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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Where Gardens Grow Character

We believe gardening in schools is a necessity.

Most of us probably know that school gardens are a great teaching tool that can be used to enrich curriculum and improve physical health, but we believe in gardens as a way to grow character.  We see this everyday in our garden.

We see children sharing, working hard, and being kind. We watch kids grow responsibility as well as vegetables. We see kids engaged, excited, motivated, and proud of their school.  We watch as kids make connections between their school, their community, and the planet.

New research published by the Royal Horticulture Society (and who knows gardening better!) shows that as well as helping children lead happier, healthier lives, gardening “helps them acquire the essential skills they need to fulfill their potential in a rapidly-changing world and make a positive contribution to society as a whole.”

In fact, evidence suggests that gardening can play such a vital role that we believe every child should be given the chance to experience the benefits. So we will be sharing what we’ve learned along the way- how to start and maintain a school garden, how gardens create opportunities to embed character education principles, and what kids, teachers, and families have to say about gardening at the 18th National Forum on Character Education.

Our presentation “Where Gardens Grow Character”  on Friday, Oct. 21 at 2:15 will include opportunities to share your school garden stories and you’ll walk away with: a list of gardening resources we’ve found helpful; a bibliography of garden research; and a hand made memento from our beloved garden.

Please join us!  Because gardening in schools is a necessity.

Posted by Susi Jones, Tricia Elisara, Nancy Younce, Julian Elementary School, a 2010 National School of Character

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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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International Comparisons

We’ve all been hearing about great educational systems of nations such as Finland and Japan. If you haven’t yet seen “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants,” unveiled recently at an event attended by Secretary Duncan, John Merrow’s blog post provides a succinct summary of insights and a link to the report itself.

It’s worth taking a look at what these countries are doing to see if we can learn from them. If these countries don’t debate school choice, teacher accountability, or high-stakes testing, why do we? Will all of our interventions and measurements really make our students achieve more? Perhaps Merrow is right to point to our divergent state policies and lack of support or respect for teachers as weak areas of our educational system.

Even so, that leaves us with the question, “What do we focus on right now?” Continue reading

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Assessing the Challenge Index

Once again Jay Mathews, a reporter for the Washington Post, has released his Challenge Index, the ranking of high schools determined by calculating the number of college level tests taken in a given year divided by the number of graduating seniors.

I was happy to see that McLean High School (where I taught before retiring from teaching and coming to work for CEP) was ranked 13th on the list of schools in the Washington, DC area. It was the highest ranked school in Fairfax County Public School District, a fact that I’m sure made the folks on the McLean faculty proud—especially since they were also ranked high in the national list of the top 200 high schools.  I’m sure there is lots of celebrating going on in schools all over who consider themselves to be among the best high schools in America because they made the list.

But is that legitimate? I agree with Mathews on the need to offer challenging courses to anyone who wants to try. As a former Advanced Placement English teacher, I’ve seen kids who had never taken an advanced class before rise to the challenge in my class. Even if they didn’t pass the test, the introduction to the advanced curriculum and the struggle to learn pays dividends in college, which is what Mathews has found through his research. But being a good school requires so much more than that. Continue reading

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