Rosalind Wiseman Speaks to Pelham Students, Parents and Middle School Staff

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“Establishing a Culture of Dignity, a School of Character, and Raising Ethical Young Leaders in Today’s World”

On May 20th and 21st, Rosalind Wiseman—a NY Times best-selling author and expert in teen culture, youth dynamics, and parenting—impressively facilitated discussions among Pelham middle school students, Pelham Middle School faculty, and parents in a three-part kick-off to integrate character education into our school culture and local dialogue. This series of discussions is a timely topic as our School District explores ways to educate the whole child as part of its new strategic plan.

“Pelham Middle School is in the process of a multi-year focus on character and civic education, working to improve school culture and civility, prevent anti-social behaviors, increase student well-being and achievement, and help students grow into responsible adults committed to justice, compassion, and respect,” said Lynn Sabia, PMS Principal. “We joined forces with Pelham Together to pursue our mutual goal of encouraging and developing ethical young leaders in today’s world.”

The development of ethical young leaders requires that we support the everyday adults in their lives —mainly parents and teachers,” said Laura Caruso, Pelham Together Executive Director. “That critical coming together of student, school, and community gives Pelham the best shot at promoting a culture of dignity and raising young people who thrive because of it.”

Ms. Wiseman’s first stop was an afternoon working with a group of Student Ambassadors—40 6th and 7th grade students who are charged with modeling and spreading principals of character and practice a culture of dignity inside PMS through various planned activities. She immediately got their attention when she asked, “what is one thing you wish your parents knew or better understood about being in middle school today?” Many of the responses centered around stress and the amount of homework; notably a few wished “they realized that we want to get good grades as badly as they want us to.” Rosalind met with a resounding “God Bless You,” when she promised these young people that she would tell their parents that evening at the parent presentation “to stop asking so many questions!”

The students worked on how to phrase things when friends come to them for help, what inclusivity looks like, the differences between venting and gossip, and respect and dignity. Importantly, the group took a moment to recognize and connect on their common experiences when answering the following questions: How many of you have felt torn between friends? How many of you have come to school pretending to be fine but felt the exact opposite? How many of you have heard a racist comment and either did nothing or tried to say something but were not taken seriously? How many of you have to apologize for something?

When asked by Rosalind to share two items they would remember about the afternoon, many students shared that they would remember the difference between dignity and respect—that respect is earned and dignity is given, that even if they don’t respect someone’s behavior, they still have to treat them with dignity. One student put it in her own words this way, “dignity is like the floor that you don’t go below.” Another student shared, “I will remember that I felt that I had dignity today, and lots of times I don’t feel that way. But today I found out that lots of kids feel the same things I do, and it was safe in here.” A very successful and impactful afternoon

That evening at The Manor Club, Rosalind addressed a group of about 100 parents. While building on several of the same points that she did with the students, she set up her two foundational concepts—the definition of happiness and the difference between respect and dignity. She defines happiness through these 5 concepts: Meaning beyond oneself; Hope for success, not a guarantee; Purposeful work; Meaningful social connections; and a place to process and find peace. She made a point to share with parents that, for some kids, “a good video game can give them the first 4 on this list!”

Expanding on her discussion of dignity versus respect, Rosalind encouraged parents to consider the fact that while we often teach our children to “respect their elders,” many of them have witnessed their elders behave disrespectfully—on the sidelines of a sports game, perhaps? However, she suggested that when we re-frame the discussion in terms of treating others with dignity, we can acknowledge that it is okay not to respect certain behaviors, but that we must still treat people with dignity.

Ms. Wiseman spent a good deal of time establishing a framework for creating a culture of dignity. She said, this effort “requires that we make connections between students, teachers, and communities, strengthening our ‘village moments’.” She went on to say we need to acknowledge the craziness in our villages and how fractured things are, nationally, regionally, and locally sometimes, out of responsibility to our children. “Groups like Pelham Together bond the village together; this is the kind of work we need to do for our kids,” she said.

“Village moments” happen when we connect ourselves to kids’ lives in authentic ways, she suggested. Pulling highlights from her two best-selling books, Queen Bees and Wannabes, and Masterminds and Wingmen, Ms. Wiseman insisted we drop the idea that because we used to be teenagers ourselves that we understand what our kids’ lives are like today. “While some things are evergreen, there are two main differences now,” she said; “every kid today lives with Active Shooter Drills in schools, and, secondly, kids know they can’t make mistakes without people knowing about it and adults talking about it because of technology and social media.” If we do not listen to and include kids themselves in any effort to improve their lives—in school, at home, in the community—then it will be ineffective. And, to remember, that listening means “being open to be changed by what you hear.”

At the same time, she suggested some of the other topics that have changed for kids today. Body image issues remain as much an issue for boys as they do for girls (see her slide comparing the Batman of yesterday to the Batman of today). “The village” constantly promotes the comparison of our children—the average parent will post 1,000 pictures of their children by the time they are 2 years old (Parent Zone, 2016). Instagram is an ongoing slideshow that shows how we are never enough. And, finally, the pressure of where they are headed (college, career) impacts their performance in the classroom—a fear of being wrong and being laughed at by their peers leads to taking fewer risks. She said, “sometimes higher level classes lead to higher stakes” for young people. As a recommendation to that age-old question being asked of many Pelham high-schoolers—“what colleges are you looking at? or what do you want to major in?”—Rosalind suggests the student turn that around instead to ask, “Actually, I’d really like to ask you about your college experience.  Did you get into your first choice?  Did you know what your major would be in high school?" Food for thought!

After a lengthy Q&A during which many audience members asked specific parenting questions, Rosalind ended with a call for all of us “to be good villagers” in the following ways: Everyone is your child; No gossiping and labeling; Assume you will have courageous conversations; You do not have to be BFF’s with your children or their friends; Don’t compare—no one has a perfect life; Stop talking about your children—Be more interesting; Check yourself for sanity. And, when things go wrong, which they always do, we still need to own our children and hold up the dignity of others whose kids may have done something wrong. She added, “that is when they need us most; that is how you strengthen the village.”

Finally, Rosalind shared a morning workshop with PMS faculty and staff on May 21st, as part of the professional development series. Staff thoroughly enjoyed hearing highlights of her work with the students and parents, and then turning concepts of dignity, respect, and youth voice inward to reflect on their teaching practice, classroom culture, and school climate. Many of the activities allowed teachers to connect around shared experiences in the classroom and individual influencers on their own practice. The group explored concepts of promoting a safe space for students, a place that minimizes students’ fears of taking risks, and establishing a climate that promotes dignity for all as the building block for school culture. The teachers and administration look forward to working with lesson plans being provided by Ms. Wiseman’s organization—Cultures of Dignity—to continue to embed these core components of character education in our school.

All photos of the community presentation taken by the amazing and talented, Todd Cross.