Character ed is the most important part of every day

Students at Liverpool, New York’s Morgan Road Elementary School spend about 15 minutes a day learning about character, and how to become positive people.  “We spend hours on (English and language arts),” principal Brett Woodcock told WRVO. “We spend hours on math. We spend a significant time on science and social studies. But this might be the most important thing we do.”

Morgan Road students joined The Positivity Project two years ago as part of an effort to teach children to be positive people, and a recent $24,000 grant from the Central New York Community Foundation will expand the program to 44 schools throughout the region this year.  The Positivity Project, started by two former U.S. Army war veterans, focuses on two dozen character strengths identified by scientists, and encourages students to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses.

Fourth-grader Makenna Metrick told the news site her best strengths are “perseverance, bravery and kindness,” while her weaknesses include “appreciation of beauty and excellence, humility and modesty, and creativity.”  “They have a better understanding of who they truly are,” Woodstock said. “And when it comes to situations of bullying and things like that, really having that self confidence and self awareness is a key piece of that.”

According to The Positivity Project website:

Each school and every classroom is different. Instead of a mandatory pedagogy and curriculum, we trust educators in the classroom–who know their students best–to implement P2 in the most impactful way possible. Empowering teachers to master the 24 character strengths language and concepts–and equipping them with resources–drives success in classrooms and schools.

Since its first partnership with Morgan Road elementary in 2015, The Positivity Project expanded to 33 schools in 11 states in 2016, and is now in place at 188 schools in 13 states—engaging 14,219 educators and 115,725 students. The growing popularity of the program represents an important shift away from an exclusively academic focus in schools to a more holistic approach that introduces children to the language of character at a critical time.

The trend also raises concerns about unintentionally reinforcing self-actualization as a primary goal, rather than a desire for students to look beyond themselves. UCLA sociologist Jeffrey Guhin highlighted that issue in recent research of urban public schools.

“Yet in the absence of a stronger ethical sensibility that could carry throughout the school and community, students were left to find larger ethical visions that might work for them. For some, that vision was a kind of materialist self-advancement, yet for many it was a sense of self-actualization, a need to ‘be yourself,’ whatever that ‘self’ might be,” Guhin wrote in the new book The Content of Their Character, set for publication next month by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. “To the extent students were committed to altruism, solidarity, or broader public virtues, it was always through this diffuse institution of individualism, of insisting that what you most owe the world is your own self-realization.”

Fortunately, at Morgan Road Elementary, students like Makenna seem to understand the bigger picture. The 4th-grader said The Positivity Project has helped her better understand her own world, and how she can help those who need it, WROV reports. “Like if someone’s not treating their friend nicely, I’ll be like, ‘Don’t do that, you shouldn’t do that at all,’” she said. “And they’ll be like ‘Okay, Makenna, I won’t.’”

Guhin’s research represents one of ten sectors of education analyzed in The Content of Their Character, which is currently available at a discount through CultureFeed. Teachers can find more information about The Positivity Project, including training opportunities, on the organization’s website.

Soft skills matter, but can they be measured?

New Hampshire principal Brian Stack is offering his insight on teaching students “soft skills” through his own experience helping his elementary-age sons with their nightly homework.

In a MultiBriefs Exclusive column, Stack detailed how his 11-year-old son often struggles with challenging assignments and shuts down, while his 9-year-old learned to persevere through academic adversity with the help of his 3rd-grade teacher.

The coping strategies for working through tough assignments “have been specifically taught to him by his third-grade teacher over the past year as a concerted effort to focus on the development of learning skills, also known as soft skills, alongside academic standards and competencies,” he wrote.

“For many schools, my kids’ elementary school included, the next iteration of this work is to include soft skill grades on report cards.”

The focus on helping students develop “soft skills” like perseverance or “grit,” is nothing new in the education world, but assessing and grading students on those skills remains largely uncharted territory.

Stack contends that developing measures and grades for students’ soft skills could help employers better understand whether applicants possess the intangibles needed for the job, and he pointed to several schools that already grade students’ noncognitive skills.

“In a recent article for Education Week, author Evie Blad reported on a Montgomery County, Maryland, elementary report card that reports on soft skills like intellectual risk-taking, collaboration, originality, and metacognition (the awareness of one’s own learning processes),” Stack wrote.

“Similarly, elementary report cards in Austin, Texas, chart how well students take responsibility for their own actions, manage their emotions constructively, and interacts with peers and adults. Blad went on to suggest that the biggest challenge for schools looking to add soft skills to their report cards is to figure out how to present the information in a meaningful and useful way for both students and parents.”

Stack noted that many researchers have warned against attempts to measure soft skills, but argued that “if the primary purpose of schooling is to prepare children to be successful in the workplace, then it is a logical step for schools to be more explicit about the teaching of soft skills.”

The rising interest in soft skills offers an opportunity for educators who entered the profession because of their passion for learning and formation—not for test scores. Adding soft skills to report cards, though well-intentioned, may only increase the current obsession with grades.

Some also argue it’s a bad idea because current measures are unreliable.

Education researcher Jeff Dill and Dan Scoggin, co-founder of Great Hearts Academies charter schools, penned a column for The Hedgehog Reviewa publication of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, that points to comments from Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania professor who coined the term “grit” as an important academic virtue.

“(A)s psychologist Angela Duckworth notes, current measures for non-cognitive outcomes are limited by self-reporting and reference bias,” Dill and Scoggin wrote in THR. “Adding character to the testing regime at this state would be premature and counterproductive.”

Dill and Scoggin also argue that many schools rightfully pursue a vision that’s much greater than simply preparing students for the work world.

“(W)e can all agree that every school, embedded rightly within its community and context, needs a North Star of human flourishing,” they wrote. “Just as a good teacher has a clear objective for every lesson and course, just as a good school unites students and teachers around an intentional curriculum and program, so a great school must have a vision for the nature of the human being they seek to graduate.”

With clarity and purpose, great schools explicitly nurture not only soft skills, bot other dimensions of character, as well.

In a video about Scoggin’s Great Hearts Academies, he explains that “education is not just about getting kids into college or just about learning specific skills.” At Great Hearts’ network of classical charter schools, educators are committed to helping each student become a “better, more well-rounded and thoughtful human being.” Resources from the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues can help teachers work with students to develop the virtues necessary for human flourishing.

Character-focused culture leads to better academic results in Indy

South Creek Elementary School Principal Toni Stevenson is focusing on forming strong character in students, and it’s transforming the culture at the Indianapolis school and improving test scores.

A reporter with the education website Chalkbeat recently visited with Stevenson after the school improved its state grade from a ‘C’ to an ‘A’ over the last year to talk about the progress.

During the stop, a kindergartner emerged from a classroom to show Stevenson a ticket she received from her teacher for good behavior.

“I was being quiet in the hall!” she told the principal as she stuff the paper into a mailbox outside of her classroom.

“Lauren!” Stevenson said. “Good job!”

According to Chalkbeat:

The brief exchange showed what Stevenson believes is a central part of the culture at Franklin Township’s South Creek—a focus on positive character traits to build community and school spirit. When students are seen being respectful or exemplifying another positive trait, they get a ticket. The more their class collects, the better shot they have at small prizes and schoolwide recognition.

Stevenson told the news site educators at the school were “very emotional” after South Creek went from an ‘A’ rated school in 2014–15 to a ‘C’ school in 2015–16, and she pushed educators to collaborate on best practices. The school district also reduced South Creek’s population by 10 teachers and 200 kids, which prompted teachers to refocus their efforts on how to boost morale and improve happiness.

“After we lost those students and those teachers, we really focused on . . . How do we bring joy back into the classroom?” Stevenson said.

Initially, teachers were reluctant to collaborate, but “slowly, you saw that gradual change where the teachers were very proud opening up their classrooms,” she said. “You saw this ripple effect going through the school, and they opened up their classrooms, and they started sharing.”

The result: student test scores went up by 15 percentage points, with more than 80 percent now passing both English and math portions of the state’s standardized test. The school’s state grade also improved to an ‘A.’

“I was ecstatic,” Stevenson said. “People have different feelings about being recognized by grade, but I felt very happy.”

University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, notes the powerful influence of culture in forming character.

“Much of our moral sensibility, of course, is acquired in our early socialization through the acquisition of language, and in our participation in everyday life,” Hunter wrote in The Death of Character. “Yet primary socialization is also that stage of life when moral instruction is articulated.”

At South Creek, Stevenson and teachers are articulating those norms with the focus on character formation, and the benefits to the school culture and academic performance speak for themselves.

Educators can explore ways to delve into the dynamics of their school culture with help from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, which offers an introductory video as well as a host of other resources.

Student scientists eager to see the forest and the trees

Fourth-graders at Colorado’s Fox Creek Elementary want to learn more about how to conserve the Backcountry Wilderness Area, an 8,200-acre preserve that borders school property.

Over the last three years, students have spent two hours a week studying the vast Douglas County outback through a partnership with the Highlands Ranch Community Association, which manages the 13 square miles of Ponderosa pines and Gambel oaks that’s home to a wide array of wildlife, from elk and pronghorn to wild turkeys and prairie dogs.

Each year, students compare ecosystems in the park, measure footprints, collect samples, look at temperatures, and conduct other field work.

“When the students come out,” camp director AnnaKate Hein told the Highlands Ranch Herald, “they are expected to be scientists.”

But something different happened this year. Armed with data and inspired by their time in the Wilderness Area, students requested to take the program to another level and put what they learned to use through a service-learning project.

According to the Herald:

To raise money for the project, Fox Creek students hosted a hot chocolate stand at Haunted Forest, a popular event in October organized by HRCA. Backcountry staff expected students—15 kids on each of the two nights—to bring in $100. They profited upward of $500.

Hein said students will likely work on constructing bluebird houses in open spaces or working to protect the ponderosa pines from elk, which often use the trees for cover.

“Science isn’t always about having the right answer,” Hein said. “Our big goal is to keep kids questioning.”

The Backcountry Wilderness project will certainly help local plants and wildlife, and forge a closer connection between Fox Creek and the HRCA, but it’s the students themselves who will undoubtedly benefit the most.

The service-learning project is part of an ancient tradition that’s known as “becoming by doing.”

Aristotle wrote in “Nicomachean Ethics” that “states of character arise out of like activities.”

By doing science in the Backcountry, the students are becoming scientists. By taking responsibility for protecting and caring for the Backcountry, the students are becoming responsible citizens and naturalists, virtues they’ll likely carry into adulthood.

Educators interested in incorporating similar service learning concepts into their classrooms can find materials and lesson plans by iCivics and others at

H.S. Football: West Milford seniors pay it forward

West Milford High School football coach Don Dougherty is teaching his players how to “Punt, Pass & Read.”

The New Jersey coach told that when he took over as head of the varsity team in 2012, his focus was as much on devising offensive and defensive strategy as it was on what his players are doing off the field.

“From the beginning I felt the need and importance for our student athletes to give back to their community,” Dougherty said. “I wanted to put academics and athletics together for a good cause. Introducing that combination to the younger kids in our community makes a lot of sense and it promotes the importance of education and hometown pride.”

The effort also puts school sports in the proper context as a model for life, one that shows students there’s more important things than the numbers on the scoreboard.

Six years ago Dougherty launched the “Punt, Pass & Read” program to get West Milford players into local elementary schools, where they spend two days reading to youngsters throughout the school district.

Now, the program is spearheaded by seniors on the team who don their game jerseys to visit all six of the district’s elementary schools. Each year, they spend about an hour at each school reading to and talking with students, and the result is bringing the community closer together, they said.

“It’s really cool to see the students’ reactions and their smiles when we walk into the classrooms,” said senior captain A.J. Bakunas. “It means a lot to them for us to come in and read and just spend time with them. I know about this program when last year’s seniors participated and it’s something I’ve looked forward to being a part of.”

“I saw a lot of joy and smiles on the kids’ faces,” added senior Dylan Purdy. “They all wanted to interact with us and I thought that was great. I hope this program makes the kids want to read more. The younger students look up to us as role models and if they see their idols interested in reading hopefully it will want them to read more.”

Dougherty contends local elementary students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the program.

“The entire week is a humbling experience. It allows the seniors to reflect and see where they came from and how far they’ve come as student athletes. We’re constantly preaching hometown pride and staying home. This program touches on everything and it’s something we plan on continuing for years to come,” he said.

“All the students and staff at the schools really embrace the program and it’s something they look forward to every year,” Dougherty told NorthJersey. “The younger students ask the players for autographs and the teachers get to spend time with their former students who are now seniors in high school. It’s just a rewarding experience for everyone involved.”

Parents “want their children to develop into loving, morally upright, and hard-working adults who preserve close ties to their families,” according to the “Culture of American Families” report from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Parents believe that “fame, athletics, popularity, and power matter little in the larger scheme of their children’s lives,” so it’s a powerful dynamic when athletics can be a means to forming the good character that parents want for their children.

The Positive Coaching Alliance helps coaches, leaders, and parents understand double-goal coaching: winning and teaching character.

Indiana third-graders cheer to learn kindness from “Wonder”

Rosedale Elementary teacher Mary Sampson is weaving lessons on character into her 3rd-grade classroom, and her students can’t get enough.

“When you have third graders clap because you’re reading another chapter of a book, I mean that tells you something, that you’re doing something right,” Sampson told My Wabash Valley.

Each day after recess Sampson takes 20 minutes to read the book Wonder to her class of 9-year-olds, and they’re soaking up the lessons on kindness, sharing, empathy, and listening through the story of a young student who suffers from a craniofacial disorder. The disfiguring condition means the main character looks much different than his classmates, a reality that leads to both bullying and lifelong friendships.

The story hits home for many in Sampson’s class, which includes several students with disabilities.

“They had to learn to deal with kids that make a lot of noises or kids that need to walk around the classroom or not sit in their chair the whole time,” Sampson told the news site.

The book, along with classroom activities that encourage students to recognize kind acts and share them with others at the school, is making a big impact.

“We just learned about being kind to one another, don’t judge a book by its cover,” 3rd-grader Avery Cottrell said. “You have to treat others how you want to be treated if you want to be treated good.”

Lionsgate Films, which adapted Wonder into a motion picture, is putting that theme into action with 50 free movie tickets for Sampson’s class to watch the new film on the big screen—one of only 20 classrooms nationwide to earn the honor.

Sampson’s class shared the tickets with a 5th-grade class at Rosedale that’s also reading Wonder.

“It was just so exciting we all started screaming,” 5th-grade student Marley Kilzer told My Wabash Valley, adding that she’s learned powerful lessons from the book. “You shouldn’t judge people by what they look like, you should judge them by how they treat you and what’s within them.”

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, underscored a focus on others in his book The Tragedy of Moral Education in America.

“Implicit in the word ‘character’ is a story,” Hunter wrote. “It is a story about living for a purpose that is greater than the self.”

What books have you found that draw children from quick judgments about others toward true care for each other?

Students take anti-bullying pledge to promote kindness, compassion

Carroll County Public Schools’ Winfield Elementary School in Maryland launched an anti-bullying campaign this month that’s designed to instill kindness and compassion among young students, skills lost with the erosion of character education in American schools.

As students streamed into Winfield on Monday, they were greeted with chalk messages including “bully-free zone,” “be kind,” and “Wildcat Warriors,” as well as the school mascot “Winfield Wildcat,” who encouraged students to sign up for a new “bully-free pledge,” the Carroll County Times reports.

The pledge was spelled out on a big blue board where students signed their names alongside their teachers, promising to treat each other with dignity and respect.

“(Winfield is doing) what we can do here as a community to change the life of the kids starting in elementary school, which I feel is the biggest thing,” Jackie Diachenko, the school’s nurse, told the news site.

The nurse said that throughout Winfield’s Bullying Awareness Week, students will learn to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, the importance of treating themselves and others with respect, and other lessons about good character that were once part of the curriculum in schools.

Diachenko also told the Times that the Bullying Awareness Week follows a Bullying Awareness Club she launched at Winfield last year. It also coincides with National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.

“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,” according to James Hunter in The Tragedy of Moral Education.

Signing a pledge is a good idea if students learn to keep their promises and get in the habit of treating others with dignity and respect. This can be reinforced by teaching and modeling character in the school and the home, establishing habits of kindness and empathy so that when students are tempted to bully other students, they have the habits of resisting that urge and a community of other students and adults who will reinforce the students’ self-restraint.

“The way the world is now and what we’re growing up in—I feel like if we’re able to make a difference and stop the negativity at such a young age, then it’s going to radiate through their life,” Diachenko said.

“The NED Show” at MLK Elementary (Youngstown, OH) points to habits of kindness

A recent character education presentation at Youngstown’s Martin Luther King Elementary School is helping young students understand the benefits of being nice, and some are already grasping the snowball effect the lessons could have on the school’s culture.

The October presentation underscores the importance of character education in schools. It also provides an avenue for expanding lessons to encourage students to learn from each other.

Youngstown students in kindergarten through 5th grade met with yo-yo aficionado Chad Adams and NED—the star character of The NED Show and acronym for “Never give up, Encourage others, and Do your best,” The Vindicator reports.

Throughout the roughly 45-minute assembly, the characters engaged students through yo-yo tricks, humor, and stories about good character to illustrate important concepts like focus and persistence, kindness and shared learning, and diligence and excellence.

“After the assembly, educators have access to our extensive collection of resources. The lesson plans, videos, and classroom activities center upon NED traits and easily integrate into existing curriculum,” according to The NED Show website. “The excitement begins with the assembly and continues year round to promote a culture of kindness and excellence at your school.”

King Elementary counselor Kristen Campana told The Vindicator that officials chose The NED Program to promote good behavior and “instill good traits in our students as early as possible so they can all grow and be successful in all aspects.”

Students who attended the assembly quickly recognized the potential the lessons have to reduce bullying.

“People need to start being nice,” 5th-grader Trent Young said. “We are all the same here.”

Other insightful students, like 3rd-grader John Barden, pointed to another big benefit often highlighted by character education advocates.

“You should show younger kids to be nice so that when they’re our age, they’ll continue to show kids younger than them to be kind,” Barden said.

Barden’s comment shows he understands the importance of cultivating habits in students when they’re young so they can be kind without thinking twice about it.

That’s the essence of character education, and it’s a foundation that schools should build on and infuse in the school community.

To help students dive deeper into the ideas planted by The NED Show, a lesson on kindness suggests that teachers help students to “visualize the community-building effects of practicing kindness.” Older students can often mentor their younger schoolmates to begin developing kindness habits early.

Teaching students discipline, respect, and understanding through music

HUMBLE, Texas – Park Lakes Elementary School teacher Stephanie Tiner is using music to teach students important qualities like discipline, respect, and understanding—lessons that can be a foundation for deeper conversations about good character.

Tiner secured a $3,700 grant from the Humble Independent School District Education Foundation this school year to purchase drums, bongos, maracas, and numerous other percussion instruments she plans to use to introduce students to “D.R.U.M.”

The acronym stands for Discipline, Respect, and Unity through Music, and it’s the title of a book authored by veteran Humble music teacher Jim Solomon about the power of music to bring people together, the Houston Chronicle reports.

Tiner told the news site that Park Lakes serves a large population of bilingual students, some with limited English, and her music class brings those students together with their traditional classmates.

Unlike schools that keep students segregated by their English abilities, Park Lakes blends the students in non-core classes to help them work together and learn about their racial differences and language barriers.

“I really wanted to try and figure out a way to use music to really tackle those issues that I kind of feel our country is even having a hard time with,” Tiner told the Chronicle. “Getting along with people who don’t look like you or sound like you through music is a wonderful way of doing that.”

Tiner said that although she just recently received the new instruments, they’ve helped to engage students in a collaborative effort to carry a rhythm and to learn to share the various drums, bongos, and lummi sticks on a rotating basis.

“It would help them to have to work together, to have to listen, to be disciplined, to treat each other with respect,” she said. “When you try to create music with people you are not listening to or that you don’t get along with, it’s noise, and I tell them all the time, ‘This isn’t noise class—this is music class.’”

And students have responded well to infusing lessons on character with the music.

“Having a more character education driven classroom in general around this has made a big difference,” Tiner said. “They are constantly trying to work together to earn points to move onto the next step.”

Tiner’s music-driven character lessons are an excellent way to engaging students in more in-depth conversations about the virtues of good character.

The experience of cultivating habits of respect, attentiveness, and humility in schools through music and other subjects should lead to deeper conversations about why we should show respect and listen attentively when it’s easier to insist on our own perspective and disregard others’ opinions and feelings. Incorporating character virtues into music classes (example here) will make the character lessons explicit.