Common Core: Building the Moral Infrastructure through Character Ed

Common Core

By Kristie Fink, CEP Education Advisory Council member

The Common Core has now been adopted by all but five states in the U.S., making it the topic of discussion in faculty rooms all across the country. It touts high standards that encapsulate the knowledge and skills students need for college, career and civic readiness in a 21st century global society, but will it really deliver on its promise?

There is much to like about the new Core. Governors and state superintendents all across the country collaborated to create it, reflecting our national ideals of state and local control of education. This collaboration has also resulted in developing high standards rooted in performance that meet our national goals of preparing every young person to be college-, career- and civically ready by high school graduation. The standards also draw heavily from best practices and research on what high-performing countries do.

The new standards could elegantly inform our journey a decade into this new century with a vision of what it means to be educated and prepared for the challenges of a new global society. The new Core proposes to make rigorous academic content accessible to all students so that all students can be successful. They represent a paradigm shift in that they move teachers away from an emphasis on preparing students for low level, multiple-choice tests to more real-world, performance-based assessments. The level of rigor has been increased, with daily reading and writing across the curriculum in a wide range of texts, including literary and informational, and increasing text complexity across disciplines.

So what’s missing that might help students grapple successfully with the increased rigor and expectation of performance in this new Core? While it lays out what students need to know and be able to do in a 21st century global society, it falls short on identifying what students need to “be like,” (term coined by Ivor Pritchard, senior researcher at the U.S. Department of Education) or the dispositions and qualities of character they will need to develop to be well-prepared for what it means to be educated in today’s world and beyond, and to be successful on high stakes performance tests. Some of these key learning, inquiry and literacy skills include collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, communicating, building arguments, creativity, planning, presenting and researching. Clearly character is implicitly built into the new standards, but is not explicitly named or identified as key to successful implementation of the standards. However, character is the important foundation and common denominator that will help students effectively cope with all of these greater demands.

The new Core makes it clear that it does not attempt to identify all that should or could be taught, or specify the supports that schools must continue to put in place to help all young people be successful. And these are standards—they don’t identify the curriculum or teaching and learning strategies that teachers will use. An important dimension of optimal school planning that will help both students and teachers transition effectively with the new standards includes a focus on the following:

•Explicit planning for the core civic and ethical values that young people will need to acquire to be college, career and civic ready, and to grapple with the greater performance demands of the Common Core

•Modeling core values and teaching a curriculum grounded in values so that young people have clearer visions of the kinds of people they might become

•Intentional planning and working towards a pervasive sense of community for every student and the caring relationships that foster optimal human development across all domains—intellectual, social/emotional and ethical

•Collaboration to create a school and classroom culture rooted in respect, responsibility and excellence, so that students not only develop moral character, (caring, respect, trustworthiness, for example) but the performance character they will need to successfully grapple with more rigorous standards, (diligence, effort, responsibility, for example)

•High quality teaching and learning with appropriate scaffolding and supports to help all young people be successful

•Collaboration among teachers, with support from administrators, to understand and plan for implementation of the Common Core

The Common Core lays out a clear vision of what it means to be educated in the twenty-first century. It will require educators to look deeply within themselves, reflect on what students most need to be prepared for a very different world than has existed in the past, and to move forward skillfully, courageously and gracefully so that every student can succeed, contribute and create happy and flourishing lives for themselves.

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Character Education: “Not a quick fix, but well worth the effort”

Katie Hood

Katie Hood, Web Content Coordinator for CEP

Being a relatively new CEP staff member (I started in Sept.), I’m still learning a lot about character education. I know the basics now – start small, get leadership on board, engage your out-of-school community – but I am still amazed when I hear the National Schools of Character stories. True learning happens in these schools because students want to learn, teachers want to teach, and parents and community members support them.

I recently listened to a radio show that discusses issues in American education. This day’s particular show focused on character education, and featured CEP’s National Schools of Character director Lara Maupin, and Crestwood Elementary School (MO) principal Scott Taylor.

The most striking thing I realized while listening to the show was that the most common issues in education: bullying, poor academic performance, pressure for students to reach test scores rather than truly learn just aren’t issues at NSOCs.

Scott talked about how his school earned the “Nobel Prize of Education,” according to his superintendent. His school was the only school in 2011 to be distinguished as a Blue Ribbon School and also a National School of Character. He said in the show, “It’s a tremendous honor –really the highest honor you can achieve in education – and certainly we would not have accomplished that without the character program that we have in place.”

That struck a chord with me because the correlation is really becoming clear about how character education relates to students doing better and being better. They said that teachers have more time to teach when they use character education as the foundation of their pedagogy. Students hold themselves and each other accountable to the virtues and values that they establish as important in their school. These values are typically respect, responsibility, honesty, doing your best – standards that most agree are positive. That way, teachers can spend their time teaching instead of disciplining students’ bad behavior.

It is important, they say, for the school community (students, parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders) to all discuss and reach consensus about the values taught. There is no one-size-fits-all character education program that works for everyone, but there are principles that can help guide all schools in providing quality character education. And these principles work for all types of schools – urban, rural, suburban, rich, poor, middle-income, minority, homogeneous, you name it.

Character education is not an add-on. It’s the foundation. And “when parents, staff, and students come together – great things happen,” says Principal Taylor. The proof is in the 170 NSOCs. Lara says, “In all of our NSOCs, we’ve seen the metrics go in the right direction, for both academic and discipline and behavior.”

Listening to this show really helped me understand how effective, comprehensive character education can be a part of the reform so obviously needed in American schools.

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Veterans Day – A Teachable Moment

 by Joseph W. Mazzola President & CEO

I had the great fortune of being raised by a loving family. They instilled in me certain values that shaped me into the person I am today. None of the adults in my family had much of a formal education though. My grandfather, for example, came to our country at the age of 10 with about a fifth grade education. He was a water boy on the railroad and later became a shoemaker.

My father never graduated from high school either. He fixed wrecked cars for a living and eventually owned his own shop–“Mazzola’s Body Shop.” It never had running water or central heat. During the winter, he burned coal in a pot-belly stove to warm the place up. I loved hanging out at his shop, and I learned a lot, too. Most people don’t know it, but I’ve painted cars, changed engines, installed transmissions, and I still service my own vehicles. In fact, I’m doing a brake job on my son’s car this weekend.

Oh. I forgot to mention why my dad never graduated from high school. He quit at the start of his senior year to go fight in World War II with his older brothers. You see, service to the nation was just one of the values stressed in our family. Since that was the case, it was an easy decision for me to enlist in the Air Force when I got older, even though it was very unpopular at the time.

Although I planned on doing my hitch and then moving on, I ended up spending more than 25 years in uniform. I did so because I loved being part of something meaningful, I loved working with honorable men and women, and I loved the fact that my organization stressed many of the same values I learned at home: Integrity, Service and Excellence.

Every year in November we celebrate Veterans Day. This year, encourage your students to reach out to veterans in your community. Besides having them thank the vets for their service, have them ask about the core values the vets lived by and how those values impacted their personal character. And, after Veterans Day, have the students share what they learned. I think you’ll find this can be a powerful character-building experience…and that’s what all good character educators look for!

Thanks for all you do to develop young men and women of good character for our world.

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Technology and Character Education

By Lindsey Wright

The use of technology has been a growing force in education. Once, classrooms were relatively isolated, nestled into a school in a suburb, small town or city. Now, regardless of physical location, today’s students have access to the larger world through the Internet. However, the focus of education itself has not necessarily changed.

Educating has always been about preparing students to be successful citizens, in whatever way possible. Strong reading, writing and math skills continue to be important, as does character. Being able to get along with others, having self-control and patience, being honest and trustworthy: these have always been traits teachers have hoped to instill in their students, and that remains true today.

Strong character is essential in the use of technology used for classroom learning. The Internet itself is a wide source of knowledge, as well as being the gateway to further content. As students attending traditional and online schools alike begin to use the Internet more and more for research, they need to learn how to utilize this tool in an ethical manner. Thus, teachers should inform students how to find credible websites when working on research projects as well as how to properly cite their sources in order to avoid plagiarism. Teaching students how to use the Internet responsibly early on will not only help students academically but also teach them to respect the work of others.

Good character is also imperative when using the Internet in a more social way. As students interact on the web, they are becoming digital citizens. Just as they must learn to adapt to their role as members of their school community, they must learn that, when they participate online, they are creating an identity representing themselves, and possibly their school.

The use of social networking has the potential to create problems, as students use sites like Facebook to connect and communicate. As a result, issues such as gossip and bullying are no longer left behind when the school day ends, since student communication continues online. Bullying, in particular, has reached new levels with the advent of cyberbullying. Luckily, there are several things students, parents and teachers can do to prevent this. A website created to help promote positive interaction on the Internet gives some excellent tips.

While there are potential problems in the use of technology, it is an excellent instructional tool for developing good character. Social interactions within the school, in the classroom, in the cafeteria and on the playground have always provided excellent teaching opportunities. The Internet simply provides another venue. Teachers can teach proper behavior and take opportunities to get involved and correct when needed. Finally, teachers can model good behavior by considering what they say online, and being cognizant that nothing is private on the Internet.

With the increase in the use of technology, a focus on the basics of good character must be maintained. Being able to interact well with others has always been crucial, but perhaps even more so now, as students are conversing with people across the world, and of many different backgrounds and races. As the world gets smaller, being able to participate in that world in a positive way is more than important than ever.

This post was written by guest contributor Lindsey Wright, a freelance writer who is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

To learn more about educating students for digital citizenship, don’t miss the keynote panel at the upcoming National Forum on Character Education and the remarks of digital citizenship expert, Dr. Jason Ohler.

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Start the School Year Off Right

Students set personal goals at the start of the year.

 A focus on the whole child and each child’s moral and social development pervades the program at Beauvoir the National Cathedral Elementary School, a 2011 National School of Character. The school invests a great deal of time and resources into the “social curriculum,” which is seen as being just as important as, and even part of, the academic curriculum.

All classes spend the first 6 weeks of the school year developing class norms according to the Responsive Classroom methodology. Part of this is the development of class constitutions, contracts, or promises.

Students also set specific personal goals called “hopes and dreams.” Both are posted and referred to regularly in each classroom. During daily morning meetings in each classroom, students greet each other, play a game together, share something of importance to one or more students, and read the morning message.

Even the youngest Beauvoir students start the year with learning the social curriculum in age-appropriate ways. When entering Pre-K, all students are given stuffed bears that they name, make clothes for, and then use for role playing throughout their first two years at Beauvoir. The bears are a tool to teach empathy teachers adapted from the book Bears, Bears, Everywhere by Luella Connelly.

Beauvoir is one of five cathedral schools located in the U.S. and one of three on the beautifully maintained grounds of the National Cathedral located in Washington, DC. Beauvoir is a private primary school, serving preschool aged children through third graders.

Beauvoir will be presenting at the 18th National Forum on Character Education in San Francisco, Oct. 19-22.

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