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Highlights from John Graham’s Address on Today’s Heroes

March 21, 2002

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  

John Graham of The Giraffe Project delivered a keynote address on everyday heroes to the West Virginia Safe Schools Conference on November 26, 2001. The following are excerpts from his speech.  

I’m guessing that there aren’t many people here who need to be convinced of the link between character education and safe schools:  

• kids who care for each other support each other and build links to other kids who might otherwise be left out of the system;  

• kids with healthy self-esteem learn that they matter, that what they do with their lives counts; they make decisions based on sound life priorities;  

• courageous and responsible kids stand up for what they believe in; they can say “no” to peer pressure.  

My organization, the Giraffe Project, has for a decade been helping kids develop qualitites like these, through a character education program called the Giraffe Heroes Program. I’ve been the principal writer for both the high school and the new middle school editions. I want to share with you tonight five elements I’ve learned are very important to character education, and to safe schools:  

1) Use role models – as one of the most credible teaching tools you’ve got;  

2) Give kids the opportunity to live their values through service;  

3) Engage parents and the community;  

4) Link character education to academic learning; and  

5) Encourage students to reflect, and to raise core questions of meaning.  

Role models  

Every culture in every age has told stories of heroes to teach qualities of character to its young. These heroes embody and model that culture’s core values. In many incarnations, over millennia, the hero ignores the odds and takes risks for the common good. In Joseph Campbell’s words: “The hero goes into the dark forest alone, at a place where there is no path.”  

Who are our heroes today? Whose stories can we use to inspire and provide models for our young? Who embodies our culture’s core values? We all have our images of heroes from September 11 – firefighters, police, the passengers who crashed Flight 93 in a field in PA. People who gave their lives to save others. But who were our heroes before September 11? If you have trouble with this question, you’re not alone. In writing the Giraffe Heroes Program, we asked kids who were their heroes. Many had no answer.  

Those that did, often named celebrities – people famous for qualities in music, sports or movies that usually had nothing to do with heroes. These kids were reflecting, not just their own media-driven culture, but their elders’ own ambivalence toward heroes. What I think is that a whole lot of people in this country had decided we didn’t need heroes. It was, after all, the dawn of a new millennium, not the age of King Arthur. Our lives were moving so fast, and it was so easy to fill them up with other things.  

Then came September 11. Overnight, we focused on the actions of several hundred very courageous and selfless people. They became our heroes. The nation, it seemed to me, was desperate to know that in this crisis something that good, that brave, had been done by very ordinary Americans, people just like us. As a nation, as a culture, we found we needed these heroes. Our kids need these heroes... not just as models of physical courage, but as models of all the values we esteem.  

There are heroes amongst us – most of them not people running into burning, collapsing buildings, but otherwise ordinary people who by their courageous and compassionate actions inspire others. The Giraffe Project has been finding and honoring these people for almost 20 years – over 900 to date. We call them “Giraffes” because they stick their necks out for the common good. People see or hear about Giraffes and are inspired to take on the challenges they see, from cleaning up a wetland to helping end hunger and homelessness. Kids exposed to the stories of Giraffes show significant changes in their own attitudes about caring and service.  

Let me suggest – whether or not you have a formal character education program – that you talk to your kids about heroes. Challenge them to know the difference between heroes and celebrities. Help them spot heroes in their studies, or in the media, in their own city or neighborhood. Have the kids tell the stories of these people in class, or, better yet, invite these local heroes to class to tell their stories themselves. Discuss the qualities of character these heroes model, and the obstacles they’ve had to overcome. As any parent knows, stories stick in the mind, providing a positive framework kids can say “yes” to. Tell kids the stories of real heroes and they’ll soak up the principles of living bravely, ethically and compassionately.  

Give kids the opportunity to live their values through service projects  

Any of you who are parents know that character is very hard to teach as a theory.  

Attitudinal and behavioral lessons are more likely to stick if we go beyond hearing or reading words and concepts, and actually put those lessons to work in our own lives. Exercising compassion, for example, gets that message home a lot better than learning about compassion, or reciting that compassion is good.  

So the suggestion is – as best you can in the time you’ve got – link character education with active service and citizenship in the community. Give kids the chance to put their values into action on some real issue they care about. Service makes character education socially relevant; kids learn how values work in the world. Service projects also give kids the chance to learn and practice important life skills such as teamwork., communication, and other social skills, and to experience success in a real-world task. This raises self-esteem, and gives kids more confidence to recognize and use their abilities to make good decisions – an important prevention goal.  

Engage parents and the community  

Schools can add to the character education of a child, but theirs should not be the only input. That’s an unfair burden. As far as possible, involve parents and other community members. Bring these adults – including members of local service clubs – into the classroom to talk with students about their service activities, and about what service and citizenship mean in their own lives. Don’t just bring the community into the school – bring the school into the community and get your kids out beyond the school walls.  

Challenge your students to find out for themselves what problems their community needs to solve. Take them out for a look-see, even if it’s just for a walk around the local neighborhood, or, for the little ones, maybe just the blocks that face their schoolyard. Talk to them about what resources and values and commitments the community would need to solve any problems they discover. The idea is to help them see values not in the abstract but as the means to real change. If you are able to do a service project, help the kids develop a plan for something that they can see makes a difference. That makes them stakeholders in the community, people who care about what happens there. This is the essence of good citizenship.  

Link character education to academic learning.  

You can structure character education to fit into standard curricula, especially in language arts, social studies, civics, visual arts and life skills. Students can practice writing, doing research, reading, brainstorming, thinking critically, speaking in public and communicating through the visual arts. They can learn the importance or public participation and gain experience in reflecting, working with others, honoring diverse views, taking responsibility, and setting and managing goals. And if you do include a service component in your character education, then you open more opportunities in other areas, such as mathematics, health, science and technology.  

Encourage students to reflect, and to raise core questions of meaning.  

Kids need to put positive attitudes and behavior in the context of a value system that makes sense to them – one that has enough perceived merit for them to take it seriously as guidance for their lives. So they need to think hard about the attitudes, behaviors and qualities of character that are being presented to them. They need to argue about them and test them, not just recite them. Ask questions that will lead them to truly ponder what they’ve learned. This way, the teaching will get all the way home.  

Reflection isn’t a frill; it’s a key factor in making character education real and lasting. As part of reflection, don’t hesitate to raise core questions of meaning. As the poet Mary Oliver forms the challenge: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This is the most important question any of us – students or teachers – will ever ask.  

We all want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that who we are and what we’re doing matters, that we’re not just marking time. This is a particularly pressing question for youth, as they look out at the world and wonder about their place in it. Getting kids to explore meaning as part of their reflection is a very important thing. Don’t be afraid to do this, and to do it from your own experience. The kids will love to hear your stories and will learn from them. It will push them to more reflection and give them something to bounce off of in answering the questions for themselves. And it will give you added credibility with them.  

Discuss with them what they care about, what, if anything, they’d be willing to commit to and work hard at. Keep asking them to go deeper with their answers. For a lot of kids, talking about questions of meaning with you may be the only opportunity they get to explore these questions with a caring adult. Your understanding and time and ear and honesty could be hugely important to them.  

In this confusing and dangerous time, our students need to know that every one of them is on this planet to lead a life with meaning – every one of them has and will have unique opportunities to be of service, somewhere, somehow.  

In this confusing and dangerous time, our students need to know that every one of them is on this planet to lead a life with meaning – every one of them has and will have unique opportunities to be of service, somewhere, somehow. A successful life is about spotting those opportunities and acting on them.  

Urge your students to become their own heroes, not waiting to respond to catastrophes, perhaps, but reaching out to others, in helping solve problems they see, in acting with courage and compassion every day of their wild and precious lives. Urge them to each choose to let his or her life be as important as it needs to be.  

Doing character education, and especially doing it this way, is a lot to ask of you. As a character educator you may have to sail into unfamiliar waters. You may have to confront values questions from your students that you struggle with in your own life. You may have to handle conflicts with others who resist change, or who don’t see the merit in character education that you do. You may have to accept significant expenditures of your own time.  

So why should you do this?  

Do it because it means something to you. Because it’s part of your personal answer to Mary Oliver’s challenge: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  

If you’re going to get involved in something as challenging as character education, it’s important to reflect on why you want to do that, to clarify the meaning it has for you. In your private moments, remind yourself what it means to you to help shape young lives in this very powerful way. Remind yourself why you became an educator in the first place. This kind of reflection puts the effort and the risk of being a character educator in the context of what’s meaningful to you and that makes it easier to justify both the effort and the risk. This kind of reflection will make you more effective, passionate and committed in this work.  

So keep affirming to yourself that helping young people wrestle with these eternal questions of character is meaningful to you. Never let being a character educator become “just part of my job.” Instead, see it for what it is – a vital part of your one wild and precious life and of the wild and precious lives of the kids you touch.  

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