No one has yet blamed Jared Loughner's teachers for his violent mind-set and actions in Arizona, but teachers and parents have long been aware that inflammatory rhetoric can spark agitation in children. Did increasingly hostile political rhetoric incite Loughner to violence? Of course not -- we know that from exhaustive studies of children exposed to television and video game violence. But we still bear a responsibility to teach and model civil discourse. Does Sarah Palin's "take back the 20" Web site bear any responsibility for the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords? Again, the answer is no. The word "target" has become a metaphor in recent years: We target cancer cells with chemotherapy, we target underperforming students for special help in improving test scores, we target certain audiences in public relations. Only someone who is unbalanced would assume that the word equated to gunfire.

Yet in our need for an explanation after any horrific event, we blame parents or teachers or fellow students or the media for the aberrant behavior of one. Still, as a teacher committed to classroom civility, I know that the tone we model for our youth does have lasting effects. And it's tone, even more than rhetoric, that we can control.

In my college classroom I train my students to use constructive comments rather than sarcastic or critical ones in suggestions for revision. My high school classroom required that same civility -- something the students found unnatural at first, but always thanked me for later. Personal attacks had no place in our class discussions -- no matter how heated they became. When a student crossed that boundary, either my co-teacher or I gently intervened, and we could almost hear the collective sigh of relief when the class realized the awkward situation was averted.

Talk shows where personal attacks are not only permissible, but encouraged, and negative advertising are clearly the countermodel to the civil classroom. But if students learn to analyze why those attacks and ads are effective, then they can see them for what they are and avoid similar behavior in their own lives. None of us like negative political ads, yet study after study has shown that those are the ads that the voting public remembers.

None of this explains destructive violent acts; we can look to television or Web sites and point fingers all we want, but the reality remains that you and I didn't shoot anyone, and Loughner did, even with equal exposure to recent political rhetoric. Yet I still believe we have a role in maintaining civility in our homes and classrooms -- just as civility (usually) reigns in congressional debate.

We might chuckle as two adversaries address one another as "my fine colleague from the state of ____," but the courtesy is not all show; rhetoric works both ways.

There are many tales of political opponents arguing against one another's positions during the day on the Hill, and sharing a beer afterward as they swap stories about their families or dogs.

Teachers have a role is encouraging this civility, and while it would never eliminate violence in society, it would make the world a more pleasant place in which to take a stand.

What kids are reading

This weekly column looks at lists of books kids are reading in various categories.

Information on the books below came from's list of children's best-sellers;

they are listed in order of popularity.

Books on civility:

1. The How Rude! Handbook of School Manners for Teens: Civility in the Hallowed Halls by Alex J. Packer (Young adult)

2. George Washington's Rules of Civility: Traced to Their Sources and Restored by Moncure D. Conway and George Washington (Ages 9 to 12)

3. Moonlight Stories From West Africa: Teaching and Learning Social Skills and Life Lessons through Storytelling by Michael O. Ojewale (9 to young adult)

4. George-isms: The 110 Rules George Washington Lived By by George Washington and Gary Hovland (Ages 9 to 12)

5. Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches by William J. Bennett (Young adult)

Erica Jacobs, whose column appears Wednesday, teaches at George Mason University. E-mail her at