This is the last guest blog about the remarkable dignity work happening at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, NY. Don Shacknai is the father of one of the middle school students who studied Dignity last with with his teacher, Mike Wilper.
When our son Noah came home from school sometime in the second week of 6th grade at The Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, he used the word “dignity” in a sentence. He’d never spoken that word before and we weren’t expecting it.
Soon we learned that his 6th grade humanities curriculum, taught by Mr. Wilper, would be centered on dignity. We were puzzled. What did it mean? How could or would dignity become the framework for what we thought was basically a history class? And how would 6th graders – and our son — be able to make sense of this?
The answers to our questions would emerge over a remarkable year, as we observed our son become thoroughly and passionately engaged in his humanities “dignity” curriculum.
So what exactly did we observe? In some ways it’s hard to summarize the changes in our son because they were profound and not easy to characterize. But here’s an attempt to capture some of what we viewed as most important.
- A prism for understanding the world around him – The most important feature of this curriculum for Noah was that it provided a compelling lens for him to understand human behavior, history, and conflict. This was a revelation to him. He found it profoundly energizing to have a way of thinking about Greece, Rome and more recent history – a framework or interpretive lens – that made it all come to vivid life. It was breathtaking to see my 11-year-old be able to look at history in this way – and to get thoroughly excited by it.
- Deep engagement with school content – Given this compelling framework or lens, we observed Noah deeply immersed in reading and writing to the point where he often lost track of time working on it. We observed our son truly leaning into an academic subject, wanting to initiate and continue conversations. The curriculum facilitated his ability to deeply engage with texts as diverse as Antigone and The Outsiders and I Am Malala, and link them to other things he’d read or learned.
- Finding meaning, relevance in history – The dignity lens stimulated a new sense of the importance of studying the past. Noah found meaning in history and connections between faraway lands thousands of years ago and his life today. One might think this kind of curriculum would make the content more abstract. Actually, the opposite is true: For Noah, the dignity lens made history personal.
- Active desire to communicate what he learned outside school – Prior to this class we found Noah rarely wanted to share his knowledge or views with others. During this year we noticed Noah finding his voice outside of school, with a refreshing eagerness to describe his dignity curriculum and how much enjoyment he was getting out of his humanities class. Slinging a fresh vocabulary of “tribalism”, “charged labels” and “dignity violations”, Noah’s new voice had a tone of advocacy, articulating principles of moral conduct; in one striking essay, Noah argued that an important step in increasing dignity beyond the doors of Berkeley Carroll would be to offer the dignity curriculum to children all over the world.
- Greatly improved writing – Noah found his voice both verbalizing the dignity ethos and writing about it. His deep engagement with the material and ability to relate it to his own life led Noah to put greater effort into his first drafts, and then his subsequent drafts as he refined the vital message he was attempting to communicate. We observed greatly improved writing and editing skills, manifested in essays, letters and even emails to his teachers.
- Pride in learning – Noah felt very proud of his own engagement with the dignity curriculum, vocabulary and constructs. This also was new to us. We came to view this pride in mastering the language of dignity as a beginning on the road to young adulthood.
It was enormously gratifying to see and feel Noah’s excitement for learning generated by the dignity curriculum. His exposure to this curriculum spurred intellectual and personal growth; we greatly enjoyed hearing his more global views, framed in a new language of moral understanding. And we didn’t hear the word “boring” once!
Before closing, it’s crucial to emphasize that a very special teacher facilitated Noah’s experience of the dignity curriculum and our experience of him “in” it. Mike Wilper’s enormous passion for teaching, his deep compassion for his students, his spectacular intellect, his positive energy, his high standards for students’ written work — coupled with this fascinating dignity curriculum — brought out the very best in our child.