Character formation happens over breakfast

Public school students, from Kindergarten to 12th grade, in Troy, Montana, start the day with breakfast at school and time to talk with their teachers or advisors. One high school teacher sees breakfast during the advisory period as the prime time and tool for character formation.

The Breakfast in the Classroom program, a collaboration of the Montana Food Bank Network and the state of Montana, offers breakfast to all students, regardless of income status. At the high school, breakfast during the advisory period creates a daily space where students “can build a relationship with that teacher,” Superintendent Jacob Francom told The Western News.

Francom isn’t just talking about teachers. He, too, has an advisory group he meets with every morning. And students who might already have eaten or don’t feel hungry still can sit with their classmates and join in the discussion.

Francom said the program at Troy started only in the past two years, but almost every student in the lower grades participates, as well as some high school students. Kaleb Price, a high school English teacher, enjoys getting to know his students during the advisory time. Although students are sometimes quiet, Price says teachers can use prompts from the school’s character education program to start a conversation. “I have a bunch of juniors, and so the morning time for them is rather quiet,” Price said. “But even though we don’t talk a lot, I think it’s a good time for them just to mentally focus.”

Character Strong has directions for Advisory periods like those in Troy.

That initiative taken by teachers and administrators is important, says Richard Fournier, rural schools researcher for the School Cultures and Student Formation Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Fournier’s findings appear in The Content of Their Character, where he describes the rural schools he studied across the United States. “[M]any of the ways students were positively or negatively influenced was dependent on the type of teacher or school administrators in charge of delivering the message.” If the adults don’t take initiative, it doesn’t happen.

In Troy, however, there is strong leadership straight from the superintendent. Regarding the conversations that happen during advisory, Francom told The Western News: “I mean, that’s what character education really comes down to . . . making good choices, whether now or choices that will affect them in their future, or making plans and goals for their future.”

Learning to lead in middle school

Officials at Riverside School in Lyndonville, Vermont, believe one of the best ways for students to learn is to lead, and they’re expanding a school advisory program to give students more opportunities to mentor younger students. Sixth-graders develop presentations and other materials to help 5th-graders transition to the middle school, while 7th- and 8th-graders talk with elementary students about issues like bullying, exclusion, and personal space, the Caledonian Record reports.

“The Riverside community fully understands that leadership is a skill,” said Head of School Michelle Ralston. “Developing skills takes time. Development takes patience. Our young students begin early and can plan on hard work, many tests of patience, but lots of support from the entire Riverside Community.”

School officials recently worked with clinical therapist Ellen Moore to develop several new learning and leadership opportunities as part of “Riverside Pride,” an expansion of the school’s advisory program. The aim is to help students gain leadership experience throughout their time at Riverside, with the ultimate goal of developing stronger problem solving, leadership, and collaboration among students across grade levels.

Eighth-graders lead groups of six to eight students of varying ages in “Buddy Families,” meeting weekly to perform community services and help maintain the school’s campus. They also plan the Riverside’s morning assembly with themes to engage their classmates on important topics and announcements. The older students lead activities for youngsters for the school’s annual Mythology Day, as well, and visit elementary classrooms to talk about bullying and respect, according to the news site. “We all know that younger students listen to and look up to their older schoolmates. We also know that students learn best when they teach,” Ralston said. “This will be a learning experience for our seventh and eighth graders as well.”

The evolving leadership experiences work in conjunction with the advisory program, which begins in 6th grade with weekly meetings focused on study skills and habits of mind. In 7th grade, the focus shifts to critical skills and dispositions for collaborating in groups.

By 8th grade, students learn to lead the broader school community, capping off their experience with a final presentation to the entire student body. Eighth-graders also gain experience teaching younger classmates during the final weeks of school, under the watchful eye of teachers. “Riverside eighth-graders benefit from years of practicing patient leadership, assisting and mentoring their peers,” Ralston said. “Working together with the school’s mission, the commitment of faculty and staff, and the Riverside Advisory Program, the Riverside Pride initiative will serve to create and value a school-wide environment that fosters integrity and kindness towards one another.”

The Riverside School is building character in its students by consistently giving them the responsibility to lead. They use the language of “dispositions” that are built by “habits.” This sets them apart from many character education initiatives that focus merely on mental recall of character strengths, recognition of one’s own character strengths, or a virtue of the month. By force of habit, they are “assisting and mentoring their peers.”

Education researcher Kathryn Wiens studied prestigious independent schools for the Institute for Advance Studies in Culture’s School Cultures and Student Formation project and found that, ironically, parents can pose a challenge in teaching character. “These parents almost appeared to view the development of character as a nice accessory to the other benefits of a prestigious education,” Wiens wrote.

With the exception of two schools studied, Wiens reported that “a majority of students interviewed at each school suggested that their school did not ultimately care what kind of person they became. Instead, they felt the school was most concerned about their academic achievement and where they went to college.” Wiens’ full research is available as a chapter in The Content of Their Character, which is available for preorder now.

The Riverside School, like other independent schools, faces similar issues, which makes its work weaving character formation and leadership development into the habits and practices of students all the more admirable.

Getting Smart author Tom Vander Ark argues that, “Advisory has to be the spine of the next generation high school,” and offers guidance on how to structure and sustain an advisory program that “really is the glue that holds it all together.”