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?"
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
"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
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
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. …