Using literature to teach honesty, kindness

Students at Canandaigua Primary-Elementary School in upstate New York are learning about honesty from community leaders, with a little help from popular children’s books.

Board of education president Jeanie Grimm recently stopped by Cathy Payne’s 2nd-grade class to read Mr. Peabody’s Apples, a children’s novel by Madonna that focuses on the harm of spreading rumors.

“A lot of stuff in this book reminds me of Canandaigua,” Grimm told the Daily Messenger. “There’s a building with a clock on it, just like we have in Canandaigua. A lot of apple trees grow in Canandaigua.”

Deputy Patrick Fitzgerald also visited students in February to read a story and relate how honesty plays into his work as a police officer.

The focus on honesty is the school’s theme for February, and part of a broader character education initiative for local elementary students. The program is designed to highlight six important character traits—honesty, integrity, civility, responsibility, respect, and kindness—by establishing the basic concepts in lower grades and delving deeper into the topics as students mature.

The new approach stems from the district’s Character Education Committee, which suggested educators narrow character education to focus on specific traits and provided educators with a wealth of resources to draw from, according to the news site.

And Payne believes students are catching on as they relate the stories on character to their own lives.

“They’re using the words,” she said. “I’ll hear things like ‘Mrs. Payne, I did a random act of kindness for my mom or my sister.’”

Students’ positive response echoes findings from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture’s School Cultures and Student Formation Project, which examined character formation in a wide variety of American schools.

In a summary of the research, The Content of Their Character, editors James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson explain, “The presence of texts, traditions, and exemplars as sources for framing the moral culture of the school certainly create conditions conducive for explanation and illumination.”

At Canandaigua Primary-Elementary School, the pairing of literature and explicit instruction are helping students catch on to what is expected of them. School officials are also incorporating ways to honor students who demonstrate good character.

“Students across the building are being recognized for displaying good character with positive office referrals. We have posted several pictures to our Twitter account,” assistant principal Martha End told the Daily Messenger.

“When students receive a positive office referral, they come down to their grade level office and we celebrate them for a few minutes. Student pictures are then displayed on our Character Counts board.”

Administrators call parents to share the good news, as well. “They are so proud,” said another assistant principal, Emily Tatar. “We also celebrate our students with Braves of the Month. Each teacher selects two students to be celebrated, and we hang up their picture outside of the office to recognize them.”

Educators interested in forming strong character in students can find resources at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, including a school ethos self-evaluation framework to identify strengths and weaknesses in school culture.

5th-grader honored for honesty, trustworthiness

Sycamore Valley Academy 5th-grader Shania Rojas is someone her classmates and teacher can trust, a virtue that the Tulare County Office of Education recognized in December with a feature on the local news.

“Our motto is, ‘I will do what is right because it is right,’ and Shania definitely follows that honor code to the core of herself,” teacher Erika Chan told Your Central Valley. “She follows the moral compass in that she’s sweet with her family, sweet with her friends, teachers, any adults that come into her life.”

Chan said the 10-year-old stands out from her peers because of her character, and her honesty and trustworthiness, in particular.

“I think trustworthiness is something that a lot of adults can’t say they know a lot of people they can trust,” Chan said. “And I think that if we instill those values today, and kids in my class can learn from that and see Shania as a leader in trustworthiness.”

Rojas told the television station she has a lot to be thankful for—“my family, pets, animals, parents, and this school, my friends and my teacher”—and also the recognition from her school district.

“I never felt that feeling that I won something before,” she said. “I guess I was a lucky one to get it.”

Her friends and family seem to think it had more to do with Rojas’ bubbly personality, and strong character virtues.

“She is honest. She cares for other people’s needs and cares for them,” her father, Rolando Rojas, told Your Central Valley. “She is dedicated to her ideas. She is honest and she really cares about others.”

Classmate Rita Rasner contends Rojas’ “character is special in a way that is hard to explain.”

“She makes everyone feel like they’re family,” Rasner said.

Fellow 5th-grader Ellie Elms put it another way.

“She’s like really nice and really thoughtful of other people,” Elms said. “She is very trustworthy, wonderful, amazing, and exceptional.”

The high praise supports observations about character by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter.

Hunter, who founded the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, wrote in his book The Death of Character:

Character reflects the affirmation of our commitments to a larger community, the embrace of an ideal that attracts us, draws us, animates us, inspires us.

The pressures of testing and teaching can make it easy to forget to honor the fundamental virtue of integrity, but at Rojas’ California school district students are learning the importance of truthfulness by taking the time to celebrate it.

Educators looking to promote truthfulness and other character virtues in students can gain insight from a guide for teachers offered by the Jubilee Centre for Character Virtues.

Survey of Orthodox Jews: Sense of community getting stronger in Jewish schools

A new survey of Modern Orthodox Jews in the United States provides interesting insights into the types of schools their children attend.

The research also highlights what Jewish parents think about the schools—institutions where the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture notes a renewed focus on citizenship and character education, especially on “Musar.”

The Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews, released in late September, “involved a broad literature review, individual interviews, [and] survey development and testing by experienced researchers,” as well as “guidance by an advisory group comprised of people knowledgeable of the community, including rabbinic and lay leaders, sociologists, educators, and academics,” according to the report.

“This report presents findings based on responses from 3,903 individuals in the U.S. who identified themselves as ‘Modern Orthodox or Centrist Orthodox.’”

Questions touched on a wide variety of topics, from religious beliefs to women’s roles, to successes, opportunities, and challenges facing the Jewish community.

About 83 percent of respondents’ children in grades 1–12 attend an Orthodox Jewish day school, and about 75 percent of those are coeducational, rather than single gender, schools.

At the Orthodox Jewish day schools, “Jewish studies are seen as stronger than secular studies (70 percent fully agree that Jewish programs are strong vs. 61 percent for secular studies). Fewer agree that the schools do a good job of teaching middot (52 percent), tzniut (22 percent), or sex education (22 percent),” according to the report.

Parents of Jewish students segregated at schools by gender showed very similar results, though high schools were rated better for secular education, teaching critical thinking, and special education.

“Parents rate fully coed schools best overall, while single gender schools are rated best for Jewish studies and teaching tzniut,” Nishma Research reports.

Tzniut is the concept of modesty or privacy promoted by Orthodox Judaism, while middot refers to principles used to interpret biblical passages.

The Nishma report comes as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture prepares to release the book, The Content of Their Character, which will feature a chapter by Prof. Jack Werthheimer on how character and citizenship are formed in Jewish schools.

In recent decades, one movement influential among Jewish movements in America, including Reform communities, is “Musar,” or “moral discipline.” In an essay for The Hedgehog Review, Geoffrey Claussen, an associate professor of religious studies at Elon University and former president of the Society of Jewish Ethics, argued that one major Musar proponent emphasizes “the honesty, humility, patience, and discipline that doing Musar requires,” and also “advises daily practice—focusing one’s attention on a given character trait every morning, engaging in self-analysis by writing in one’s journal every evening, and dedicating time for study and good deeds on a daily basis.”

Another scholar “adds to this sort of regimen by emphasizing the moral significance of traditional Jewish observance, involvement with the life of a community, and friendships that offer critical feedback,” Claussen wrote.

The intentional character formation offered in many Jewish schools draws on deep religious sources and history, and serves as an example of the type of community-centered character-education approach.