Beyond What's in the Books

Article excerpt

The kids in the back are acting up, but Katherine Lin forges gamely ahead. The junior stands amid chest-high drafting tables in the design class and says, somewhat incongruously, "This is a story about Joe who went to a party and got busted."

A freshman utters a mild sympathetic epithet, and a burst of titters burrows around the room.

Katherine keeps going. As the tale unfolds, it turns out that Joe - who doesn't drink because a relative was killed by a drunk driver - didn't actually get busted himself. He went to a party, found kids drinking, and went home and told his parents.

Joe's parents then called the police. The police then busted the party, en masse.

"What do you think of Joe's decision to leave the party?" Katherine asks.

At this moment, student volunteers throughout Naperville North High School in suburban Chicago are asking other classes that same question. It's Wednesday morning, which means it's time for "First Class" - a biweekly, 20-minute, student-led discussion about everything from teen suicide to diversity.

First Class is only one part of North's wide-ranging, intensive effort to teach teens about the nonacademic aspects of life. In modern America, the many demands and challenges of adolescence mean that it's not enough for a high school to just offer Spanish and social studies any more. They have to build character. They have to instill moral values. They have to identify and help violence-prone youth. The result is a ubiquitous and varied array of programs: from simple character education to student-mediation efforts to psychological profiling - a trend that has gathered force across the US in the year since Columbine.

North, like many big public schools, requires students to take a comprehensive health and wellness class. It sets aside time for student-led philosophical discussions, such as First Class. Then there's "Snowball" - a semi-annual event in which a select group of students and staff travel to an off-site location, and spend a weekend engaging in trust exercises and lots of talk.

Naperville North has a phalanx of guidance counselors, who offer advice on much more than which community college is for you. The administration even hands out "You Make a Difference" awards to kids who aren't necessarily great athletes or top students. One girl got one for being particularly cheery when greeting friends and teachers in the hall.

Most of these efforts predate last year's tragic student shootings at Columbine High. The school began planning First Class four years ago, for instance. But the tragedy has given the programs new emphasis.

"We just know now that we have to give kids a forum for talking about this kind of stuff," says social studies teacher and First Class director Warren Scott.

From sublime to 'totally lame'

Kids find some aspects of "this stuff" more gripping than others. Students said that while they generally liked the idea behind First Class, it is not always the most memorable part of their day.

Not surprisingly, they don't like all the prechosen topics. Several singled out a recent discussion of personal space for special mention. "They actually made us get up and walk past each other like we do in the hallway to show how people need their personal space," says platinum-haired junior Teri Bork. "That was totally lame."

Other topics got higher marks. Most kids liked a discussion that centered on a February incident in which a North junior posted an ominous threat - "If you think what happened at Columbine was serious, that will be like a joke compared to this" - on the school computer.

On this particular Wednesday, the subject seems to fall in the middle range of interest. Back in design class, the opinions have started flowing after a period of silence of uncomfortable length.

Most remarks center on Joe's decision to tell his parents about the drinking party, and thus get his friends in trouble. …