Good Citizens Understand Community, Engage Actively

This article was originally published on October 26, 2017. It has been slightly edited for length. 

Except for small groups of hermits, found here and there throughout human history, most human persons have lived in community since the earliest times. Perhaps it was first necessary for survival, but throughout the ages humans have formed communities and lived social lives for comfort and fulfillment.  

Customs, manners, and laws must be established if communities are to survive and flourish. Humanity’s ascent is flush with examples of evolving methods, meaning, and sophistication of humans in community. “Habits of the heart . . . [are] the sum of ideas that shape mental habits . . . the whole moral and intellectual state of a people,” claimed Alexis de Tocqueville. Citizenship is a practical response to the needs of each and every community. 

But there is another aspect to add. If we are not fully human except in community, not selves except in relation to other selves (as Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, David Riesman, and many other thinkers argue), then how we engage with others is essential to our humanity. If we understand ourselves through relationships, then how we order our relationships is of critical importance. 

Finally if we are to truly embrace and sustain the principles of an advanced democracy, we must realize that there can be no democracy without the collective energies and coherent engagement of persons living in the democracy. Citizenship embraces the multi-faceted behaviors, relationships, and commitments necessary for civil society to function and for human persons to fully flourish. It is essential that we afford our youth the opportunities to understand deeply these principles and to begin to explore how they will engage as full-fledged members of a civil society. Equipping our young with the concepts that underpin these dual objectives of human flourishing and engagement in the common good is the work of forming good citizens in the fullest sense. 

Two things are required to accomplish this work—and schools play a vital role in their realization. First, individuals need to understand themselves as selves entering the public square. Second, they need to understand what it means to participate actively in the communities in which they are engaged.  

Educators tasked with this developmental responsibility must first make sense of their own relationship to the common good and their communities. This process of discovery will yield insights into how a human person forms attachments and the individual strengths necessary to fully participate, properly serve, and ultimately to exercise the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship.  

Scholars on Schools: Interview with Richard Fournier on Rural Public High Schools

To receive a free copy of the chapter of  The Content of Their Character that corresponds with this interview, please click here and sign up for our Weekly Digest.


Several years ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA launched a major research project in order to better understand the moral formation of high school students. Researchers went into ten different sectors of schools, from public schools (both urban and rural) to private schools (both religious and nonreligious). Richard Fournier covered rural public high schools.

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.”

ND community rallies around student diagnosed with cancer

North Dakota’s Dickenson High School volleyball team has a message for senior setter Lauren Jorda: “Her battle is our battle” and “God is within her, she will not fail.”

Those words of encouragement were printed on teal t-shirts and presented to Jorda just a week after she revealed to her teammates that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and that’s just one of many ways the community has stepped in to help, The Dickinson Press reports.

“It was pretty tough, but we all just told her that we were going to be there for her no matter,” junior Taylor Nelson told the news site. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy for her, so we were just there for her support. It took us all by surprise, but we knew we were going to help her through it.”

In the week between Jorda’s announcement and the Sept. 13 game against the Mandan Braves, her teammates created a fundraiser to sell the shirts online, raising thousands to help with medical expenses. Jorda was brought to tears when she learned about the effort in the locker room, then took to court to find the Braves also wearing the shirts. Nearly the entire student section also wore teal, the color representing ovarian cancer, the Press reports.

“It’s just been cool to see the t-shirts in places you wouldn’t even think of,” senior Madi Eckelberg said. “There’s just been a lot of support.”

In the weeks since, Jorda’s team has raised thousands through shirt sales, while others launched different fundraisers. The Dickinson High School National Honor Society held a bake sale, and classmate Addie Kuehl designed and sold bracelets with Psalm 46:5 to help pay for treatment and expenses.

Dickinson State University’s Nursing Student Association filled a gift basket with gift cards, gas cards and other goodies. Students at other area schools also bought shirts and donated cash before volleyball games.

Jorda has undergone seven surgeries so far to remove the cancer, but the future remains unknown, KXMD reports.

“Grateful is the one word I can come up with because it’s really making a difference in her fight,” Jorda’s father, Tom Jorda, told the Press. “We are basically quiet people, but for this to happen to this level and extent – teams throughout the state reaching out to her, people we don’t even know are reaching out to her because of sportsmanship. You can’t explain it; the nature of people and community is phenomenal.”

No words can express her gratitude, Jorda said.

“There’s really no words to put in to how it really feels,” she said. “I know Dickinson is a tight-knit community; we’re not a big, huge town. So everyone kind of knows everyone and when something happens like this, we just band together. It’s unreal.”

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, points to a community’s moral traditions as a critical element in or how people take action to help others.

Hunter wrote in “The Tragedy of Moral Education”:

What empathy we feel may help us understand someone else’s needs, and even feel the desire to help that person. But without embedded habits and moral traditions, empathy does not tell us what to do, nor when, nor how.

The nonprofit Action for Happiness offers resources for parents and educators to help youngsters develop traditions and habits centered on helping others, through kindness projects, volunteer work, activism and other means.

“Action for Happiness is a movement of people committed to building a happier and more caring society,” according to the website. “Members of the movement make a simple pledge: to try to create more happiness in the world around them. We provide ideas and resources to enable people to take action at home, at work or in their community.”

IL school staff focus on healing student traumas to reduce suspensions, expulsions

Teachers, administrators and other school staff in Illinois’ Dolton-Riverdale School District 148 recently spent a week training for a different approach to school discipline aimed at reducing suspension and expulsions.

The October training sessions included virtually all school employees who have contact with students to help build their skills for dealing with unruly students, many of whom struggle with various forms of trauma at home, from parents on drugs to violence and domestic abuse, The Daily Southtown reports.

The effort follows legislation adopted in 2015 that requires all schools to develop discipline policies focused on reserving suspensions as a last resort, and it’s clear the Dolton-Riverdale district is taking its responsibility seriously.

“As a district you’ve decided to embrace what we were trying to do,” said state Rep. Will Davis, sponsor of the legislation, known as SB 100. “I’ve never seen this level of involvement anywhere else.”

Davis and several other local leaders, politicians and educators attended the final day of training in Dolton-Riverdale schools to discuss the importance of the work, and to encourage educators to better connect with students who are struggling or lashing out in the classroom.

“Its goals were to limit lost instructional time, to reduce the racial disproportionality of school exclusions and to encourage educators to engage with the social-emotional needs of their students,” the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights said of SB100. “Harsh discipline is not the way to address what our students are going through in their daily life.”

“It’s about trying to understand where people are coming from, what their situations are,” District 148 Superintendent Kevin Nohelty said.

According to VOYCE, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education:

Illinois has one of the widest disparities between suspended black and white students in the country, according to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

In the 2012-13 school year, Chicago Public Schools issued 32 out-of-school suspensions for every 100 black students, compared to just five for every 100 white students.

Shinora Montgomery, principal at the district’s Early Childhood Center told those at the training session that as “the heart of the community,” it’s critical everyone in schools work together to reverse the cycle of trauma that often drives misbehavior in class.

“Without a strong educational center the community cannot thrive,” Montgomery said.

The work in Illinois and other states to address the issues students face outside of school is something James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, highlights as a key component of effective character education.

In “The Content of Their Character,” a summary of character education programs in a variety of American high schools, Hunter wrote:

We can only care for the young in their particularity. If we are not attentive to and understanding of these contexts, we are not caring for real, live human beings, but rather abstractions that actually don’t exist at all.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues offers a wealth of research and information about working with students to overcome adversity.

In the report “Flourishing from the Margins,” an analysis of 3,250 students from a variety of backgrounds, researchers note students “categorized as ‘having purpose’ reported that family and friends, and particularly teachers and members of the community, had a greater and more positive influence on their sense of living a ‘good life’.”


Las Vegas students focus on kindness, respect on anniversary of deadly shooting

On the one-year anniversary of a deadly shooting in Las Vegas, students in the Clark County School District are spending the week focused on kindness and respect.

Students at Paul E. Culley Elementary School spent October 1 singing Dianna Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and talking about respect and empathy during an event in the school garden, where officials also released doves in honor of the 58 people killed by a gunman at a downtown music festival last year, KLAS reports.

The effort is part of Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval’s statewide “Week of Respect” from Sept. 28 through Oct. 2 to raise awareness about bullying in schools, and what students can do to stop it.

“It’s important that we’re all calibrated that we’re all sharing the same message that bullying is not ok at any level,” Charles Sebeck, with Clark County School District’s equity and diversity department, told the television station.

Officials are getting that message across through both school activities and a focused social media campaign with local sports starts, student groups, and others that encourages students to “Be an Upstander.”

“We’ve always engaged the community, but this is the first year we’re using social media as a platform to really … customize our message for different stakeholders,” Sebeck said.

The approach seems to be having a strong impact.

“Being kind means showing integrity, showing empathy,” Culley fifth-grader Veronica Giron told KLAS.

“I stand up for other people; for example, when I feel they’re getting bullied or people are teasing them, I stand up and tell them to not do that,” classmate Amy Martin said, adding that she enjoyed helping to hang more than 1,000 folded cranes in the garden as a “symbol of peace.”

“I was helping with the cranes, and I was helping the teacher doing the cranes and putting the beads on,” she said.

Nevada’s Week of Respect is focused on helping students develop a moral compass through practice and positive role models, both components of effective character education.

“(W)e must acquire a moral sensibility – we learn what is right and wrong, good and bad, what is to be taken seriously, ignored, or rejected as abhorrent – and we learn, in moments of uncertainty, how to apply our moral imagination to different circumstances,” sociologist James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, wrote in “The Death of Character.”

“Over time, we acquire a sense of obligation and the discipline to follow them.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds offers a free mindfulness-based kindness curriculum for parents and educators looking to reach youngsters with deeper messages about character.

“Scientists and experts who worked on this curriculum continue to expand the research, which not only includes efforts to replicate our research findings but also to spread them far and wide,” according to the Healthy Minds website. “For example, we had the unique honor of sharing insights from studying the kindness curriculum with Sesame Street Workshop to help shape their spring 2017 season on ‘kindness.’”

CO schools refocus on drug use, bullying after ‘school snapshot’ survey

A recent “School Snapshot” survey showed students in Colorado’s Summit School District struggle with bullying and substance abuse at a higher rate than the state average, and administrators aren’t taking the news lightly.

Results from the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey showed 55.2 percent of students at Summit Middle School reported being bullied, just over 11 percent higher than the statewide average, while 20.8 percent of high-schoolers said the same, compared to 18.1 percent statewide, the Summit Daily reports.

High school students also used alcohol, vaporizer or e-cigarettes, marijuana and regular cigarettes at higher rates than students statewide.

“We take these results seriously, and we don’t want to see our kids taking illegal substances, alcohol or marijuana underage,” Julie McCluskie, spokeswoman for the district, told the Summit Daily.

McCluskie said the district is already taking a variety of steps to address the issues, such as including bullying in its “Second Step” social and emotional curriculum, new school counselors and social workers, and an anonymous Safe2Tell reporting system, which provides an avenue for students with concerns about suicide, bullying, violence or drugs.

“Over the last five years we’ve seen a rise in the number of students who express stress, anxiety and depression,” McCluskie said. “There’s also been an increase in students threatening self-harm and suicide. That’s been the focus for us the last few years. Our numbers are lower than state averages, but it’s always concerning if kids have those feelings. And we’re going to do everything we can to make sure no child feels lost, alone or does anything to harm themselves.”

The survey provided some hints that the efforts are making an impact.

The percentages of students who felt sad or helpless for two weeks in a row or more, and those who considered or attempted suicide are all below the statewide average. The survey also revealed 89 percent of the Summit middle school students, and 87 percent of high school students, said they had someone to talk to when they felt helpless, the Summit Daily reports.

“The school district takes our responsibility to keep kids safe and healthy very seriously, but we can’t do it alone,” said McCluskie. “When our parents are engaging not only with the school work, but also being supportive of social and emotional challenges the kids are facing, those kids will be more successful and safe…there are concerns for us in this data. What’s important now is that we respond to that as a school district and as a community. Nothing is more important.”

Summit administrators are already establishing new practices through curriculum, staffing, and methods of communicating with students that will compel action and change.

Sociologist James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, wrote in his book “The Tragedy of Moral Education in America”:

What we feel may help us understand someone else’s needs, and even feel the desire to help that person. But without embedded habits and moral traditions, empathy does not tell us what to do, nor when, nor how.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers a broader look at teen drug use with the 2017 “Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends.”

The survey of eighth, 10th and 12th grade students in hundreds of schools across the country shows “past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana holding steady at the lowest levels in over two decades.”


Growing percentage of superintendents concerned about preparing students to be good citizens

A 2018 survey of K-12 superintendents found that the percentage of district leaders concerned about students graduating unprepared to participate for civic life increased drastically over the last year.

Gallup conducted 1,892 web interviews with superintendents across the U.S. over the summer and asked them to identify the biggest challenges facing their districts for the coming year. And while recruiting and retaining talented teachers was the top concern, a drastically higher percentage pointed to preparing students for engaged citizenship than in previous years, Education Dive reports.

“Gallup asked superintendents most of the same items included in this year’s survey in 2017, as well as in 2013,” according to the report, “Leadership Perspectives on Public Education, The Gallup 2018 Survey of K-12 School District Superintendents.”

“The biggest change since last year is a spike in the percentage who agree that preparing students for engaged citizenship will be a challenge, which is up 24 percentage points from a year ago when just half regarded it as a challenge,” Gallup reports. “To some degree, this may be an acknowledgement of the increasingly contentious and polarized political environment in the U.S. It could also be a reaction to the prominent student activism on gun violence that occurred after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting earlier this year. About half, 51%, also saw preparing students for engaged citizenship as a challenge in 2013.”

Education Dive pointed to other troubling signs.

“Recent years have seen a growing realization that many students are making it through the K-12 education system inadequately prepared for civic participation. This is evident from the way people interact in online forums and shout each other down in face-to-face town hall meetings, as well as in late-night show street interviews that lampoon the general public’s inability to answer random questions from a citizenship test or name one member of Congress,” according to the education site.

Several states are strengthening civics graduation requirements, in some cases requiring students to pass a citizenship test to receive a diploma, while the National Education Association teachers’ union and others promote service work, and a focus on critical thinking and civil debate, to help turn around the trend.

“Simply put: Like other skill sets, providing opportunities to put what is being learned into action is critical for effective instruction,” according to Education Dive.

It may also be critical to healing the country’s divides.

In his book “The Death of Character,” Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter offers esteemed sociologist Charles Moskos’ perspective on the importance of developing a shared sense of civic virtue.

“ … (A)s Charles Moskos put it, ‘Because of the relative weakness of other forms of community …, out cohesion depends upon a civic ideal rather than on primordial loyalties,’” Hunter wrote. “In this way, service-learning as a vehicle of civic education can be a means by which communities are drawn together again.”

Educators who want to bridge political divides and help students engage in their communities can find a wealth of resources through CIVITAS, a comprehensive K-12 model for civic education developed with the help of dozens of leading scholars and classroom teachers from across the country.


Students who engage in extra-curricular activities may benefit more than they realize

College surveys show students who engage in extra-curricular activities do better in class, have more friends, and generally enjoy their experience more than those who stick to the sidelines.

The Signal, the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s student newspaper, recently highlighted some of the benefits students can expect if they opt to take part in the school’s more than 90 different clubs and organizations.

“For example, a 2010 Purdue University study on the relationship between undergraduate student activity and academic performance reported that ‘participation in student organizations can lead to the development of social and leadership skills, higher retention rates, heighted self-confidence, and improved satisfaction with college, the ability to see course curriculum as more relevant, and further success after college,’” according to site.

“The Purdue study also indicated that students involved on campus showed a grade point average that was significantly higher than the general student population.”

The Signal pointed to other benefits, as well, including practice building time management, project management, communication and team building skills.

“There are many other ways, in addition to joining a student organization, for students to get involved on campus,” the site reports. “Students can join an intramural sports league, attend campus events or participate in student government. Students can also get a job on campus, such as becoming a tutor, teaching assistant or research assistant, and joining the school newspaper.”

Internships and volunteer work are other avenues students can pursue to engage in the school community.

“All of these options are great resume builders,” according to The Signal. “Becoming involved on campus can allow students to learn soft skills, network and feel more connected.”

Students’ extra-curricular involvement also shapes their character, because “individuals are social creatures inextricably embedded in their communities,” according to James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

In his book “The Death of Character,” Davison wrote:

Experience was always a precursor to the possession of character and practical wisdom, for it schools the individual in the range of circumstances within which the virtues would find expression.

The Jesuit Schools Network also recognizes the benefits of extra-curricular activities, and its “Profile of the Graduate” provides a more in-depth look at the character virtues the school system aims to instill in graduating students.

And while experiences outside of the classroom undoubtedly strengthens many of the virtues expected of Jesuit graduates, it’s particularly important to ensuring they’re “open to growth.”

“The Jesuit high school student at the time of graduation has matured as a person – emotionally, intellectually, physically, socially and religiously – to a level that reflects some intentional responsibility for one’s own growth,” according to the profile.

“The graduate is beginning to reach out in his or her development, seeking opportunities to stretch one’s mind, imagination, feelings, and religious consciousness.”