Reopening Our Schools While Strengthening Our Judgments—and Our Tolerance

Anyone spending time online is now seeing stories of cancelled high school graduations, even as some graduations go on much as they traditionally have. But for most administrators, the question of how to handle the next school year is already upon them, and while they are now receiving friendly advice from many quarters, they know they may face harsh public criticism for their perceived lapses when September comes.

However unpleasant those barbs could be, perhaps they can be turned to educators’ advantage when it comes to inculcating character in their students—a discussion point, or a “teachable moment” in which they can help students see ways to tolerate mistakes and errors for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

Over the past few months, the public debate over shelter-in-place orders and their effects on families, businesses, and public institutions like schools has been often been ferocious and unforgiving. Yet it does not have to be that way, as Joshua Gibbs, whose thoughts we’ve featured here before, wryly observes in a recent post for the Circe Institute. Gibbs ponders the things that because he left Facebook, he hasn’t done wrong:

Having quit Facebook six months ago, I have no idea what my thousand or so friends think of the pandemic. They don’t know what I think of it, either. So far as my own opinions go, this is for the best. My feelings about the pandemic have changed quite a bit in the last eight weeks.

If I had convinced anyone of my opinions on the quarantine when it started, I would now be trying to convince them of something else. Simply put, my own thoughts on the pandemic may be passionate, but they are not stable, which means it would be reckless on my part to share them. Having escaped Facebook, though, I am not tempted to inflict my dumb ideas about the pandemic on anyone. Had I remained on Facebook through the pandemic, I am sure I would have ultimately snapped at someone whose thoughts about the matter were as spontaneous and misinformed as my own. I would have been shocked that my friends—who had appeared so reasonable and so generous before—could be so blind, so callous, and so illogical about matters related to the coronavirus. No, wait. This is how they would have felt about me. It is easy to confuse the two.

Here, Gibbs notes that our views of the right path and the wrong path can change with new information or with the chance to reflect on that information in new ways. We all know this, but we often forget to let that knowledge affect our moral judgments and how we express them.

In fact, this highlights an important point about moral judgment. It is not a one-step process; it is a two-step process, as we all know from the functioning of a courtroom.

The first step in judging something raises the question of whether a particular action or a particular person is right or wrong, good or bad. This judgment should be weighed against our values—and weighed carefully, as Gibbs’s post suggests. A rush to judgment is no good thing.

At the same time, it should be weighed carefully because our values are, or should be, important. And given that this first step in the act of judging involves our values, it is, in fact, a binary judgment. We are deciding whether something is right or wrong, and no matter how difficult the judgment, there’s no third answer—no grey, no “in-between.” Betraying or suspending our values does no service to us or to the things that we should hold dear—or hold “sacred,” as the sociologist James Davison Hunter described it in his book The Death of Character.

Yet this view isn’t an argument for intolerance, nor is it an argument for the wild bursts of passion that Gibbs properly derides. The second step in judging matters, too.

That second step is simple, though not always easy: Now that we’ve decided whether someone is right or wrong, what should do we about it?

Think again of the courtroom. For a judge, a guilty plea does not answer the question of what the sentence should be. And the same is true for us. Here, shades of grey matter; circumstances matter; situations matter. The answer is no longer binary. A judge doing his or her job properly will refuse to treat an unemployed father who has stolen bread for his destitute family the same as a serial thief on his third offense for stealing cars. The first may be set free with community service and an order to repay the owner; the other will spend time in prison.

So when it comes to our friends—and perhaps when it comes to our local schools, and even to their critics—the next question becomes, Given our first judgment about whether someone is right or wrong, what do we do about it? For instance, if we feel the need to express our judgment about how to reopen our schools out loud or in writing, we can remember that this pandemic has been difficult for everyone, that we all value our children, and that the information we have at our disposal may change just a few days hence. These are important circumstances, important qualifying factors. As a result, we can still speak and still criticize—but choose to speak respectfully, without bitterness and accusation.

This kind of tolerance is real, and it is meaningful. We can be kind without betraying our values, and the respect and civility we show can become a model for students’ community and civic participation in the years to come. All of this will be on display in September, and it is an opportunity—however challenging it may be—to show our children how good character behaves in practice.

Throwing Elbows vs. ‘The Golden Half-Hour’

“It’s pedantic if I’m lecturing you on virtue but you never see me exercise virtue. If I’m playing basketball and someone elbows me in the face, how do I respond?”

This simple question about throwing elbows encapsulates the leadership framework of Deacon Brad Watkins, Headmaster of St. Thomas More Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina.

When Watkins took the job of headmaster ten years ago, the Catholic prep school was eight years old, the vision of parents who wanted a classical and more distinctly Catholic curriculum than that of the nearby diocesan school. But, according to Watkins, because the school hadn’t been formed by a diocese or an order like the Franciscans or the Jesuits, it lacked a unifying vision. The result was an abundance of discipline issues and a lack of school loyalty.

“We had no guiding spirit,” Watkins said. “We had a lot of problems when I came, and we needed some kind of sense of charism.”

Watkins drew inspiration from a 19th century Italian priest, St. John Bosco. An education reformer, Bosco started schools for at-risk street children employing what he called “the preventive method” to form character.

“What he wanted was teachers so immersed that their loving presence would prevent wrongdoing, because students don’t want to disappoint or injure a loving relationship,” Watkins explained. “He understood priests and brothers to be something between older siblings and parents. He wanted them to play games with students, not watch from the side—to be amongst them and doing what they were doing. It was a really different model. I basically imported that.”

St. Thomas More Academy’s teaching day starts at 7:30 with what Watkins calls the “golden half hour.” At many schools, this time is a chance for teachers to do last-minute tasks before the day begins, but at St. Thomas More, while students congregate and socialize, teachers are in their midst.

“That first half hour is the most critical time of the whole day, and I expect everyone to be interacting and engaging with kids as if they are their own children,” Watkins said. “We say, How was the game? Or, I saw the school play and you were fantastic! I tell the staff, If you do nothing else in this place, please make sure those kids know you love them at the end of the day.”

Beyond building relationships and expressing love, Watkins believes that the modeling done by teachers is vital. Unlike children in centuries past or other cultures, many students today don’t see their parents do much beyond relaxing at the end of a workday, he said. They have few opportunities to see how adults resolve conflicts or tackle tasks. Watkins believes that by living their lives in front of students, teachers have the chance to show them what virtuous adulthood looks like.

“They need to know what happens when two men have a disagreement,” Watkins said. “I want to let them see two male faculty members playing against each other in basketball and what it looks like when there’s a disagreement.”

Watkins’s expectations for engagement extend beyond the first half hour of the day.

“If the kids are outside, we are outside,” Watkins said. “There is no hiding in the faculty lounge. Teachers need to be present and available.”

This kind of radical engagement seems to be paying off in terms of student character. Watkins said that during his tenure, there has never been a fight and classroom disruptions are very rare. There has also never been a theft of any kind; in fact, students don’t lock their lockers and regularly feel comfortable leaving expensive calculators out. The school handbook, rather than listing an overabundance of rules, focuses simply on loving God and neighbor.

“There are no issues of disrespect,” Watkins said. “They get it. They feel loved.”

In addition to the gift of time, students also enjoy their teachers’ trust. One of Watkins’s concerns when he first became headmaster was an atmosphere characterized by sternness and lecturing. This was partly due to the fact that in the school’s early days, the student population included a number of students who had been expelled from public schools and accepted to build enrollment. While many of those students were now gone, a culture of heavy-handedness had persisted.

“We had draconian rules but good kids,” Watkins said. “The leaders had missed the fact that we had totally different kids now, and those kids were reacting to being oppressed.”

Watkins loosened lunchtime and dismissal procedures to give students more freedom. He also changed things like chaperoning high school field trips, letting students explore sites on their own without constant monitoring.

“One way is a culture of fear that says, Something is going to happen and I will be liable,” Watkins said. “The other is a culture of trust that communicates, I expect you to rise up and do what’s right. When you talk about character development, that’s huge. It’s a major paradigm shift.”

Engagement, modeling, trust—they are simple concepts, but at St. Thomas More, they appear to contain remarkable power for developing character.


Core Virtues, Core Knowledge, and Literature as Inspiration

Mary Beth Klee was teaching history to undergrads when the idea came to her—an idea born of a lack of promising options for her eldest son, who was slated to start kindergarten. She envisioned an independent school heavy on content, not just skills; the recent trend toward a skills-focused approach was evident in her college students, and it concerned her.

But there was more: Klee was committed to founding a school with a strong emphasis on character education.

“As a historian, I look at the things that have gone wrong in history, and I know one of the things we should focus on is raising good people,” Klee said. “The question is not whether schools are forming character, but what kind of character they are forming. We are always sending messages; it’s just a question of what messages we are sending.”

In 1991, with these priorities in mind, Klee founded Crossroads Academy, an independent day school in Lyme, New Hampshire. She was drawn to the approach of E. D. Hirsch, who advocates cultural literacy via the use of a Core Knowledge Sequence. Crossroads Academy adopted this history- and geography-rich curriculum, but Klee regretted its lack of a character component. In 1993, she received a grant from the Challenge Foundation to develop a character education program to be used in tandem with the Core Knowledge Sequence. With that, the Core Virtues program was born.

Like the Core Knowledge Sequence, the Core Virtues program was created for students in elementary school. It focuses on a different virtue every month. These virtues each relate to the four cardinal virtues of Western civilization as defined by Aristotle: justice, temperance, courage, and prudence. According to the Core Virtues website, these virtues are “common ground, broadly embraced virtues—not controversial social or political agendas.” They include such traits as diligence, gratitude, and compassion.

In this free program, available in its entirety online, virtues are expounded in the context of children’s literature—specifically, picture books. The books, over 800 volumes in all, have been carefully chosen based on the virtues they help illuminate, and they are categorized by grade level. First thing every day, teachers spend 15 to 20 minutes at a “Morning Gathering” with students. And on the first day of each month, teachers use this time to introduce a virtue, discussing it with their students. After that, the time is spent reading and reflecting on high-quality stories that illuminate the given virtue.

The idea of using stories to shape the character of children is not new. In a book explaining her approach, Klee writes,

In the Republic, Socrates urges us to choose our stories well.  We are told to choose for our students those poems and stories which “will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze that brings health from salubrious places.” We should do this, because stories and poems that “bring rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul, bring graciousness to it, and make the strongest impression.” Plato notes that with the proper sort of nurture, one bred on such stories will “praise beautiful things, rejoice in them, receive them into his soul, be nurtured by them, and become both good and beautiful in character.” Conversely, the Ancients urged us to shun childhood works that are “vicious, mean, unrestrained, or graceless,” for those “bred among images of evil as in an evil meadow, culling and grazing much every day from many sources, and little by little, collect all unawares a great evil in their own soul.”

The reflection time that follows the reading of a story may vary day to day. Students may discuss the story or compare their own experiences. Teachers are encouraged not to moralize but to guide, clarify, and enjoy their students’ reflections, believing in “the power of literature to do its work.”

Klee estimates that the program is used in about 150 schools of all kinds, from charter to independent to traditional public schools. The program is nonsectarian, and the only things for sale are posters of the virtues, including their definitions, and a resource guide for teachers who prefer the online content in a bound form.

“We aren’t trying to make money,” Klee said. “We are trying to make it possible for people to do this easily. This is an initiative a lot of people have found helpful and has born a lot of fruit. It doesn’t require hours and hours of teachers or professional development.”

Klee is aware that her simple program lacks the bells and whistles of others in the character education marketplace. But she believes it to be a powerful tool.

“We want students to know the good, love the good, and do the good,” Klee said. “Teaching them to love the good is the chief task of the Core Virtues program. You do this through the imagination and appealing to hearts, by making the good something they want to aspire to. We are not saying this Core Virtues approach is the only way you can develop character. But this is an energizing, catalytic way to keep the spotlight on character and virtue in a school setting. The key thing here is helping children fall in love with the good.”

Klee also emphasizes the value of practicing virtue. A focus on generosity in December may become a springboard for school projects like singing at a nursing home or helping at a food pantry.

“We don’t constrain ourselves to the literature,” she said. “Literature becomes the inspiration.”




Tutoring as a Coronavirus Palliative in Education

COVID-19 has disrupted the delivery of education to more than 50 million public and private school students. Parents are supplementing their children’s education in partnership with teachers online, while others partner with schools and colleges to make the best out of a tough situation.

Yet another option is often overlooked—an option that is backed by research and that can draw on the many strong teachers that schools already have in place: tutoring academies.

Tutoring youth is a time-honored practice that was employed as far back as ancient Greece, writes Beth Schueler, an Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, in the article linked below. And while delivering tutoring services to millions of students during the coronavirus pandemic is a challenge, it is also an opportunity. Schueler makes the case for “vacation-academies” based on tutoring to address not just the summer learning loss that occurs for so many students during this time of year, but the learning loss that the coronavirus-induced closure of schools will force upon so many students already at risk of academic failure.  

And it’s worth noting that tutoring also provides a prime opportunity for the adult modeling and practices that are an important part of student moral formation. Click here to read “Summer ‘Vacation Academies’ Can Narrow Coronavirus Learning Gaps,” by Beth Schueler.