05/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In NYC Schools, a Little 'Respect for All'

On Monday, in a bright classroom in Brooklyn's P.S. 24, Maria Diaz's fifth-graders were deep in discussion. A chart from an earlier lesson displayed two columns: "target groups" and "systematic mistreatment." Underneath these headings were the words: "women," "people of color," "gay people," "old people" and "poor people," along with "sexism," "racism," "homophobia" and "ageism."

The question of the day: Is it fair when people say that all Hispanics are lazy?

In a dual-language school in which 91 percent of students are Hispanic, this is anything but an academic question. The kids were animated but took their turns and looked at each other when they spoke.

"My mom isn't lazy and she's Hispanic," a shy girl offered.

Another piped up: "A Hispanic person who's lazy is my uncle 'cause he never wants to work. He's always just sitting on the couch."

When a visitor to the classroom -- Tom Roderick of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, who wrote the curriculum the kids are working with -- said goodbye, Diaz asked him to come around more often. "We miss you!" she said. "We have interesting discussions in this class."

She turned to the students. "Do we or don't we?"

There was unanimity. "Yeah!"

Respect for All Week

Downstairs in the auditorium, New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, along with a large coalition of NGO partners, had just announced the first-ever "Respect for All Week" in the city's schools. This initiative, which runs from March 8 to 12, aims to reduce bullying and harassment in regards to students' ethnicity, race, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

"I fully believe that our diversity in New York City is our greatest strength," said Quinn. "But we can't take it for granted."

Citing a number of high-profile hate crimes last fall, Quinn drew a hard line in the sand: "Any time someone in this city is harassed ... because of who they are, that's something that's just quite frankly unacceptable."

The initiative aims to send a strong message that hate is not welcome, especially in schools. "There can never be learning if children are fearful in the classroom," Quinn said.

The Department of Education's Office of School and Youth Development offers administrators and teachers useful tools to engage with the student's respectfully. These tools include sample lesson plans, activity guides and linkages to community organizations providing programs and free curricula. Morningside Center is offering workshops on fostering respect and countering bias to staff at every school in the city.

Hundreds of schools in all boroughs are planning events to bring this idea home. At Manhattan's Legacy High School, for example, students are creating a play called "In My Skin" to encourage the audience to learn and embrace difference. Other schools are scheduling assemblies and panel discussions on diversity. 

Social and Emotional Learning

While a targeted weeklong event is a good way to shed light on an under-represented issue, the need to help students learn new cooperation skills is ongoing. As Chancellor Joel Klein put it, "if we don't all make this a part of our daily existence, we're not going to get the job done."

P.S. 24 became the site of Respect for All Week's launch because it has committed to integrating the teaching of social skills and empathy for other's into its everyday life. The curriculum provided by Morningside, based on a concept called "social and emotional learning" (SEL) aims to boost children's well-being and academic achievement and give them the skills to deal with their emotions and address conflict with others.

This means, first and foremost, getting students to think about the cultural and interpersonal context in which they live and how their upbringing might be different than someone else's. Exercises like discussing stereotypes shed light on thinking about difference. Doing so helps students develop the mental and emotional capacity to consciously cultivate respect for others.

Teachers also benefit from structured SEL programs that teach them ways to deal with their own stresses and prioritize their own needs. Linda Lantieri, a leader in the field who has been instrumental in the development of P.S. 24's integrated SEL program, offers teachers the opportunity to participate in her Inner Resilience Program, which imparts creative strategies and practical tools for maintaining a sense of purpose and positivity in their work.

Building an environment that puts the emotional lives of students and staff front and center is a complex, long-term process.

"Respecting all is a wonderful idea," said P.S. 24's principal Christina Fuentes at the press conference. "But it takes hard work to help teachers know how to teach this curriculum and for children to develop these skills."

A Rigorous Approach

The approach can be as structured and rigorous as teaching any other subject, and the learning it engenders is profound.

In fact, studies show that children who learn social and emotional skills are better equipped to address their academic subjects, since they have a way to deal with unruly emotions and interpersonal conflicts.

"When children learn these social and emotional skills, they are much better positioned to do better on their standardized tests," said Principal Fuentes.

Considering the federal Department of Education's focus on test scores, that last fact is a main reason the national SEL movement is quickly gaining ground. A bipartisan coalition in Congress, composed of Dale Kildee (D- MI), Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Judy Biggert (R-IL), introduced the Academic, Social and Emotional Learning Act of 2009, H.R. 4223, to the House of Representatives with the aim of getting SEL standards included in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Meanwhile, more and more schools around the country are using various SEL curricula -- including an upcoming implementation across three districts in Ohio -- and the leading lights of progressive education, Daniel Goleman and Timothy Shriver, have teamed up to create the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to further investigate and promote this idea.

Who's Going to Comfort Me?

While boosting academic learning is indeed an important goal, for Principal Fuentes, teaching SEL is also central to her school's emphasis on nurturing empathetic and mature human beings.

"When I think about my future and I think about when I'm old and maybe in an assisted living home, I think, 'what kind of people would I want taking care of me?'" she said. "Who's going to doctor me? Who's going to help me when I fall down and pick me up? Who's going to comfort me?"

Filling our society with well rounded, good people is as important of a goal for our schools as cultivating math whizzes, business innovators and brilliant researchers.

"I think I would love for those people to be P.S. 24 graduates because those people will have learned from childhood on to be empathetic people, to be people who know how to work in teams even when they disagree with each other," concluded Fuentes. "They will be people who have cultural competency."