Prisoners model generosity with bicycles

This article was originally published on Jan. 4, 2018. It has been updated with new artwork.

In this time of giving when many Americans look to support their favorite charitable causes, they frequently choose non-profits that provide toys to children of prisoners. However, this year in Bermuda, five prisoners defied expectations by repairing and restoring bicycles as gifts for children, according to the Royal Gazette.

The five men are serving time at the Westgate Correctional facility, and they’re making the most of their rehabilitation period. They are members of the prison’s “Lifeline” group, which provides inmates the opportunity to give back to their community. Gina Ingham, a volunteer coordinator working on the project, described it as “the perfect example of restorative justice.”

This past December, that work included refurbishing several bikes so that local children could enjoy them as early holiday presents. The project has been active for five years and many are quite pleased with it, from the prison administration, to local educators working with the children, to the prisoners as well.

A special ceremony was held in which the prisoners greeted the new cyclists and witnessed their subsequent expressions of joy. Mr. Roberts, one of the prisoners, said of the ceremony, “I’m a big man and I had to turn away because I had a tear coming . . . That’s the excitement.”

Roberts added, “It uplifts me knowing that I am giving something to somebody who really appreciates it and really loves it.”

The redemptive power of the experience is clear, as he says, “We’re doing this from our hearts, we’re helping children who are coming up and we don’t want them to make the mistakes we’ve made.”

Aside from the presents, the children involved received a valuable lesson in compassion. Those receiving the gifts come to know the men as human beings, capable of love, service, and generosity—far from the stereotypes of prisoners in poplar media. The prisoners themselves had the opportunity to build and express these very virtues through their work refurbishing and gifting the bicycles.

It may be natural to have a reflexive response to the situation: Who lets prisoners visit a school to give bikes to children?! Lisa Lorish, an assistant federal public defender in the Western District of Virginia, treats that concern in her essay, “Once and Always Criminal?” in The Hedgehog Review. She confronts this sensibility, our “unspoken presumptions of America’s criminal justice system [yet not confined to America]: once a criminal, always a criminal. This presumption too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because of the collateral consequences those with criminal convictions face after release from incarceration.”

When children see redemption in real people, it shapes their moral imaginations. For high school English teachers who have the capacity and opportunity to teach it, there are few works that illustrate redemption like Les Miserables.

N.J. kids helping again with Christmas food drive

This article was originally published on Dec. 25, 2017. It has been updated with new artwork.

Students in Delano, N.J. have partnered with the Knights of Columbus for well over 20 years to collect food for struggling local families during the Christmas season.

This year is no different, with students at M. Joan Pearson Elementary and Walnut Street Elementary hauling in more than 2,163 cans through early December, an annual exercise guidance counselor Allison Donnelly said helps youngsters develop community spirit and strong character virtues like compassion.

“It helps them give back, and then it helps them realize that there are other people in their community, maybe their next-door neighbors, that do need a little more assistance,” Donnelly told the Burlington County Times.

Donnelly explained that the district focuses on building character in students by promoting a good character trait every month, and the annual food drive fits well with December’s theme of compassion.

“It’s the holidays and we should be helping. And our student character trait this month is actually compassion and caring. So it goes right along with our student character trait—being compassionate, collecting cans, giving to those in need,” Donnelly said.

“It helps families in our area, Riverside, and Delran, so it’s really a great food drive,” Donnelly said. “We love doing it every year.”

Seven-year-old Remy Seiter, who hauls boxed food and cans from his classroom in a little red wheelbarrow at least one a week, told the Times he enjoys helping others.

“Some people don’t have any food, and I just think it’s really nice to donate to them,” he said.

University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter points to the neoclassical tradition of practice-based models of character education in his book The Death of Character.

“The cornerstone of the neoclassical strategy is the Arisotelian argument that virtue is acquired in much the same way as other skills and abilities—through practice,” Hunter wrote.

The approach relies on educators to move beyond posters on a wall to connect repeated action to character virtues, much like the food drive in Delano.

Teachers working to help kids make the connection between words, feelings, and actions will find the stages of developing compassion from the Jubilee Centre helpful as they engage students in meaningful activities like school food drives and other community outreach.

Clemson student cites divine calling in gift and mentoring program

This article was originally published on Jan. 26, 2018. It has been updated with new artwork.

Clemson University sophomore Price Crenshaw is on a mission that she says was inspired by her faith—a mission to serve.

“These were very vivid dreams that consisted of a layout and everything,” she told Clemson University Relations. “This kept happening every night for two weeks, so I decided to do something about it.”

The education major explained it all began with her grandfather, Robert McLoud, a 1966 Clemson alumnus who died in a battle with pancreatic cancer in 2015. Crenshaw was raised by her mother and grandfather, and his death left her searching for answers about her own future.

After high school, Crenshaw said she focused on mission work and outreach to the homeless in her hometown of Charleston, and didn’t initially plan to attend college. “The heart I had for the homeless made me lose sight of wanting to go to college. I just hated the thought of spending money, going into debt and pursuing a career for my own gains,” she said. “But the Lord was not going to let me not go to college.”

That’s when Crenshaw attended a speech by Emily Hoisington, founder of Charleston Hope, an education nonprofit that supports teachers and students in Title 1 schools. Hoisington’s talk sparked Crenshaw’s dream of creating her own chapter of the program, and she later reached out to Hoisington to help her set one up at Clemson University.

Clemson University Relations reports:

Crenshaw threw herself into the project, managing her time so that she could be a part of every campus ministry possible—sometimes going to three different Churches every Sunday. Within two weeks she’d assembled a seven-person leadership team—six freshmen and one sophomore.

The group contacted the principal of James M. Brown Elementary, who agreed to Crenshaw’s pitch to deliver presents to students for Christmas as part of a broader, ongoing mentorship program.

“On my first try Ashley Robertson, the principal, answered the phone!” said Crenshaw. “I was kind of in shock and didn’t really know what to say because I wasn’t expecting an answer. But the words quickly came out of my mouth and Ashley and I met that following Friday. I shared with her my dream, my passion, my heart for Clemson Hope and for serving her school. We agreed on the partnership.”

When Crenshaw called Hoisington to relay the good news—that she signed up 35 classrooms and 620 students for the Adopt-A-Classroom campaign—she was floored. James Brown Elementary is roughly three times larger than most schools in Charleston, and providing presents for every student for Christmas was an overwhelming task for the first-year nonprofit.

“She said, ‘Price! What have you done?!’” Crenshaw recalled.

“The only thing I have to say is the Lord made what was an impossible task possible,” she said. “I spent every waking hour that I wasn’t in school walking up and down the streets going to businesses and speaking at sororities, churches and Rotary clubs. We got all 35 classrooms adopted and were able to provide all 620 students with a wrapped Christmas present and a holiday snack. We had over 70 community members help us wrap all the presents at our wrapping night and finished in an hour and a half!”

This year’s event expanded to more than 100 volunteers who wrapped more than 1,100 presents for students at both James M. Brown and Westminster elementaries, where students were beaming as they opened their gifts last month.

“For many of my students this will be the only Christmas present that they open this year,” Robertson said. “We have a tremendous need. We currently have 630 kids and about 80 percent are on free and reduced lunches. The excitement and sheer joy of this day is like no others. The smiles, the crying—it’s wonderful.”

Crenshaw said the Adopt-A-Classroom program aims to ensure students know the community is invested in them, and it’s about more than presents.

“What I really like to emphasize is that Adopt-A-Classroom is not just about giving Christmas presents,” she said. “The presents serve as our opportunity to get into the classroom, gain the students’ trust and form relationships with them that we continue through our mentoring programs.”

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, at the University of Virginia notes in The Death of Character that character “develops in relation to moral convictions defined by specific moral, philosophical, or religious truths. Far from being free-floating abstractions, these traditions of moral reasoning are fixed in social habit and routine within social groups and communities.”

“Character does not require religious faith,” Hunter wrote. “But it does require the conviction of truth made sacred, abiding as an authoritative presence within consciousness and life, reinforced by habits institutionalized within a moral community.”

Schools, both public and private, depend on folks with deep convictions who have the confidence to state fundamental beliefs and act on them to help their communities. Crenshaw provides an admirable example of a religious believer whose beliefs are not confined to “private” religious practice, but flow out in “public” service.

Hoisington, founder of Charleston Hope, provides another example in an inspiring video about how she started the nonprofit in 2011, and how it’s since expanded to chapters in Clemson and Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Akron, Ohio.

The underlying theme, she said, can be summed up by a quote from Ghandi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Approximately 31 million students worldwide buying completed assignments

Research published in Frontiers in Education estimates that 31 million college students worldwide are paying someone else to complete their assignments, a practice known as “contract cheating.”

The article reviewed dozens of studies pertaining to contract cheating in recent decades to better understand the problem, and the data suggest the problem is on the rise. The study’s author, Philip M. Newton of Swansea University Medical School, wrote:

This study synthesized findings from prior research to try and determine how common commercial contract cheating is in Higher Education, and test whether it is increasing…. Seventy-one samples were identified from 65 studies, going back to 1978. These included 54,514 participants. Contract cheating was self-reported by a historic average of 3.52% of students. The data indicate that contract cheating is increasing; in samples from 2014 to present the percentage of students admitting to paying someone else to undertake their work was 15.7%, potentially representing 31 million students around the world.

Other research suggests the problem is significant as well. Jedidiah Evans, writing on, noted that “in 2017 alone, the UK’s Daily Telegraph reported more than 20,000 students had bought professionally written essays from the country’s two largest essay-writing services.” Evans cited some responses to the concern, observing that the UK was considering legislation to make these essay-writing services illegal and that New Zealand had already passed such a law.

Evans also pointed to survey research in Australia in which international students reported less confidence in their understanding of what constituted acceptable academic practice. Hence, while laws might be passed, or software detection of contract cheating might one day be available, Evans argues that “a more considered response must take into account the complex reasons students turn to these services in the first place.”

This question has been explored by Zachary Goldman and Gretchen Brion-Meisels in research summarized by Goldman in his essay “Why Do Students Cheat?,” published on Usable Knowledge, a website of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Goldman and Brion-Meisels asked students in a Texas classroom and a Massachusetts classroom to describe their experiences with cheating.

In Goldman’s words, “They wrote from a range of perspectives, grappling with what constitutes cheating, why people cheat, how people cheat, and when cheating might be ethically acceptable. In doing so, they provide us with additional insights into why students cheat and how schools might better foster ethical collaboration.” Goldman recounts a variety of rationales the students provided for cheating, including personal “misjudgment” about appropriate means, peer pressure, and the need to satisfy “a higher level goal,” such as graduating from high school.

The resort to “a higher-level goal” was clearly observed by author and educator Kathryn Wiens in her 2013–2014 qualitative research in six elite high-tuition secondary schools. In her essay “Prestigious Independent Schools: Between Honor and Excellence,” published in the book The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into Varieties of Moral Formation, Wiens reported interviews in which students admitted to cheating despite their schools’ emphasis on honorable conduct. The students’ rationale was captured in the comment of one student at an all-boys school: “Sometimes we are forced to be ungentlemanly to achieve the neurotic level of success the school expects.”

Wiens noted that the tension “between honor and excellence” seemed to be better managed, and the incidence of cheating infrequent, in the schools that did not stress “the traditional markers of academic achievement, such as AP scores, SAT scores, and Tier-1 college admission.” These schools, she noted, were still academically demanding, but their explicit and implicit messages seemed, in effect, more focused on mastering the academic work than on bolstering the schools’ results.

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Respect: A Tale of Two Virtues

This essay is one of a series of posts based on the recently published book The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation. The book is a project of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, in Charlottesville, Virginia. This edition was originally published on March 26, 2018.

When you send a team of talented social scientists into a national sample of American high schools to study the molding of student character, you probably expect them to see certain classic virtues in action. At the same time, you probably expect some contrasts to emerge, given our country’s diversity.

But however straightforward your expectations might be, the results can be striking, as the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture found when it embarked on just such a project.

Take respect. Respect for others is typically emphasized to young people, and the team members did remark on students’ expressions of respect in virtually all of the public and private high school types in the project’s sample. The findings on respect, however, stood out in two school sectors: urban public schools and rural public schools.

The rural public schools were studied by Richard Fournier, now a teaching fellow at Harvard University’s School of Education. In The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation, the Institute’s book on the research findings, Fournier lists five ideals that were “prominent” in the schools: hard work; personal responsibility; compassion and caring for others; service to the school, community, and country; and “showing respect, most notably for teachers, administrators, the school itself, and the school community.” He adds, “Indeed, many parents were clear that whatever a school’s rationale, efforts to emphasize certain moral ideals were necessary”—including the central value of “showing respect.”

This idea was also clear in the minds of administrators. One assistant principal told Fournier, “We have traditional values, and we have traditional—I think a lot of our practices are traditional. So if there’s anything that we would really promote or, you know, try to instill in our students, I think is respect.”

Indeed, school staff could lean on the students’ respect for their family elders. One principal told Fournier that in response to a student who asks “‘why, why do you want me to be that?’” his answer is “well, because! Because your grandparents want you to! Because your parents want you to! Because that’s how you’re successful!”

In the urban public school sector, respect was prominent too—but with a twist. To be sure, respect was again considered important: As Jeff Guhin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California Los Angeles, writes in The Content of Their Character, “Another value I heard about regularly from both students and teachers at all six [urban public sample] schools was respect.” Guhin further indicates that in many instances, students in these urban high schools manifested respect in traditional terms.

Yet the conventional ideal was not the one he “heard about regularly.” Instead, Guhin remarks, “in all [these] cases, respect meant making sure others thought you were worthy of their esteem and appreciation.” (Emphasis added.) This sense of respect meant that instead of making clear to others that you thought they were worthy of esteem and appreciation, you ensured you were not being disrespected.

The contrast with the findings in the rural public schools was sometimes stark, and the urban schools’ staff were aware of how clearly at odds this view of respect was with the values of American society at large. One teacher told Guhin,

Some [students], when you have them, they hate you. They make your life as difficult as possible, and then the second you don’t have them, they’re going to come and talk to you. I feel like I’m OK with bonding with my kids when I have them, but after I have them, I think that’s when it happens, and they’ll come in and they’ll talk about, “Well, I got really mad at this teacher, and I cussed her out.” You cussed her? Why do you think that that’s okay? A student yesterday called me by my first name, and I tried and explained that that is a sign of disrespect. I don’t even think I got myself across, but it’s small things like that where [if you want] to live, to be successful in life, you have to learn how to speak to people, what’s respectful, what’s disrespectful. (Parentheticals added.)

Guhin also tells of an extended discussion he witnessed between a school principal and a 10th grade student named Juana (an alias). Juana had been in a fight with a girl with whom she’d had a running feud, and the principal was encouraging Juana to resolve the dispute. Guhin recounts Juana’s response:

“I can talk to her, but if she lies to me, I’m going to punch her in the face,” said Juana. “I can’t let that happen. How you gonna lie right to my face? No, no. I’m sorry, Ms, but no. I won’t do it.”

The principal continued to reason with Juana (Guhin notes that of the schools he studied, this one “was by far the most explicitly concerned about the moral formation of their students”). The principal expressed that, in Guhin’s words, “she was worried Juana’s stubbornness and impulsiveness would get her in trouble.” He adds that then “a teacher who had broken up the fight came in, and both the teacher and principal tried to convince Juana that she needed to be calm and just let people say what they wanted to say, but Juana wouldn’t hear it.”

He observes,

Yet the way her principal and teacher framed this story to Juana wasn’t necessarily the only way to understand it. Juana wasn’t just struggling with impulse control and stubbornness, as though everyone were actually on the same page in terms of virtues to emphasize and vices to limit. Rather, this was a story about radically different conceptions of the good. For Juana, the good person, and the good life, was marked by respect, honor, and the saving of face. To disrespect her, to lie to her, was not simply to do something annoying that required her patience to overcome; it was to fundamentally insult her worth as a person, and the only way to respond was to demand reparation for that wrong, whether through violence or otherwise.

I asked the principal about this after Juana had left, and she said that contending with this attitude was one of the biggest challenges at their school. She said she had to be careful, because she would never tell a student she disagreed with their parents.

Note that last sentence. Not only were the school’s staff contending with Juana’s and other students’ fundamentally different views about the meaning of “respect”; they were contending with the same views among many of the parents. In cases like these, the polarity between the study’s rural schools and urban schools could hardly seem more complete.

Yet it is not obvious that this should have been so. Urban areas may face poverty and its attendant social ills, but rural areas do too. As Fournier comments,

In general, rural school teachers and administrators face the same tasks as urban districts: to increase academic performance among students and prepare them for social and economic life despite their communities’ frequent issues with poverty, drugs, unemployment, and other socioeconomic obstacles.

There is, of course, the issue of race: The urban schools had much higher percentages of black, Hispanic, and other minority students than the rural districts. These minority students and their families may have had to cope with the frequently corrosive repercussions of prejudice.

But whatever the effects of prejudice, there is nothing inherently racial in demanding “respect, honor, and the saving of face.” Whites can, and have, adopted similar views—dueling, after all, was part of America’s European heritage—while blacks and Hispanics can, and have, rejected them.

Ultimately, then, the difference between the two sets of schools—and between the families within the schools—was cultural. This is worth bearing in mind. The centrality of culture in our schools is something we too frequently forget, particularly when we think about the moral formation of our young. Perhaps the allure of education statistics is too strong, or perhaps we are swayed by the “factory view” of a single common school system working on individual students who share the same basic specifications.

But as this tale of two virtues shows, and as The Content of Our Character contends, if we seek to understand and improve our children’s moral formation, we must first seek to understand the culture—or cultures—in which our children are raised, and indeed, to try to understand the nature and effects of culture itself.


Angus McBeath on Dreams, Inspiration, and CultureFeed

Over the years, I’ve served as a public school teacher, a public school principal, and a superintendent of an 82,000-student public school district in Canada. In each of those capacities, I struggled at times to come to terms with how challenging teaching is and how it seemed to consume every fiber of my being—or my teachers’ being—to do the job well. There were many times in my career when I felt discouraged about being able to make a real difference in the lives of the children I taught, and there were times when things became so discouraging that I was tempted to leave difficult matters to fester, rather than worrying and strategizing about how to make things better.

I did not go into teaching because I was inspired that someday my students might name the capital cities of each state in the Union. I went into teaching because I wanted to make a profound difference in the lives of my students, especially those who had to overcome so many challenges at home—poverty, poor housing, unsafe neighborhoods, racism, and other social ills that can make life and schooling so difficult.

But I sensed while teaching that it was possible to run dry of the inspiration necessary to keep me at it, faithfully pursuing my dream that my students would become independent, responsible adults and kind, decent citizens of our democracy. It was hard not to give up in the face of adversity—not to give up when I felt overwhelmed; not to give up when I did not see much gain from all my efforts; not to give up when the challenges I faced as a teacher seemed to go unnoticed by anyone in authority, or when no one else seemed to care as much as I did. I think many teachers, including seasoned professionals, face mental fatigue trying to help all the students in their care become good people and good citizens who will contribute to flourishing communities.

Then I discovered last year that there was a place I could go to gain inspiration. The nonprofit Advanced Studies in Culture Foundation had established a website,, designed especially for teachers and principals, providing them news blogs, videos, and interviews that show how teachers and principals in the United States, Canada, and other countries are working to address moral formation issues in their schools.

These issues aren’t abstract. They’re the vices and virtues we see every day in our classrooms: bullying, cheating, and selfishness, as well as kindness, repentance, and civic engagement.

Why is valuable for me and other educators? Because it shows us that every day, in many schools across the world, educators like us are struggling with the same issues that we face, and they are making whole-hearted and successful attempts to make things better. It shows us how teachers and principals are identifying and implementing strategies to overcome negative outcomes in schools related to bullying, cheating, and other student behaviors that prevent our young people from developing into the kind of people we would want them to be.

I find these efforts inspiring. It nudges me to do the right thing even when my head suggests I should just lie low and let things go. In addition, the posts often cite research that addresses the very problems that plague teachers and principals. Some articles even suggest resources teachers and principals might use to address these problems.

This is why I’ve been working with CultureFeed’s producers in recent months to find content, edit articles, provide advice, and conduct interviews. Even though I am now retired, I do not want to abandon the dream of using education to produce not just scholars, but better people and a better world as well.

If you share that dream, I hope you find CultureFeed as worthy of your time as I do.

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MI ‘success coach’ works with school, parents, community to reduce absenteeism

School “success coach” Scott Snyder is working to improve school attendance among students at Cascades Elementary School in Jackson, Michigan, reports media website MLive.

“We try to provide anything (parents) need to get their children to school,” he told MLive, as he played rock-paper-scissors with students streaming into the building on a recent morning. “We greet the kids every morning enthusiastically.”

Snyder is among numerous success coaches deployed to schools across Michigan by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. A key goal is to reduce student absenteeism.

According to MLive, the Pathways to Potential Program started in the Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Saginaw school districts in the 2012–13 school year and has since spread to other schools in the state.

Success coaches focus on removing barriers that keep kids from school, through everything from securing clothes and personal items to connecting parents with resources in the community. A Pathways statement notes that “students who don’t have these basic needs met often do not go to school.”

The program helped cut chronic absenteeism in Jackson County schools by 20 percent during the 2016–17 school year. Just six Michigan counties met that target, MLive reports.

MDHHS spokesman Bob Wheaton told MLive that Pathways is unique in that it doesn’t require participants to come to a government building to receive assistance, and said student attendance is one of five issues the program works to address, the others being education, health, safety, and self-sufficiency.

* * *

Perhaps the most critical element of this effort is the connection between the success coach, the school’s officials, the parents, and the community in helping the child succeed. Daily school attendance requires—and develops—responsibility, dependability, and grit. These qualities are moral in nature, and while they ultimately reside in each individual student and become each student’s concern, they are more likely to flourish when they are visibly supported and reinforced by the actions and the words of the various adults in the students’ lives. As James Davison Hunter put it in his monograph The Tragedy of Moral Education in America:

Moral education can work where the community, and schools and other institutions within it, share a moral culture that is integrated and mutually reinforcing; where the social networks of adult authority are strong, unified, and consistent in articulating moral ideas and their attending virtues; and where adults maintain a “careful watchfulness” over all aspects of a young person’s maturation.

The habit of attending school regularly is an area where a student’s virtue—in this case, self-discipline—is directly and clearly connected to their academic achievement. The website has discussed the impact chronic absenteeism can have on a child’s academic progress, particularly with young students (like those at Cascades Elementary School). “Missing school in the early grades can have a snowball effect,” notes writer Kate Kelly on the website. “It sets kids up to fall behind in the fundamental reading skills they need in order to move on to more complicated work.”

Parents are key to this process. Kelly observes that

Many parents may not realize how often their child is absent from school. A missed day here and here may not seem significent compared to missing several days in a row. But missing just two days per month can add up to a child being considered chronically absent.

This, she adds, can have direct academic impact:

Chronic absences keep kids from getting the consistent instruction they need to build on basic skills. For kids with learning and attention issues, there’s something else to consider: Frequent absences not only mean less instruction, but also missed opportunities for intervention, re-teaching and enrichment.