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.

DC school book club breaks stereotypes

A newly formed book club for young minority boys at Washington, D.C.’s Truesdell Education Campus is changing the dynamic at the struggling school, where a mere 18% of students met expectations on the English portion of standardized tests in 2016.

The change stems from a student who complained in December that his results on city English tests don’t accurately reflect his reading abilities, which prompted principal Mary Ann Stinson to suggest the boy read Walter Dean Meyers’ Bad Boy: A MemoirThe Washington Post reports.

Vice-principal Michael Redmond assigned the same book—about Meyers’ childhood growing up in Harlem—to two other students, as well, and he was soon flooded with student requests for more copies.

Redmond, a doctoral student working on educational advancement of minority boys, used the enthusiasm about the book to form an all-male book club with 10 students, who now meet for a half-hour before school twice a week to discuss themes like race, identity, and adolescence, the Post reports.

“There is a line in ‘Bad Boy’ where he says, ‘I prefer not to be seen as black,’ and he didn’t want his accomplishments to be viewed as ‘Negro accomplishments,’” Redmond told students at a recent meeting. “He wrote that line not because he was ashamed of being black, but why?”

“Because you can be smart, not because you’re black, but because you’re smart, period,” 10-year-old Kemari Starks said.

Students have already moved on to a second book, another Meyers novel titled Monster, about a teenager facing a murder charge. Truesdell resides in a neighborhood of mostly black and Hispanic students, and engaging students in stories that reflect their reality has been a key to shattering stereotypes about minority students, Redmond said.

“What a beautiful thing, for teachers to be able to see boys who look like this be so into reading,” Redmond said. “We did not imagine that kids would be this serious about reading and about doing something that we didn’t ask them to do.”

The club has also inspired a girl’s book club, as well, and both groups plan to visit Meyers’ Harlem neighborhood on an upcoming field trip.

“The books that we read here, we can relate to,” Devon Wesley, 11, told the Post.

“In our classes, there are way less interesting books, and these books are way more interesting,” said Kemari, who read the 200-page Bad Boy in two days. “These books are about people.”

Literature plays a unique and important role in presenting plots, heroes, and villains to whom students can relate. The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture led the School Cultures and Student Formation Research Project to examine the role that schools play in forming character.

Editors James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson write in the The Content of Their Character, which summarizes the research findings: “Citizenship may be taught in a civics or social science class; character may be incorporated into a religion or ethics class, and moral questions may be included across the curriculum, as we found in English literature classes.”

The Truesdell book club provides a magic recipe: substantive stories that are so good that these boys are reading in all their spare time, and eagerly showing up early for school.

Walter Dean Myers’ personal life story is compelling, and Bad Boy is a creative way of inspiring young readers, who are in turn drawing in their classmates. For educators who want to use literature to build a coherent focus on character in any classroom, the Jubilee Center for Character & Virtues offers Knightly Virtues lesson plans.

And while the impact of the reading club on Truesdell’s English test results remains unclear, things seem to be trending in the right direction with 33% of students meeting or exceeding national expectations in 2017.

How to use literature for character education

Businesses, civic organizations, churches, and others sponsors are funding a literature program for students in Marksville, Louisiana that’s focused on courtesy, citizenship, and character.

The Ambassador Company launched its Character Education Program at Marksville Elementary several years ago with children’s books designed to offer important lessons for 1st- and 4th-grade students, Ambassador representative Stacie Thomas told Avoyelles Today.

“We chose first and fourth grades for the program because those are impressionable ages,” she said. “Each chapter in the book is a lesson. They learn the lesson and immediately apply it.” The program is free, and it’s now expanding to other elementary schools in the region.

The book for 1st-graders is titled My Favorite Book, and it deals with issues like manners and kindness, responsibility, and community pride, while the 4th-grade book, The Way To Go discusses deeper topics like death and mourning, peer pressure, and bullying. Some classes incorporate the books into daily lessons, while others task students with studying the material at home and discussing the material with their parents and teachers.

District Elementary Education Supervisor Celeste Voinche told Avoyelles Today the books “deal with being a good citizen, using good manners and being good to others.” “I think it’s a good idea,” she said, adding that she wants to expand the program to other schools. “We stress literacy in the schools and believe in having books in children’s hands.”

Dawn Pitre, principal at Marksville Elementary, said the program’s focus on three Cs—courtesy, citizenship and character—fit in well with other character development efforts already underway. “We focus on what we call the ‘Four Keys for Success’—responsibility, respect, perseverance and integrity,” Pitre said. “We stress these values all day. These books tie into what we already doing.”

Ambassador Company’s Character Education Program is funded through sponsors including business, civic organizations, churches, and individuals, and Thomas is currently working on drumming up funding for next year. The program doesn’t cost schools anything.

The challenge is for parents and educators to convey to students that those virtues are expected, rather than simply a fun thing to read about. There must be a quality of authority for them to be binding.

Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter writes in The Death of Character that a strong vision of good character “is imbued with a quality of sacredness.” “The standards by which one lives and the purposes to which one aspires have a coherence and inviolability about them and they beckon ever forward . . .,” wrote Hunter.

At Marksville Elementary, Pitre said teachers and administrators “stress these values all day,” which provides coherent messages for children and makes the most of the school’s partnership with the groups underwriting the character-through-literature initiative.

The Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues offers Knightly Virtues lesson plans for educators who want to use literature to build a coherent focus on character across the curriculum.

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?