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Ethics camp arms teachers with classics O.C. alternative- school instructors learn to use literature in teaching such basic values as integrity and commitment

By Sam Miller

The Orange County Register




A summer ethics camp for teachers, like most summer camps, includes scary storytelling. Stories about kids who've been expelled from public school districts and sent to jail. Stories of drugs and gangs, and of high school students reading at a second-grade level.


Can these stories have happy endings? Steve Johnson, director of character education at Santa Clara University, says yes. Johnson held an ethics camp this week to instruct Orange County teachers on how to use literature to teach such basic values as integrity and commitment.


At National University in Costa Mesa, about 60 teachers from Orange County's alternative-education department and about 15 from San Bernardino read a story from John Steinbeck's "The Long Valley." It's about a young man who makes a bad decision, runs from the law and ends up dead at the bottom of a hill. Imagine teaching that story to students who have made bad decisions, run from the law, and ended up in an alternative classroom. That's what these teachers are practicing.


Rodney Welch, mimicking how he would present it to students, said: "How's that make you feel? If you're standing at 7-Eleven and your homies come by ." It is, Welch said, "basically taking classic literature and taking it into the ghetto." Johnson created the program more than a decade ago to reach those kids who've already entered the corrections system. For years, he said, schools were able to assume students would learn values without being explicitly taught. "We're in a world where that doesn't really work anymore."


Take Kristi Hofstetter's class at North Youth and Family Resource Center, tucked anonymously in an Anaheim industrial complex. Many of her students are "8 percenters," she said, a term for the few juvenile offenders likely to become lifetime criminals. Some don't know how to read a calendar and have never read a novel. Not only that, she said, but "we're trying to teach kids to have empathy who have never thought about another person in their lives." The books she'll read with them, she said, will bring out empathy. She'll have them draw "mind portraits," giving characters thought bubbles that reveal emotions.


Johnson's methods already are in action in Santa Ana's Summit Day School, where the entire staff is using or learning them. Nearly everything in teacher Alice Rochverger's middle-school classroom there is related to the program - from affirmative statements at the front of the room ("My life is what I make of it, nothing more, nothing less") to mind portraits in the back.


A visitor asks a boy named Danny - a few minutes earlier, he'd been lectured for name-dropping a local gang - what the Nelson Mandela biography he's reading is about. "It's mostly about freedom," he said. "Trying to get rights, to stop the violence. Instead of fighting, not fighting - talking. Fighting just makes it worse."


Rochverger said her students retain a lot. "Whether they apply it to their own life - well, that takes time," she said.

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