By Lara Maupin, M.Ed. NSOC Director, CEP
As teachers we are increasingly required to meet the varied individual needs of our students. We receive in-service training on differentiation and the impact of poverty and executive function, for example. But how do we put it all together our increasingly crowded classrooms day in and day out? How do we help all our students reach their full potential?
Character education is here to help. When we focus on character development, we make our high expectations clear and meaningful to students while building strong, caring relationships with and among our students. When we do this, disruptions decrease and we gain time on task. As this happens, we also gain more time to meet individual needs and differentiate instruction. As an added benefit, when we know our students well and they trust us, we can better meet their needs. When they know we care, they are more motivated to work hard.
Our National Schools of Character (NSOC) tell this story over and over again. In schools of character, students feel safe, respected, and connected to those around them. As a result, they thrive academically and socially and they become motivated to give back to their communities. We see positive results in terms of academic achievement, student behavior, and school climate. Just take a look at these statistics from the 2011 NSOC:
- Average attendance rate:95%
- Low or declining referrals:89%
- Students participating in service learning: almost 100%
- Students that report feeling safe:87%
- Increase in reading and math scores (or over 90% passing):100%
- Made AYP:78%
These numbers don’t happen without meeting individual student needs. So what do character education and differentiation have in common? How can these two approaches complement each other and work together? What do we see in classrooms of character?
A focus on the essentials:Teachers “put first things first” (Covey). They ask: What are the fundamental needs of my students? What are the essential questions of my discipline? What are our core values as a community of learners?
Acceptance:Teachers accept students for who and where they are. Schools of character embrace and celebrate diversity and train staff and students to understand and respond to differences.
Relationships:Teachers listen carefully to students and invest in creating caring relationships with their students based on understanding of student needs. Teachers and students collaborate and students perceive teachers as caring.
Grouping:Teachers group students in order to facilitate and meet the important goals of equity and excellence. An essential component of differentiated instruction is flexible grouping. Character education is most effective with groups that meet student needs for affirmation, contribution, power, purpose, and challenge (e.g., cooperative learning groups, “buddies,” “families,” morning meetings).
Making Meaning:Teachers assign respectful tasks that enable students to create meaning and make important connections. For example, teachers focus student products around significant problems, use meaningful/authentic audiences, and help students discover how ideas and skills are useful in the real world.
Modeling: Teachers model appropriately – both in terms of their school’s core values and in terms of learning processes. Effective practitioners are “metacognitive teachers.”
Shared leadership:Getting the involvement of all stakeholders is essential to the success of all students. Teachers ask parents what they want for their children and explain the benefits of their approaches. They solicit student input on an ongoing basis and create leadership opportunities for students.
Reflection:Both character education and differentiation – in fact all good educational practices – require ongoing assessment, analysis, and reflection. They work best if they are intentional, proactive interventions. Teachers ask students to reflect on their work and they observe students every day. They collect data and use it as the basis for planning.
Persistence:The result of persistence and determination is increased student achievement. Persistent teachers find new ways to deliver instruction so that all students can meet important goals. They don’t give up on any student.