Member of Post-Columbine Generation Reflects on School Shooting

by Carol Dreibelbis, Education & Research Fellow

Monday, February 28th brought us news of another school shooting—this time in Chardon, OH. The entire country has been rocked by this violent act that killed three students and injured two others. This is news that we hope to never hear again.

I must admit that I was not shocked when I heard about the shooting. I had just turned 10 years old when the Columbine shooting occurred, so I’ve grown up with school shootings in the news. When I was in elementary school in Minnetonka, MN, a 5th grader brought a knife to school. Bomb scares happened every so often during middle school and high school, and gun scares were not unheard of on my college campus in Princeton, NJ. While some of us might deny that a school shooting could ever happen in our community, it seems all too possible to me.

Having graduated college back in June, I’m a relatively new employee here at CEP. Joining CEP has pushed me to think about issues such as school violence in new ways. I have realized that violence is something that schools can both prepare for—just as Chardon High School did by creating a response plan to deal with violence when it occurs—and prevent. Can we work toward a new future where shootings and other acts of violence are rarities in school settings? I think so.

We have all heard that instances of school shootings, teen suicides, and other violent acts have been connected to bullying and lack of acceptance at school. Given this, the shooting on Monday highlights the importance of creating safe and caring school communities. Comprehensive character education efforts can build an atmosphere where students feel included, connected, and part of their school community; where both students and teachers step up to report bullying and stand up for victims; where teachers check in with vulnerable or troubled students instead of hoping, “she’s fine” or “he’s too much trouble”; and where parents are involved and engaged. This may seem like just a dream to many, but it is achievable—just ask many of our National Schools of Character!

There are, of course, countless reasons why acts of violence take place in schools. Still, recent events in Chardon remind us that schools—together with parents and their communities—can work to minimize these occurrences. Let’s work together to make each student feel safe, valued, and strong enough to do the right thing.

Question: How does your school work to create a safe and caring school community? Please let us know by posting a comment below!

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Resistance to Character Education

by Sarah Twardock, Fundraising and Research Fellow at CEP

The mere mention of the words “character education” inevitably sparks resistance among certain populations.

If my students don’t get certain test scores, my job is in jeopardy, asserts the overworked teacher. I don’t have time to teach math AND character.

“What do you mean, you’re going to teach my child character?” questions a suspicious parent. “I don’t want the school to teach him something against my values.”

 People are going to be mean no matter what you try to teach them, argues the jaded teenager. All of these “character” programs are a big joke.

These statements are valid—if you are referring to a very limited, narrow approach to character education. We all know the type. It’s characterized by inspirational posters on the wall, times set aside throughout the school year to didactically teach students about a particular character trait, and outdated videos that oversimplify the nuances and challenges facing young people developing a personal code of ethics. Yes, the core values highlighted on the posters and in the designated “character times” are concepts we can all agree upon—surely, that suspicious parent would not object to her son learning about respect, responsibility, integrity, and perseverance. Yet this rather half-hearted attempt to promote the values essential to a student’s (and society’s) optimal development while appeasing the naysayers is not particularly effective, and it has created a widespread misconception of character education as the “soft” part of education that is difficult to dispel.

Difficult, yes, but impossible, no. The case for character education is certainly there. Numerous studies (Angela Duckworth’s grit scale and Joseph Durlak’s meta-analysis of SEL programs come to mind) have shown that particular character traits—such as being able to persevere in the face of failure, make responsible decisions and goals, recognize and manage emotions, establish positive relationships, and constructively handle interpersonal situations, among others—predict success above and beyond IQ. Given that schools were created to equip young people with the skills necessary to succeed in and eventually lead our society, it seems irrefutable that they should not only help their students to attain certain test scores, but also intentionally work to develop these personal qualities in students that enable them to succeed beyond the classroom as well.

The framework for developing a comprehensive, successful character education program is also in place. A growing number of schools across the country have used the Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education to bring staff, parents, and, most importantly, students, together to create a more caring and productive learning environment. Those schools that have received the highest marks according to the 11 Principles assessment tool saw numerous concrete indicators of whole school improvement. For example, students were treating others with more respect. Violence and bullying decreased. Substance abuse declined. Teacher morale and retention improved. Parental involvement increased. And, of course, that lynchpin of all good schools, academic achievement, also significantly improved.

The question remains, then, how to take these success stories to the masses and publicize what effective character education really looks like. If teachers knew that effective character education is the cultivation of a nurturing classroom culture rather than an additional item to fit into the busy school day, they wouldn’t feel as though their agenda were too jam-packed for character. If parents knew that their children would be encouraged to reach their fullest potential in a more respectful environment, they wouldn’t view character education as an attempt to undermine their role as primary moral educators. And if students were involved in creating their own character development initiatives, they wouldn’t dismiss them as an outdated waste of time.

Please help CEP spread the word on what effective character education is and what it is not. We’d love to hear your ideas on how we can further the movement!

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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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Bowls for Hunger

 CEP’s March focus is Principle 5: Providing Opportunities for Moral Action. The following service learning idea was submitted by Tina Sohn, Art Teacher & District Character Leader, Sullivan Primary School a 2010 Nationa School of Character, Sullivan, Missouri . We’d love to hear what your school is doing.

Sullivan Primary School (pre-K through first grade) weaves character into every facet of their day. At such an early age, students are given many opportunities to apply values in everyday discussions and play.

One project that started as a small building service project grew to a district-wide project that now includes every campus in the school district, community businesses, citizens, parents, children, and school staff. The “Bowls for Hunger “soup supper night brings all stakeholders together for an exciting night with donations of goods and services as well as building relationships. Continue reading

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Creating Tomorrow’s Leaders

The following post was submitted from Beverly Woods Elementary School, a 2009 National School of Character.

How do we prepare our students for a future in which the jobs they will be doing do not yet exist and the technologies that they will be working with have not yet been invented? The answer to this question is varied and controversial. However, one thing we know for sure is we have to teach our students to lead, act responsibly and respect each other. Continue reading

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