Peach students aim to make a more polite world

FORT VALLEY — Forty-two students, under the guidance of teacher Mary Jean Banter, are out to make this a nicer world.

The Fort Valley Middle School group, calling itself A Touch of Class, is participating in this year’s Future Problem Solving Program International, and the community project they’ve selected is etiquette. Students are from sixth through eighth grades, and they began their project in the fall.

Having manners seems to pay off. Banter said the group received a first-place trophy March 28 for the Middle Division, and they have been invited to the international competition at Michigan State University at the end of May. Last year, Banter’s team placed fourth in the competition with their project of raising community awareness of diabetes.

This year, they winnowed down 47 topics and reached a consensus on etiquette.

Why pick such a topic?

“Because of the economy getting worse, people aren’t going out as much as they used to,” said Jesus Cedillo, 12, a sixth-grader. As a result, people aren’t interacting with others as much, said eighth-grade student Cecilia Zavala, 14. “Lots of people, especially teenagers, are more familiar with video games or TV, and parents aren’t in control of their kids.”

Students “started with themselves,” Banter said, doing a sort of self-evaluation of their social skills. Then they interviewed family members and adults to get their perspectives on the importance and impact of manners.

“We then did research on the Web to see if our information was accurate,” said Keyanna Sturn, a 12-year-old seventh-grader.

Research was the first step the group took to identify a problem. Other steps included seeing the challenges, the underlying problems, the solutions and criteria for them, and the action plan.

The action plan included getting the word out to the community via brochures, presentations and the Web.

“The Web is a way to teach people who don’t go out much how to use etiquette in their daily life,” Jesus said. Students’ presentations focused on different aspects of etiquette, from business to dining to cell phone use to behavior at sporting events.

Students visited Hunt Primary and Hunt Elementary schools to tell students the need for etiquette, and early in March they held a formal dinner for parents and visiting dignitaries from Fort Valley State University and John Stumbo, the mayor of Fort Valley.

Coming up, Banter said, is Etiquette Week from April 27 to May 1. The school also has a daily etiquette message in the morning announcements.

Patric Ogletree, 13, and Billy Tolbert, 14, put their emphasis on business etiquette.

“It’s about personal etiquette, how to maintain yourself in a big environment,” said Patric. “Also, how to be nice to others when you’re frustrated at work.”

The foundation for business etiquette, and others, Billy said, is respect. “You just have to treat others the way you wish to be treated.”

Patric said while working on the project, he discovered he uses etiquette every day without knowing it, such as being polite.

“It really does matter in business,” said Billy. “Being respectful to others can help take away a lot of stress.”

Etiquette cuts across all cultures, said a trio of eighth-graders.

Cecilia, along with Haley Giddens and Maria Rodriguez, produced a brochure in Spanish and English. Cecilia said the brochure in Spanish was to show younger Spanish-speaking students the importance of manners.

The brochure contained a section, “Buenos Modales en la Mesa — Por Favor y Gracias,” or, “good manners at the table — please and thank you,” with time-honored tips on not chewing food with one’s mouth open (no mastiques con tu boca abierta) coupled with more modern tips on not sending text messages while at the table (no mandes mensajes de texto).

Their research indicated that some behaviors tolerated in other cultures are considered bad manners here.

“For instance, in China when you’re eating soup, you can slurp it loudly to show you like it,” Haley said. “Not here.” Working on the project has made the students more self-aware about manners and dealing with others, they all said.

“Before, I just thought etiquette was about table manners, but now I see it’s really how you act with others,” said eighth-grader Carina Alcantar, 14.

Classmate ArtRico King said, “Before, I went about and ignored other people, but now if I see someone needs help, I’ll do it even though I don’t know them.”

The project, however, wasn’t without its youthful humor.

Banter pointed out one presentation that showed a recent picture of Queen Elizabeth II picking her nose.

“I told them that with manners it’s OK to slip up once in a while,” Banter said, laughing.

To contact writer Jake Jacobs, call 923-6199, extension 305.