Lori Sandford Wiley, Ph.D.
Character, a reliable inner disposition to do what is morally right, is more important than academic skills. That is what the founders of Harvard University thought, when they wrote its original mission. Others such as the Hyde School in Bath Maine echo this belief. Character education, the teaching of universal values and virtues like honesty, integrity, kindness, respect and responsibility, is making a comeback in public schools as well. How is it taught? Kevin Ryan’s five Es (Example, Explanation, Exhortation, Environment, Experience ) and Tom Lickona’s nine spokes on the wheel, are well known approaches.
This article describes
another approach , called Comprehensive Character-building.
While everyone teaches character in some way, character education as defined by the national character education movement of the 1990s, is deliberate, intentional, planned, and organized. It is not incidental or accidental. It is not something that “just happens”. Comprehensive character education falls into the following six categories (LC5): Moral Leadership, Moral Climate, Moral Community, Moral Correction, Moral Curriculum and Common Projects.
In order to teach character, one must have it. Students learn a great deal from observation and modeling. “Practice what you preach” sums up the need for educators to have high principles. “Do as I say, not as I do” is an ineffective way to teach morality. Educators must hold themselves to high moral standards. They are encouraged to write a personal mission or commitment statement and code of ethics to share with students and parents. Students can write their own ethical code. Each school should have a code of ethics which is posted in prominent places.
Climate is the “weather”. It is how one feels when entering the room. It is set visually and auditorially. Room decor can foster character. Posters, portraits, mottoes, banners, bulletin boards, signs or other visuals can be used to promote good character. The sounds in the room, (pleasant voice tones, music, quiet or “on-task” noise) create climate. The teacher creates a warm climate by establishing positive relationships with students and showing a caring attitude. Finally, there is often a campaign for character. This campaign is a deliberate raising of excitement and enthusiasm. Aristotle said that we want children to passionately fall in love with goodness. Teachers look for ways to build moral feeling through songs, pledges, mottoes, cheers, commercials, and other motivational or inspirational approaches.
If it “takes a village to raise a child”, what does it take to raise a village? The teacher turns the classroom into a village where students interact, care for each other, and learn self-governance. A sense of community is built by taking the time to learn each other’s names, get to know each other, build friendships, and work cooperatively. Empathy and understanding foster caring and kindness. The teacher arranges name games, getting to know each other and friendship-building activities, cooperative learning and class projects. Shared experiences, songs, stories, and rituals draw the class together into a community. Students are encouraged to take responsibility for the room: keeping it clean, setting it up, monitoring themselves and solving social problems. They take turns leading the class, and learn how to make shared decisions about various aspects of classroom life. Exercises like class meetings are used for discussion and decision-making. Students learn how to plan, make choices, and follow through. While the teacher begins with direct instruction, clear expectations and high standards, the goal is that students will internalize these, becoming independent and responsible decision-makers.
Even when there is strong moral leadership, a moral climate and community, everyone makes mistakes, including young people. Each mistake or misbehavior becomes an opportunity for character education. Correcting character flaws is part of our responsibility as human beings. While punishment was the method of correction for many years, there are other more suitable ways being used today. The highest level of correction is self-correction or self-control. Students can learn to identify what they did wrong, predict the consequences of their actions, set goals to do the right thing, and learn better behavior. Teachers coach them in self control strategies, problem solving, goal setting, anger control, and self-evaluation.
Character education is taught both through content and process. For example, students might learn about Cooperation, what it means and how to show it. This is content. Or the teacher might arrange projects where they use it. This is process.
There are four types of moral
curricula used for Character Education. The first is an add-on, where 10 to
20-minute lessons are interjected two or three times a week. There are
commercially-prepared curricula with teachers’ manuals, workbooks, posters,
video tapes and other supplementary materials. Some teachers prefer teaching
concepts like honesty, respect, and responsibility through designated activities
and lessons in a structured time slot.
More often teachers infuse
their regular curriculum. This means they look at the curriculum they are
already teaching, and bring out the moral aspects. There are moral issues in
every subject being studied in literature, science, social studies, physical
education, math, art, music, etc. Using the infusion approach, teachers mine the
curriculum for its moral content. They use a moral lens to bring moral issues
Another popular approach is
the integrated approach. Here a character trait is chosen, and, in a web-type
arrangement, all subject matter promotes that trait. If the trait is Kindness,
students do art projects promoting Kindness. They sing songs about it in Music.
They play games promoting kindness in Physical Education. They read books and
poems about it in Reading or English. They look for examples in Science and
Social Studies. They find ways to demonstrate it in Math. It becomes a
Finally, character education
is taught informally, as situations arise. The teacher watches for the teachable
moment and creates an on-the-spot lesson. Capitalizing on the unexpected
requires great skill and schedule flexibility. For example, if two students come
into the classroom angry with each other, that becomes the character education
curriculum. Because it is not scheduled and planned, documentation is needed to
ensure that character education is happening. Character education is just as
viable a “subject” as any other, and this approach should not be mistaken for
Students who do things for others as well as themselves, tend to build good character. The teacher finds ways for students to take responsibility in caring for the classroom, the school, the community and the world. The teacher might take the class on a tour of the school and ask,” What can our class do to make this school a better place?” Students begin reaching out through environmental clean up, buddy programs, safety patrol, and even landscaping the outdoor area! This service learning prepares them to branch out further into the community. Community service learning builds a bridge between the classroom and community. It has a moral (charity, caring for others, improving the world, idealism), civic (citizenship, care for one’s community), vocational (hands-on and authentic learning) and academic (planning, supervision, evaluation, teaching academic skills) aspect. For example, students may write letters to the editor, interview World War II veterans, take a field trip to a historic site, invite community members into the classroom to talk about moral issues in the work force, or plan an advocacy campaign regarding a particular social problem. The youngest children can do simple things like visit a nursing home or donate old toys.
Character education is meant to be comprehensive. Even though every teacher believes he or she is already teaching it, it is needed more than ever. Last year’s activities are not comprehensive enough for next year’s class. Developing character is an awesome and fulfilling part of teaching.
Lori Wiley is a member of the Character Development Foundation, and former faculty member of Notre Dame College and Rivier College in New Hampshire. She has conducted many workshops and in-service sessions for teachers. Her recently published book, Comprehensive Character-building Classroom, can be obtained from the Character Development Foundation, PO Box 4782, Manchester NH 03108, e-mail: email@example.com.
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