Students cowboy up

A teacher’s cowboy curriculum is motivating high school students in Colorado and elsewhere, reports the Denver Post. Ann Moore, who teaches at-risk students and English Learners at Cherry Creek High, was inspired by Jim Owen’s Cowboy Ethics, which aims to teach values to Wall Street bankers. Her curriculum is based on Owen’s 10-point Code of the West.

1. Live Each Day with Courage
2. Take Pride in Your Work
3. Always Finish What you Start
4. Do What Has to Be Done
5. Be Tough, But Fair
6. When You Make a Promise, Keep It
7. Ride for the Brand
8. Talk Less and Say More
9. Remember That Some Things Are Not For Sale
10. Know Where to Draw the Line

Whether it’s historically accurate isn’t really the point. The code promotes traditionally masculine behaviors that resonate with teens who are likely to be growing up without a father.

“The class teaches values that America doesn’t really hold that much anymore,” said Trevor Unruh, 14. “I’ve learned to think about cowboy values when tough things come my way.”

Unruh is learning the principles this semester. On a recent morning, the core cowboy values — such as courage, self-reliance, duty and heart — were written on the board in his class for kids with emotional disabilities at Cherry Creek.

. . . In a recent class, they sharpened their critical-thinking skills by answering questions designed to elicit their own personal values.

Would you rather end hunger or hatred?

Would you rather always lose or never play?

Moore’s curriculum has spread to other states. To make time for the cowboy curriculum, a Scottsbluff, Nebraska school dropped Shakespeare from ninth-grade literature classes.

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  1. Dropped Shakespeare? But Shakespeare was some of the only high-class culture cowboys ever enjoyed!

  2. Obviously never read Taming of the Shrew. That Petruchio radiates macho values.

  3. Reminiscent of Ben Stein’s book “Bunkhouse Logic,” which has a similar theme. Certainly makes more sense for students than for investment bankers, who are old enough that their character is pretty much formed.

    Also: “The superintendent told me: ‘This is an agricultural community. Our kids don’t identify with Shakespeare, and neither do their parents'”

    I hope the superintendent was aware that a very significant % of Shakespeare fans, over the centuries, have been people living in agricultural communities–indeed, some of them have been cowboys.

    The article goes on to say that the students initially “had zero interest in cowboy culture”..just like they had zero interest in Shakespeare. So maybe if a talented teacher was able to get them interested in cowboys, a talented teacher would also have been able to get them interested in Shakespeare.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    It’s one thing to enjoy Shakespeare. That’s for people who are competent for their age.
    Getting competent for your age is a prerequisite for any kind of growth.
    It is unfortunate that some kids haven’t figured out that having a reputation for being lazy and unreliable can’t be overcome by saying, “This time is different,”
    The thing to do is have the character that other people want to see in you, either as a friend, employee, colleague, or neighbor.
    You have to start someplace and it appears that certain kids haven’t risen to the level of being able to appreciate Shakespeare.
    And when you say cowboys liked Shakespeare and so…. Keep in mind that they were already cowboys with the desired character.
    Presuming the story about cowboys and Shakespeare is true, that is.
    Now that I think about it, I recall the story of a European traveler along the early nineteenth-century frontier who said that the meanest cabin had a Bible and a collection of Shakespeare.
    He might have exaggerated, but on the other hand, he had to have seen something in order to exaggerate it.

  5. RA…agree that for the kids in question, cowboys are probably a more useful focus than Shakespeare, with the caveat that Shakespeare will be approrpiate after the cowboy program (hopefully) improves their basic skills & study habits.

    Note also that the superintendent said “Our kids don’t identify with Shakespeare, ***and neither do their parents***” (emphasis added)..which kind of implies that this school district’s problems may not be of recent vintage.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    From time to time, my wife and I would go to Stratford in Ontario to the big Shakespeare operation they have there, and see various plays.
    We were usually chaperoning students.
    I and the kids got a whole bunch more out of the plays than I did, and presumably the kids, reading them.
    In fact, I was in a play in HS, “Arms and The Man” by Shaw, forty-five years ago. It was a great time and I thought about it a lot for many years. I recently got hold of the script, including my notes, and could barely recognize it.
    It’s probably worth remembering that most of what we look at in Shakespeare is scripting for plays. Reading them isn’t what S had in mind.
    There’s a reason plays and novels look different on paper.
    Speaking of which, which we weren’t, I’ve been recommending to various folks I know who have teenagers or who teach English, “Black Ships Before Troy”. Rosemary Sutcliff, writer of YA historical novels, retold the Iliad. She didn’t cut it. She retold it and did so phenomenally well.
    I have to say I preferred it to endless iterations of “rosy-fingered dawn,” and “aegis-bearing Zeus” and “his armor rang round him as he fell”, along with Olympian soap opera.

  7. Rosemary Sutcliff has other great options – versions of the Odyssey, Beowulf, Boadicea, Tristan and Isolde, an Arthurian trilogy and many great historical novels. Most of those have young male protagonists.

  8. There’s a possible compromise between *reading* plays and *presenting* them…assign parts to the students & have them read out load. We did this in my HS 11th grade class…seemed to work out pretty well.

    (Except I still think of Ophelia, etc, as having the voices of the students who acted them)

  9. I have so many disagreements here that it’s hard to know where to begin: the characterization of the particular values are masculine, the assumption that certain kids are lacking for masculine influences in their life, the thinking that adhering to values must/may/should preclude the teaching of Shakespeare, the generalization that certain populations cannot appreciate or have not been sufficiently groomed in refinements to appreciate Shakespeare–maybe that covers it.

    The code offered here is about ethical conduct–something that we have been neglecting in education for some time. Rallying around a set of values is not a bad thing–in fact, it may be essential. This comes very close to replicating the kind of general school principles (Sugai generally recommends three) that Postive Behavior Support uses as the grounding for all school efforts at teaching appropriate behavior. Despite the cowboy association, I don’t see anything particularly masculine about starting what you finish, or group/community identification (ride for the brand), in fact some might suggest that females tend to excel at these things.

    But–it is very important for schools to be able to integrate something along the lines of a code of conduct–whether cowboy or other, that embodies the ethics of behavior. Without such an explicit foundation, the school community can only replicate whatever forces are in play outside. Some might hold to a “masculine” code that urges one to stand their ground no matter what, or to fight to victory, or to take up for family against all outsiders. Other prevalent community values impacting children include those that were probably internalized by those Wall Street Bankers, such as anything that brings me money is good, if it’s not illegal or I don’t get caught then it’s OK, lying is acceptable to prevent harm to self, family or organization, etc.

    Even getting past the cowboy stereotype to believe that they were rough cusses who wouldn’t “get” Shakespeare (isn’t there a tradition of cowboy poets?), do we forget that Shakespeare wrote for a multi-faceted audience–those in the expensive seats in the balcony–but also for the rabble standing in the courtyard. There is plenty in Shakespeare that plays to an uneducated crowd–even if they don’t speak the language of his times. But again–the teaching of Shakespeare is about the content of learning. The Cowboy Code deals with the ethics of behavior. Both are needed.

    Just as an aside–where I live, we have had for many years a summer theater company that performs Shakespeare in a park–along with assorted other offerings (comedy, musicals). My children grew up with this tradition–and I have in fact been taking children since before I had any of my own. Younger ones sometimes fall asleep during the second act–although my daughter at a pre-school age was enchanted clear through to the final sword fight in Hamlet. My son–who has seldom been considered what Richard Aubrey terms “competent for his age”–has been to many such outings. It happens that Midsummer Night’s Dream hit about Middle School and he and a friend rolled around on the ground laughing at parts of it. His high school English teacher, on the other hand apologized that he “had to” teach Romeo and Juliet–knowing how boring it is. Yet I heard my son on the phone making an off-hand reference to friend about something he had picked up from it. Lesson–don’t shortchange your students, or their families. They may or may not have had previous exposure to the things that you might consider to be “high culture.” Doesn’t mean that given exposure they won’t understand or be appreciative.

  10. Mike Curtis says:

    Integrity first. Honor in all things. Shakespeare forces reflection on feelings…Cowboys would rather read Homer. The Warrior/Hero mindset is inexplicable to nonmembers. If you’re not a warrior, you’re on the outside looking in. A Shakespearean analyzing a Cowboy Code is like a Persian Cat trying to figure out what a Rottweiller is thinking.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’ve read most of them, including the adult “Sword at Sunset”.
    They are terrific, especially, I think, for teens and young adults.
    Among other things, there are plenty of choice points for the protagonists. Do I do this, or do I do that? The reader asks himself the question at the same time.
    Problem is, given the awfulwoefulcraptasticstupidbassackwards teaching of history these days, you’d have to give a potential reader a course in European history from, say, Caesar’s recon in force to the English Civil War. Otherwise, it may as well be scifi.

  12. I think the code, and discussions from it are great. I grew up in Montana, and while we did indeed read Shakespeare, we also had a semester on literature of the west, from My Antonia to Wallace Stegner. I think the frothing about Shakespeare is a sidebar to the actual story –one 9th grade class switched out Shakepeare. It’s not gone from the entire school curriculum.

    I don’t think of this list as masculine, but I’d add one rule my Dad taught me
    Don’t talk to the straw-boss, when the wagon boss is around. Meaning, eliminate the middle-man.


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