9-year-old boy inspires others with generosity

A nine-year-old boy in York, Pennsylvania, was moved by compassion when he saw a YouTube video of a homeless boy in freezing weather, and he took action.

Tristan Rankin gathered 75 coats for the homeless. Then he started a non-profit called Coats of Friendship, with a board of 6-to-11-year-old students from Friendship Elementary School in nearby Glen Rock. For several years, the students have collected jackets and coats and have given them out to homeless neighbors on the streets and parks of the city. Tristan and his friends have made the coat drive bigger and better each year.

Now the whole school is involved. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, the students and their families gave out 1,500 coats and jackets at LifePath Christian Ministries. Each coat is donated with a handwritten note meant to tell the recipients that they are loved and cared about.

For Jackie Baez, who fled the hurricane in Puerto Rico with almost no personal belongings, the distribution carried a feeling of inclusion as well as physical warmth. “I’m here,” she told ABC 27, “and I feel warm and well-wanted.”

“I think everyone deserves to be warm,” Rankin said. “Maybe at one time they made a poor decision. That doesn’t mean they’re not human.”

Coats of Friendship collects winter items throughout the year. They can be contacted through their Facebook page.

It is natural for us to care for the people we know—our friends and family. Tristan Rankin is pushing beyond what’s natural to care for strangers, and to do it with handwritten notes that create a human connection between the kids and the recipients of the coats.

Rankin’s inspiring work spotlights the role of what University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter calls moral attachment in his book The Death of Character. “It reflects the affirmation of our commitments to a larger community, the embrace of an ideal that attracts us, draws us, animates us, inspires us.”

Rankin’s work was featured in a short video that will inspire children and adults alike.

Resources from the Jubilee Centre can help students practice giving and receiving kindness with each other as a step toward being a kind person.

Leading culture change in schools through SEL

Social and emotional learning (SEL), a fast-growing movement in education that seeks to support students beyond academics, has reached the Worcester (Massachusetts) school district, telegram.com reported.

The local School Committee received an update on the progress of a new department, the social-emotional learning division, from Maura Mahoney.

Mahoney described the comprehensive efforts led by the department, “It’s not really one single program . . . It’s about teaching the whole child—it’s a universal approach.”

Mahoney’s focus on “teaching the whole child” is evidence of why SEL initiatives have taken root across the country. Many see the movement as a much-needed return to some of the core purposes of education, namely those related to the development of students as persons, and not just as scholars.

The social-emotional learning division administers a variety of programs commensurate with the breadth of their goals: mindfulness exercises, positive behavioral interventions, conflict resolution, and student trauma support.

Mahoney notes that while some of the topics or programs covered in SEL can seem intuitive, educators can never take for granted that students have built fundamental social or emotional skills.

She said the department’s work in positive behavioral interventions aims to address things like, “this is what walking in the halls looks like, this is what playing at recess looks like, because not everyone has been taught those things.”

The fact that the Worcester school district, and others, have devoted entire departments to implementing SEL is an indicator of how seriously the movement is being taken. In part, this uptake can be read as an appreciation of the movement’s goals.

Mahoney emphasized that SEL “comes back to school culture and climate.”

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and author of The Death of Character, has also emphasized the importance of culture, “Whether it is provided formally or informally, deliberately or unwittingly, moral instruction . . . is an exercise in the transmission of culture. It is a mechanism by which character is etched into a person’s identity and existence.”

Hunter and Mahoney’s insistence on the importance of culture is a reminder of the reason that so many educators got into the job in the first place. Obviously, strong student academic achievement ranks high at the top of their goals, but for many there was also a desire to help students learn and grow as people.

Generating that particular type of growth requires an understanding and appreciation for the importance of culture.

Students spend significant portions of their days in school, and whether or not school leaders are intentional, the school will mold students’ beliefs, behaviors, and attachments.

For those who long for their children to develop wisdom, alongside intelligence, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues offers a guide for educators that makes practical wisdom the core, with SEL in service of that end. A school culture and climate that nurtures SEL in pursuit of practical wisdom is one that will help its students navigate a fast-changing world.

NJ students write to hospitalized children

Students at two New Jersey primary schools are learning to care for people beyond their networks of friends and family by writing letters to hospitalized children.

Handmade inspirational and holiday cards created by students at John F. Kennedy and and John E. Riley elementary schools in South Plainfield, New Jersey, have been sent to pediatric wards throughout the United States.

As reported in TAPinto South Plainfield, a character education initiative focusing on “caring” and “kindness” was launched at the two schools early in December. Melissa Zurawiecki, guidance counselor for the two schools, said the goal was a caring theme that extended beyond people known to the students.

Although in the past the students have created and sent cards to local New Jersey hospitals, the goal in 2017 was to spread hope beyond the Garden State. To that end, Zurawiecki chose the Cards for Hospitalized Kids organization, an Illinois-based nonprofit, and Ronald McDonald houses throughout the country.

Cards began pouring in almost immediately after students were shown a video about the organization and its founder, Jen Rubino.

“We showed the kids the video in the morning, and by lunchtime we already started to get cards,” said Riley Principal Leo Whalen. “Many of our students also spent their time at home with their families creating beautiful cards to send to hospitalized children,” said Kennedy Principal Kevin Hajduk.

Riley also organized two Student Council spirit days to raise money for South Plainfield families in need, and Kennedy set up two “giving trees” from which staff, parents, and students selected gift tags indicating items to be purchased for local families.

Character grows through becoming part of a story greater than oneself. This program provides one such opportunity.

In his book The Death of Character, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter, wrote: “Implicit in the word ‘character‘ is a story. It is a story about living for a purpose greater than the self. Though this purpose resides deeply within, its origins are outside the self and so it beckons one forward, channeling one’s passions to mostly quiet acts of devotion, heroism, sacrifice, and achievement.”

Through writing letters to other children in the hospital, these elementary school students are growing into a story greater than themselves.

Cards for Hospitalized Kids is an established non-profit that works with individuals, groups, and classes to provide joy to hospitalized children. Resources from the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues can help to encourage the virtue of kindness in students.

TN high school students create opportunities for others

Students at a Tennessee high school are using funds from a grant they won to identify community needs and to launch projects to achieve results.

In 2015 Elizabethton High School sociology students—on the basis of a 70-page proposal—were awarded $200,000 from the XQ Institute, which was funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. XQ co-founder Russlynn H. Ali is a former Education Department assistant secretary for civil rights in the Obama administration. The stated purpose of XQ’s Super School project is to “disrupt” the American high school and redesign it for the 21st century.

The students at Elizabethton took their club name, the Bartleby Community Improvement Class, from Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, a narrative they interpreted to be about a man who refused to do things that went against his conscience even when society expected those things from him. The Bartleby program encourages students to think about what education should be, and not just to accept a given curriculum.

Current projects include creating murals, a walking tour, trail cleanup, book clubs, veteran assistance, the design of a hostel on the Appalachian Trail, and a mental health support group. Next semester, 15 students will participate in the Bartleby Entrepreneurship Class, in which they will plan and establish businesses that will fill economic gaps.

The Bartleby Community Improvement Class offers students significant moral autonomy to judge what is important and act on it. Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter defines moral autonomy in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America as, “the ability to make decisions freely about what is right and wrong”—not in the sense that you choose your own right and wrong, but in that you are not coerced or “incentivized” in your judgment.

The Bartleby class offers an opportunity, with the help of a mentor, to nurture commitment to others through responsible action.

If you want your high school students to have learning opportunities like this, check out XQ and their story of the Bartleby program.

France to expand ban on phones in schools

Education officials in France recently banned mobile phones in elementary and middle schools starting next year, in response to what educator minister Jean-Michel Blanquer calls a “public health” issue. Mobile phones and other entertainment media deeply influence the formation of students’ moral, civic, and intellectual character.

“These days the children don’t play at break time anymore, they are all just in front of their smartphones and from an educational point of view that’s a problem,” Blanquer said, according to The Local.

It’s already against the rules for French students to use phones in class, but the new ban will extend the prohibition to break and lunch times, as well.

“We are currently working on this and it could work in various ways,” Blanquer said. “Phones may be needed for teaching purposes or in cases of emergency so mobile phones will have to be locked away.”

“It’s important that children under the age of seven are not in front of these screens,” he said.

Blanquer previously suggested schools could provide drop-boxes for students to store their devices during the school day, though some parents are skeptical schools can enforce the new ban.

“At our cabinet meetings, we drop our phones in lockers before sitting down together. It seems to me that this should be possible for any human group, including classes,” Blanquer told Express magazine earlier this year, according to The Local.

The education minister also added that the ban, promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron during his 2017 campaign, would cut down on cyber-bullying.

Regardless of the potential benefits, parents with the group Peep aren’t convinced education officials can force students to comply with the ban.

“We don’t think it’s possible at the moment,” Peep leader Gerard Pommier told The Local.

“Imagine a (middle) school with 600 pupils. Are they going to put all their phones in a box? How do you store them? And give them back at the end?”

Parents who responded to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture’s “Culture of American Families” study shared a similar perspective.

“Many parents feel their attempts to control the home and to keep external influences at bay are nearly futile in the face of new communication and entertainment technologies,” according to the 2012 report.

While the authors acknowledge that “the genie of these new technologies cannot be put back in the bottle,” they add that “the question . . . is how to gain some modicum of control over the family’s use of them . . . this will continue to be an area that calls for new ideas—ideas that many parents would be eager to put to use.” This issue is critically important because these technologies can be very influential on students’ moral, civic, and intellectual character.

The move in France is obviously a top-down way of implementing some measure of control, but educators are finding other ways to convince students to make the responsible choice to turn off their phones.

Doug Duncan, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, shared his approach with NPR Ed.

Instead of banning phones from his classes, he asked students what they’d think of getting participation points for leaving their phones on his desk (turned off) for astronomy class. The students unanimously agreed, and Duncan reports, “we had an exceptionally engaged class.”

Indiana votes to require ’employability skills’

Indiana’s State Board of Education recently voted to require students to demonstrate “employability skills” with service projects, or receive college ready scores on entrance exams to graduate from high school.

The decision came despite objections from the state’s teachers union, which deemed the changes unnecessary, but also raised important questions about the primary purpose of education, especially the formation of strong moral character.

According to the Associated Press:

The new requirements passed on a 7-4 vote after hours of testimony from those who overwhelmingly opposed the changes, including educators and labor unions.

Beginning in 2023, students will have to complete additional coursework, demonstrate employability skills through service or work projects, or show they’re ready for college by receiving high scores on exams that include the SAT and ACT.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, complained that the state school board ignored parents, teachers, counselors, and school officials who opposed the move, which some believe will add to the burden of already overworked educators.

Goshen High School Principal Barry Younghans believes that setting the bar higher for students by requiring college ready scores will result in an overall decline in graduation rates. Others, meanwhile, support the idea of the “employability skills” graduation pathway for students who want to become skilled workers.

“Middle school needs to plant the seed that there are honorable and well-paid jobs that do not require a college degree,” said Benteler Automotive’s Mark Melnick, according to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

And while the debate between opponents and proponents of the change has centered mostly on testing and career development, it actually involves a fundamental question about the primary purpose of education, the formation of moral character.

In his book The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, sociologist James Davison Hunter points to the importance of character.

“We believe that character is central to that project [of American democracy], a shared character. And, crucially, almost everyone recognizes that the formation of our children’s character can only be accomplished with the help of our public institutions, particularly our schools. Parents can only do so much on their own,” wrote Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Some schools are following the character-centered approach, ingraining lessons of character into all subjects and elevating formation above all other goals.

Dan Scoggin, founder of Great Hearts Academies, explained why the school’s education model does not view the role of schools as merely an element of workforce development:

At Great Hearts we view our intentional purpose as a restoration of a way of forming the habits and the tastes of the young that was once the hallmark of producing free citizens of a republic.

By focusing their efforts on forming people rather than workers, Great Hearts serves as a model by graduating the kind of well-educated young people who are also highly desirable to employers.

Principals favor SEL but puzzled about implementation

A recent survey of 884 public school principals showed high rates of commitment to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), but low levels of understanding of how to encourage it or assess it.

“There’s an elevated sense of urgency about developing a plan for SEL without a lot of expertise on how to do it,” said Karen Niemi, CEO of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which conducted the survey of K-12 principals.

Kate Stringer, reporter for the 74 Newsletter, wrote: “While most principals believe that social-emotional skills should be measured, only 17% reported knowing which assessments they could use. Only one-quarter of principals are using the assessments for all their students.”

But many principals are still skeptical that the assessments are helpful. Only 40% reported them to be very or even fairly useful, and only 16% think their teachers know how to use the assessment data to help their students.

“How do you actually do it? That’s something we’re working really hard on,” said Niemi. The problem is that social and emotional skills—as parts of a person’s overall character—aren’t learned by rote, or even by commitment. They are formed by practice and absorbed through culture.

CASEL has been working on ways to measure social-emotional skills, but the many barriers to successful measurement include the absence of a consistent definition of SEL and programs that can scale across America’s diverse districts.

The challenge is that there isn’t a formula for formation of social-emotional learning. It is nearly impossible to turn into a program what happens as a continuing process. Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture founder, sociologist James Davison Hunter, writes in The Death of Character: “Character is not . . . solitary, autonomous, unconstrained; merely a set of traits within a unique and unencumbered personality. Character is very much social in its constitution. It is inseparable from the culture within which it is found and formed.”

As the principals surveyed demonstrated, educating and responding to emotions are important skills. The emotions play a critical role in performance, civic, and moral character that can lead us to good decisions about right and wrong actions in different circumstances. Educators and parents can learn more about helping students with their emotions in this lesson from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Principal employs child whose mother disparaged him

As a school principal it can be difficult to quickly grasp how to handle a difficult situation. However, principal Karen Shaw had no doubts that she needed to do something for a student whose own mother referred to him as a “little sh**.”

Chalkbeat recently spoke with Shaw as part of a series on school administrators who have been recognized for their work. She was awarded the 2016 National Distinguished Principal of the Year for Colorado. In the interview she reflects on her handling of this student, her leadership style, and her goals as a principal.

When asked about how interactions with student families can affect her approach to the job, Shaw described this situation, where a mother called her son as a “little sh**” in conversation with school staff. “Knowing that is what his mom shared with the school, I knew I would have to take a different approach with him,” Shaw said.

She sought out ways to connect the boy with caring adults throughout the school, and this included a job working in the library. The job built up the boy’s sense of dignity, but it also provided Shaw and the school’s librarian an opportunity to develop deeper relationships with him.

Shaw said that this year, “I have him ’employed’ as a kindergarten helper for 15 minutes a day with his favorite person in our school, Ms. Rene. Ms. Rene is always positive with him and happy to work with him. I hope this little intervention will help change his life.”

Her devotion to the well-being of all those within the school community extends beyond just this single case. Shaw is committed to helping everyone in her building grow and learn, including staff. Each day she makes it a priority to visit every classroom and holds weekly data meetings to discuss student progress with teachers.

Shaw’s attitude of caring, and concern for whole-child development, even impacts her budget priorities. “We use our district funds and federal funds for low-income students in creative ways to have the most impact on our students’ academic and social emotional wellbeing,” Shaw said.

Unfortunately, the tough home life that Shaw encountered with her one particular student is the norm for many children in America.

It is the work of principals like her, and a myriad of teachers, coaches, counselors, and social workers to build networks around all students, so that the children may see themselves as part of a caring community.

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, has highlighted the need for  “networks of adult authority [that] are strong, unified, and consistent in articulating moral ideals and their attending virtues.” He added in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America that,  “adults [should] maintain a ‘caring watchfulness’ over all aspects of a young person’s maturation.”

Shaw sees part of her role as principal to include building a school culture that consistently emphasizes that all community members are worthy of love and respect.

Parents or teachers looking for ways to pass along some of the lessons from Principal Shaw’s story might look to the book, Mr. Lincoln’s WayIt’s a tear-jerker for adults and eye-opening for students.

NHL: The Skills Center keeping kids out of the penalty box

The National Hockey League recently awarded a Tampa Bay sports-based youth development center with a check for $5,000 to help promote academics and character formation through athletics.

The NHL partnered with the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team to invest in The Skills Center, a local youth organization with a mission to “intentionally utilize athletics as a mechanism to create change through academic success, life skills, and mentoring for young people ages 3-18 in Tampa Bay,” according to NHL.com.

“We’d like to thank the National Hockey League for awarding The Skills Center with a Diversity and Inclusion Grant today,” said Lightning’s vice president of community hockey development, Jay Feaster. “The additional funds will allow for these kids to experience the great game of hockey, while also making it possible for the facility to implement the Future Goals-Hockey Scholar program. We look forward to using hockey to aid in the development of the children at The Skills Center.”

The NHL grant is focused on using street hockey to engage elementary and middle school students in the “Future Goals-Hockey Scholar” character education program. The Skills Center will use the money to buy bumper divider pads to convert its outdoor basketball courts into a street hockey rink, and for iPads for the after-school program.

The Tampa Bay Lightning invited about 50 students from The Skills Center to a check presentation ceremony at Centennial Fan Arena in early December. The Skills Center executive director Celeste Roberts accepted the check at the event, which also featured a tutorial of the Future Goals-Hockey Scholar program and free t-shirts for students.

“The Skills Center provides school-based and community-based programs that motivate youth to learn, change behavior and succeed in school,” NHL.com reports. “Focusing on developing core competencies through academic instruction and character education, the organization’s prevention services promote positive youth development to all youth, especially at-risk and disadvantaged elementary, middle, and high school students through school day, after school and summer programs; leagues, travel teams, and camps/clinics.”

The NHL’s investment is a good thing, because when athletic and other organizations invest in supportive networks, they strengthen the community that forms character in children.

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, points out in his book The Tragedy of Moral Education:

Moral education can work where the community, and schools and other institutions within it, share a moral culture that is integrated and mutually reinforcing . . .

The Skills Center is obviously one of many institutions supporting families and schools in forming good character in students.

The Skills Center website offers ways parents and others can volunteer to contribute to its mission of teaching values and life skills through sports. It also offers a wide variety of resources for students and parents, from academic mentoring and leadership opportunities to elite training camps and sports leagues.

“Our philosophy is every kid is capable of learning in the right environment, with caring adults and an intentional focus,” according to the site. “We give our youth an environment that brings out the best in them and give us the opportunity to coach them for life.”

PA lawmakers want graduates to understand government

At a time when so many are worried about the growing schisms in our country, Pennsylvania lawmakers are advancing legislation that would require schools to teach basic civic knowledge to help students understand the institutions of American government and their responsibilities as American citizens.

An initial draft of the bill, coming out of the state Senate, required students to pass a 100-question citizenship test, the New Castle News reports. In its current form, passing students will receive a “certificate of recognition.”

The impetus for the legislation stemmed from, “[l]awmakers frustration that young people know the ‘American ‘Idol’ judges better than they know Supreme Court justices,” says New Castle News.

Recent surveys have backed this point up, demonstrating that shockingly low numbers of citizens are familiar with even the most basic components of America government. New Castle News points to a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center in which only 26% of adults were able to identify the three branches of American government.

“This is not an acceptable percentage,” says State Senator John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, the author of the bill.

In its 2016 report, The Vanishing Center of American Democracythe Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture found that, “the overwhelming majority of Americans (88%) believe that ‘political events these days seem more like theater or entertainment than like something to be taken seriously.’”

This combination of a lack of knowledge and widespread distrust in government is clearly one worth addressing. Given the fact that students in Pennsylvania will soon be of voting age, it makes sense to help them better understand the important roles they will be playing as citizens.

Students can acquire these sensibilities through intentional, direct instruction in schools. New Castle News notes that, “[Senator] Rafferty said his interest in government was inspired in part by a class he took early in high school.”

Senator Raftery’s bill passed through the Education Committee without receiving any opposition.

Regardless of graduation requirements, teachers—and particularly middle school teachers—can lay the groundwork for understanding citizenship through a lesson like this one from the Center for Civic Education.

Educators must also work to form students’ civic character, fostering virtues such as neighborliness, service, and community awareness.

Teachers will always have the nagging feeling that there is more they can be covering, and ultimately there is only so much time in a school day.

Yet, when it comes to citizenship, we should remember that schools are an importance place to inspire our young people about America’s government and civic practices.