,” said Dr. Timothy F.C. Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. “In essence, A Disciplined Life is designed to build the kind of people we need to strengthen our economy, democracy and social fabric.”

It was in an A Disciplined Life class where the “I Am For Peace” campaign began. A sophomore named Razia, who has become a leader in the movement, was taking part in a conversation in A Disciplined Life class about a boy who had been shot after a basketball game in Chicago. “I realized that many people don’t care about violence unless it really hits home for them,” Razia says. She and her peers worked on finding a way for their voice to be heard — a way to get everybody to care.

The peace march on June 5 was just the beginning. At the same time, the students raised more than $35,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to create a documentary to tell their story of how A Disciplined Life can create a more peaceful Chicago. The “I Am For Peace” documentary premiered last fall, and now Perspectives students are sharing it across Chicago and beyond, from schools to corporations and even on television.

Our students’ peace work is playing out on the streets as well. Recently, one of our school leaders noticed that some of our students were engaged in an ongoing feud with students from a nearby school. There were fights on trains, in parks, and at bus stops. Rather than suspend the students or kick them out of school, she brought the students from both schools together to have a dialogue about their actions and determine how they were going to restore justice together. These peace talks were merged with some ball playing and video gaming and after three sessions together the feuds turned these young men into friends.

It worked. Not only has the fighting stopped, the young men from both schools are working together on our next peace march. On June 5th, 2015, they will be joined by more than 10 schools and organizations, 5 other cities, and 3 foreign countries marching for peace with them.

Our students come from some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Chicago. Despite facing all of the challenges associated with growing up in poverty, our students graduate from high school, enroll in college, and persist towards graduation at rates above the national average for all students.

We are very intentional about teaching our 26 principles of A Disciplined Life because we believe that truly successful people who lead meaningful lives strive daily to model these attributes. As Perspectives graduate Ronald Brown puts it: “I pushed back on these 26 principles at first. Today, I can honestly say they helped me become a man because I was taught to study them just like I studied algebra and science.”

In the “I Am For Peace” documentary, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks about the power of models like A Disciplined Life. “What Perspectives has worked extraordinarily hard on,” he said, “is making sure that students are taught the skills, the habits and mind, and the habits of behavior they need to be successful in school, in the classroom, on the streets, in the communities, and ultimately in life.”

As Foglia’s article notes, “democratic” schools are not for everyone. Students who have grown accustomed to authoritarian backgrounds might lash out in the face of so much freedom. What is so powerful about social-emotional learning models like A Disciplined Life is that they are for everyone. In Chicago, we have CEOs and vice presidents studying our 26 principles of A Disciplined Life alongside our students and staff.

The same skills that are helping our students navigate their lives are helping CEOs navigate the corporate world. Those skills will empower our students to become successful in whatever they choose to do — which is the ultimate freedom.

Bright is made possible by funding from the New Venture Fund, and is supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Bright retains editorial independence.