Values education is more than a concept to Teresa Feli.
While discussing with her pupils such values as mutual respect, community, and family love, Ms. Feli realized that family violence was a bigger problem than she thought. "I had the kids draw pictures of the ways their parents had hurt them," the Santiago elementary school teacher says. "Then I shared those pictures with the parents and tried to get them to talk about how they can improve their child's image of them. There are risks in such an exercise, but I decided it's a risk that has to be taken."
Values education is gaining ground across Latin America as schools try to deal with challenges like broken families, drug use, and sexual abuse. Traditional concerns like sexual activity and low self-esteem, which educators see as a major contributor to high dropout rates, are also involved.
One reason values get more attention is that the school day was recently extended by at least two hours, giving teachers time to address topics beyond the basics.
Chile, Argentina, and Brazil are also emphasizing a "transversal" approach, where a theme like ecology or economics is incorporated into all courses. This allows for a broader introduction of values into classes, teachers say.
In the Yangtse Elementary School in Santiago, for example, an afternoon physical-education class mixes sports and values: In addition to kicking a soccer ball, children talk about the mental and spiritual qualities required to play sports well. They visit national sports teams to hear players tell about values they live by.
As part of her training, Feli and 20 other teachers participated in a six-week training course at the University of Barcelona in Spain. "So now we also have teacher meetings where we talk about respect for differing opinions, or respect for diversity among students and families," she says. "When it seems like fewer students and families fit a 'typical' mold each year, it's something important for all of us to learn."
Teachers say it's too early to say if students are more open to diversity or if families are more harmonious because of the discussions. But at Yangtse, where children say a prayer before leaving school, students in this 80 percent Roman Catholic country have learned that people of different religions may pray differently.
"We learned that just because some people are of a different religion," says pupil Madalena Molina, "doesn't mean you should discriminate against them."