Learning in the classroom begins
with a sense of security

Abraham Maselow's hierarchy of needs paradigm published over forty years ago, seems like just plain common sense today. Maselow hypothesized that individuals could not reach their highest potential unless certain basic needs, the need for sustenance, and the need to feel safe, for example, were met.

Today, the success or failure of our educational system rests on student's ability to pass certain standardized academic tests. It seems obvious that students will be more likely to focus on learning when they are not hungry and when they feel safe in their schools.

Most certainly it is important to insure that our schools are safe. But even more to the point the 'perception' of being safe is crucial.

The locked doors, metal detectors, locker searches, increased surveillance, zero tolerance, teach tolerance, psychotherapy, punishments, drug education, sex education, peer mediation, and instructing kids to seek help from authorities are good strategies for keeping students safe. However if they don't "feel" safe, their ability to concentrate on academics will still be impaired.

Two researchers from NYU recently surveyed more than 10,000 students between 10 and 18 and their parents about their perception of school safety. The survey found that eighteen percent of urban students and eleven percent of suburban students reported feeling unsafe in their schools. The results of the study are in the September issue of the Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of medicine.

Many educators, school administrators, psychologists, and social workers benevolently postulate that teachers and other school personnel need to be more vigilant and accessible. They should be accountable for the protection of students from the bullying of other students.

However, look at it this way, even if authorities were on top of every incident of bullying, which is nearly impossible, many students would still not feel safe. Why? Because instead of being encouraged and empowered to act on their own behalf they are being told to expect authorities to protect them.

Admittedly, there are some circumstances that are beyond a student's ability to manage. But minor altercations can be dealt with on the spot. To feel safe, students need to know and understand the rules of fairness and they need a safe environment within which to practice the skills with which to keep minor altercations from escalating into violence and coercion.

Over 200 students and their teachers have participated in a project I called "Promote Cooperation and Literacy in Our Schools". They read and discussed "The Prize: A Novel About Bullies and Victims and What Drives Them". The novel is based on a bully prevention program within which children are empowered to act on their own behalf and taught the skills necessary to keep minor altercations from escalating into violence or coercion.

Some notes I received directly from students who claimed to love the book particularly touched me. I also appreciate the comments from a few students (mostly sixth graders) who thought the book would be more appropriate for older students. When asked, if a movie were to be made form "The Prize", who should play the leading roles, most answered "real kids, just like us".

Educators who led reading/discussion groups also came forth with a great deal of very useful feedback.

Feedback about the appropriateness of "The Prize" for sixth and seventh grade students was mixed. One educator opted not to do the project in her middle school, but thought the book would be appropriate for the high school in her district. She sent the books to the high school principal. Another educator at a middle school in that same district did several reading/discussion groups with her students. Two other middle school educators opted to read the book to their students instead of having them read it themselves. This technique allowed the educator to skip or reword passages they felt were inappropriate for the age of their students. I have concluded that educators are in the best position to determine whether to use "The Prize" and how to use it with their students.

One middle school teacher shared the books with a group of adult church leaders. The church group reported its intention to use the twelve rules for getting along with each other as a guideline for promoting the fair treatment of others with youth groups.

One principal sent students a formal invitation to a pizza lunch and discussion of the book. Another educator had students roll play the characters in the book. Another had students read a chapter a day and discussed the action on an on-going basis. One reading teacher stated that the best part of the project was the discussion about cooperation that occurred after they had completed the reading.

I have concluded that students are more likely to benefit from reading "The Prize" when there is adult supervision and discussion of the concepts of cooperation.

I will continue to offer a review copy of the book to educators upon request. In an effort to promote discussion of the concepts of cooperation, I will include with the book a copy of the curriculum for the bully prevention program upon which the book is based. After the educator has determined the appropriateness of the book for her/his students and agrees to provide guidance and the opportunity for their students to discuss the concepts of cooperation I will donate ten books to their school's library. This offer is valid as long as my private stock of "The Prize" holds out.

A number of educators volunteered their intention to continue to use "The Prize" to promote cooperation in their schools. I will forward a copy of the curriculum to educators who have already received ten books for their library. Upon request, I will forward a copy of the curriculum to educators who have already received a review copy of "The Prize" and are contemplating using it in the future. (The curriculum is not currently available on my web site.)

Also, I am contemplating doing a second edition of "The Prize" specifically geared for the younger reader.

    —M. LaCourt