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Wise ones say...

"I wanted to do something to make a difference, to help students take responsibility for their choices and honor one another's differences . . . ."

December 1997
The Press-Enterprise
Corona, California

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"Wise ones say..."

Each morning at nearly 20 schools, pupils take five minutes to mull over quotes and aphorisms from philosophers, movie stars, religious thinkers and fictional characters. The profound words are accompanied by paragraphs that explain sometimes cryptic proverbs and encourage students to apply their lessons of tolerance and responsibility to their lives.

"It's a little bit of time in the morning to get students focused," said Robert Loya, principal of Mead Valley Elementary School in Val Verde Unified School District. "Kids come by and say 'That was interesting, I think I'll do that.'"

The quotes and explanations are compiled by Leslie Luton Matula, founder of Houston-based Project Wisdom. Matula created the program after the Los Angeles riots.

"I wanted to do something to make a difference, to help students take responsibility for their choices and honor one another's differences," she said. "We honor all different races and creeds, economic backgrounds, genders and ages."

Matula's words of wisdom are meant to add up to more than just quotes read to students. Daily messages have themes, such as maintaining a positive attitude, respecting elders or overcoming hate.

"We write every message around a quote, but the message itself shows students how they can integrate that quote into their lives," she said. "I ask a lot of questions to encourage thinking." The questions and quotes have seventh-grader Charles Good thinking.

"It gets me thinking about some of the stuff they say, like don't put yourself down and respect yourself and others," said the student at Mira Loma Middle School in the Jurupa Unified School District. "And everyone listens to it."

Students hear the same line each day at the end of the messages, "Make it a great day or not. The choice is yours."

That is a powerful concept for students, said Mira Loma teacher Suzanne Rowland. The English teacher recently asked her students to write poems about their school, and every student mentioned the ending quote in their work.

"To them, it's sort of a symbol of the school," Rowland said. "Regardless of the lesson, they get that line and that's one of the most important lessons of all."

Nicole Saeli, a Mira Loma seventh-grader, has had more good days since hearing that sentence of wisdom.

"We have a choice to make it a good day and do our homework and class work," she said. "Or we can make it a bad day by getting in trouble."

Reminding others of that message has been Jonathan Greenberg's goal. The Lake Elsinore Middle School principal has a plaque on his wall that reads "Make it a great life or not. The choice is yours." He also puts the quote on the school's newsletter.

"It makes you know you're responsible for your own future," he said.

Each school implements the program differently. Some, like Mira Loma, have the principal read the words of wisdom. Others, like Sequoia Middle School in Fontana Unified School District, allow students to read the messages.

"Even the kids who can't read well like to do it," said Toni Merante, the school's language arts chairwoman. "It gives them a bit of notoriety for the day."

Students and teachers alike take something away from the wise words.

"As adults, you forget you can change sometimes," said Larry Franklin, a Mira Loma teacher who said Project Wisdom helps him put aside morning traffic stress. "When she says these things first thing in the morning, you realize you can change the tone for the day if you will it."

Themes from the daily messages also carry over into classroom journal-writing and conversations with students about behavior problems, said Judy Horan, assistant principal at Norco Intermediate School in the Corona-Norco United School District.

"When we have kids in the office, we'll often say something like "All year we've been saying the choice is yours. What different choice could you have made in this situation?'", she said.

The variety of religious sources that Project Wisdom quotes, including Christians, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, have prompted some parental concerns that children are learning religion. But once parents understand the concept, they support it, Matula said. "We're taking a historical perspective, not a religious perspective," Matula said. "We try to find some common ground to honor everybody. I know that's why it has worked."

Mira Loma Principal Diana Asseier said that emphasis on different religions and cultures contributes to a more tolerant campus environment.

"We have a philosophy we try to live, that everybody is safe, equal and respected," she said. "I really believe the message in the morning is a major contributor."

Reprinted with permission

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