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By Dr. Arthur Schwartz 

Since 2008, Character.org has recognized schools for developing a Promising Practice that has positively impacted school culture, involves a range of stakeholders (students, staff, parents, community members), and aligns with one or more of our 11 Principles.

This past week, we recognized 199 Promising Practices across the United States and around the world. I love reading each application and learning about the impact of each program or initiative; but this year, what grabbed my attention were the narratives of two questions we ask each school:

  • What is the story behind your practice?
  • What is one component or feature of your Promising Practice that educators might find most special or unique?

Below are four insights I gleaned from their compelling responses: 

  • Staff-driven innovation is alive and well 

Not a single narrative suggested or implied that their Promising Practice was the idea of a single person. In other words, each of the 199 Promising Practices shattered the myth that the best ideas are formed by a single person. I kept reading phrases such as “we worked together” or “we had multiple staff conversations.” I need to tip my hat to all the administrators at these schools. They empowered their staff and fully embodied the spirit of Principle 9 (“All staff share the responsibility to implement and reinforce the school’s character initiative”).

  • Involving students makes a difference

I believe in the power of student voice, and many of the Promising Practices intentionally involved students during the planning phase of the program or initiative. For example, school leaders from one school were seeking to strengthen their restorative circles initiative, and from the very beginning, the staff involved their students. Their Promising Practice details how their new approach now involves students shaping the norms of each classroom. One elementary school created a series of “mini-courses” that encouraged students to share an activity, hobby, or interest that is meaningful to them. But here’s my favorite: one school board president invites students (at all grade levels) to have a pizza lunch with him so he can listen to their feedback, ideas, and suggestions. 

  • Many Promising Practices connect to current research

One school was determined to unlock the power of intrinsic motivation and foster “student autonomy” (Principle 7). Their application explained how the staff first took a deep dive into Self-Determination Theory and how they then applied what they learned to their Promising Practice. Another school, based in Europe, integrated research on cultural psychology to develop a Promising Practice that focused on both cultural pride while also nurturing in their students a global mindset. Several Promising Practices focused on research that staff conducted to learn more about the benefits of older students mentoring and supporting younger students (whether it’s through a book buddy program or something else). 

  • Reflecting on what worked (and what didn’t) makes a difference 

One Promising Practice involved a new effort to involve all 850 students (K-5) in a service initiative with a local retirement facility. The school’s application focused a lot on the staff’s efforts to “refine the process” for next year (2024-2025). The narrative explained the staff’s commitment to listening to each other, students, parents, and the staff at the retirement facility. So many of the Promising Practices narratives I read were written from a place of humility and a spirit of continuous improvement. 

Conclusion

It’s hard for me to capture in a single article the hope and optimism I felt reading the 199 Promising Practices narratives. But here’s what I know for sure: at the heart of each Promising Practice is forming and strengthening caring attachments. While reading every application, I felt that each practice, even those that focus on a particular core value, is ultimately about helping students feel connected to their school. There is a palpable spirit of “we” that underpins each one of our 2024 Promising Practices. Each Promising Practice embodied the ideal of Principle 4 – creating a caring school community where everyone feels they belong. 

 

Note: I would like to thank Diana Dodson, our Promising Practices coordinator. Her belief in the power of schools to foster character inspires me.

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