As the daughter of Sewickley pediatrician Robert Nix, a beloved figure in that community who, in the 1950s, helped Jonas Salk test his polio vaccine, Childs’ childhood was comfortable, placid and privileged. A debutante who married at age 19, she promptly had three children, only to discover a late-blooming passion for social justice that led her to become an advocate for prison reform and a law student in the 1970s. After her first marriage ended, Childs married a criminal defense lawyer and became one herself, embarking on a 20-year career defending juvenile criminals — while having four more children along the way and commuting to Pittsburgh’s courtrooms from her farm outside of Zelienople.
“My whole world changed, from garden clubs and country clubs to real people out in the world wanting to do something, to make a difference,” she says.
Today, Childs’ children are grown and gone, and she is married again — to Robert Hamilton, a seismologist and former director of the geologic division of U.S. Geological Survey in Washington.
When she’s not accompanying him on his travels around the world, she’s still making that daily commute from her farm to Pittsburgh — although not to the city’s courtrooms as a lawyer defending juveniles charged with robbery, rape and murder.
Instead, Childs has reinvented herself again, as the moving force behind a nationally recognized school curriculum called Heartwood. Named for the strong inner core of the tree trunk — “that keeps the tree upright through storm and drought,” she says — her Oakland-based nonprofit organization helps teachers and parents nurture universal attributes of good character that form the foundations of community.
It’s an initiative borne out of Childs’ 20-year experience dealing with hundreds of children in the juvenile court system who would talk about familiar values — honesty, or loyalty or courage — and twist them inside out, until they were warped beyond recognition.
One young girl wouldn’t testify against another defendant on trial for murder. “She felt this tremendous loyalty to the other girl,” Childs recalled, almost disbelieving. Another client couldn’t grasp the notion of honesty and lied constantly to Childs, even though she knew Childs was there to help her.
There was the young gang member, who was supposed to be the “hit man” in the robbery and murder of an elderly couple, but who backed off because, he told her, he didn’t have the “courage.”
“I thought, is that what this child thinks courage is? Who taught him this?” Childs said. After she left her law practice in the late 1980s, she approached several teachers she admired, and together they created the Heartwood Ethics Curriculum for Children.
He was by no means the first. There are hundreds of “character education” programs in the nation’s schools, many of them emphasizing slogans, “word of the week,” memorization or contests. But Heartwood has reaped an unusual amount of national recognition from educators — teachers, especially — for its literature-based approach and focus on just a very small number of core values, or “attributes,” in children: courage, respect, loyalty, justice, hope and honesty, “which in turn flow into the final attribute, which is love,” she says.
“They’re just enough words for students to remember,” says Dr. Henry Huffman, with a laugh. He’s founder and retired director of the Character Education Institute of Pennsylvania, and, as deputy superintendent of the Mt. Lebanon schools, he gave Heartwood its first major boost in 1991 when he chose it as an elementary school pilot project.
“We were really impressed with it,” he said. “After all, storytelling is one of the oldest means of talking about morality. You have parables, Aesop’s fables and other examples that resonate with readers and listeners that mere statements of principle do not.”
Heartwood uses respected children’s literature — “Mama Do You Love Me?” by Barbara Joosse; “Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney; “The Great Kapok Tree” by Lynn Cherry — as teaching tools. After the teacher reads a book aloud, the young students engage in discussion and critical reflection as a way to get to deeper understanding of what respect or honesty or loyalty means.
Good character isn’t achieved by rote learning, Childs believes. “You have to come to it yourself. You have to own it. It’s who you are and how you act.”
Since its inception in 1991, Heartwood has been used in hundreds of school districts across the country. Locally, it’s been used in Mt. Lebanon, Burgettstown, Fox Chapel Area, Hampton, McKeesport Area, Pittsburgh, Shaler Area, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills in Allegheny County; Seneca Valley in Butler County; Greater Latrobe in Westmoreland County, Indiana Area, Ellis School, Falk School and Sewickley Academy.
Heartwood has also teamed up with the Highmark Foundation in its initiative to address critical children’s health issues, including self-esteem, by distributing “T.R.U.E.” cards, with proverbs and wise sayings that parents can discuss with their children.
Also this year, Childs is planning to expand Heartwood into the middle schools, but under a different name — “T.R.U.E. (Teaching Resources for Understanding Ethics) Choices” — one designed to appeal to children in grades 6, 7 and 8. This is a trickier group to capture, given their rambunctious, hormone-addled nature and tendency to defy authority.
“We’ve really got to keep the effects of Heartwood going in middle school,” she said, noting that early adolescence is often described as “the last best chance” to positively influence young people. So often, children at this age, who experience startling changes in moral, cognitive and identity development, “get lost in the Bermuda Triangle of middle schools. That’s why exploring ways to make ethical good choices can be a lifesaver.”
Using such books as “Alia’s Mission,” by Mark Alan Stamaty — inspired by a true story about an Iraqi woman’s efforts to save the books in Basra’s large central library — the new middle school curriculum will be incorporated into existing language arts and social studies classes. “T.R.U.E. Choices” is partnering with the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission in providing “hero assemblies” at schools, which introduce students to “everyday” people who took extraordinary action to save or attempt to save someone else’s life.
All of this raises one question: is good character something that can be taught in a classroom, especially if the child isn’t getting messages about ethical conduct at home?
Speaking in her deep, soft voice, Childs answers unequivocally.
“I believe teachers have made differences in kids’ lives since the beginning of time,” she says. “There are plenty of stories about people who were touched by someone, despite having parents who weren’t there for them.”
Still, after a hot streak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, character education programs have had a bumpy ride in American education recently. Some states — although not Pennsylvania — have always required the teaching of “good character,” and the concept got a boost several decades ago from Reagan Administration Education Secretary William Bennett and business leaders like Sanford McDonnell, chairman emeritus of McDonnell Douglas Corp., who told audiences that “America will not be strong if we graduate young people who are brilliant but dishonest.”
By the year 2000, more than 100 programs were jockeying for federal grant money and school district attention. But today, the pressure on schools to comply with No Child Left Behind Act has crowded out some of them.
“Character education is rapidly passing from the scene as a national topic,” laments Huffman. “There is great pressure on schools to make sure students are achieving in easily measurable ways.”
Heartwood, however, has been scrutinized by respected researchers, most recently by Dr. James Leming of Saginaw Valley State University, a leading scholar in character education evaluation. Besides finding fewer discipline problems or instances of intolerance towards children of other ethnic groups, he noted that, overall, Heartwood “produces students who possess a caring and respectful disposition towards others and perceive their teachers as demonstrating the same characteristics when compared to students who have not had the same extent of exposure to the curriculum.”
Not everyone is enamored of character education. Alfie Kohn, an author and outspoken critic of traditional educational methods, complains that these programs are meant as behavior modification designed to make students more obedient and compliant — not to foster more intangible qualities such as empathy or social conscience.
Carol Berklich, a teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Mt. Lebanon, disagrees. She has been teaching Heartwood in her fifth grade classes since 1991, reading the stories aloud and then discussing them afterward, focusing on an attribute like courage, for example.
“In the end, it’s the children who end up defining what courage means,” she said. “The reason Heartwood is so good and enduring is that it’s based on children’s’ literature rather than just slogans or what I call ‘trashcan words,’ caring, compassion or kindness, that don’t mean anything by themselves. Each one of those words could come under one or more of Heartwood’s attributes, love, or respect, for example.”
As children change and grow, Heartwood’s attributes take on different facets, she added. Justice, for example, is described as “fairness” for younger children, but by fifth grade, the concept of “mercy” is introduced.
Heartwood “nurtures character,” added Huffman. “It doesn’t ‘teach’ character. When kids say ‘I’m the boss of me,’ there’s great truth to that. Despite our best efforts, kids go wrong, and while I think there are things we can teach in the traditional sense of that word, while it’s important to define ethics and teach children approaches to moral reasoning, ultimately what we do is nurture and model.
“To be sure, some families can undermine and are hostile to our efforts. You can beat your breast and say that’s reality, but as long as the child is with us, we can provide an oasis and a bastion of responsibility, and it’s in part because of people like Ellie Childs, who refuse to despair when we send kids back to that environment.”
Childs still says, though, that during her career as a lawyer defending the poorest and most troubled members of society, “I never saw a parent who didn’t love their child. They’d behave, however, in thoughtless, angry ways that affected the children, and they just didn’t know about these concepts or how to communicate them effectively.”
In fact, she remembers getting a call recently from a man she defended in a drug case who she felt was innocent.
“I really liked the guy, and we had a lot of time to talk. Then this horrible thing came into his life, but he never blamed me. He’s the only guy in my life who I represented who I felt should never have gone to jail.”
He was convicted, and after serving an eight-year term in prison, he got out, and, visiting the home of a friend whose wife was a teacher, came across a Heartwood catalog, and called her.
“He looked at the materials and saw my name,” she says, “He told me, ‘I’m so proud of you. I was there when this began.’ ”