Valor Club students help clean their school grounds

Valor Club students in Oregon collect litter around their school grounds. This is only one of Nyssa Elementary School’s initiatives to make character a priority.

Principal Matt Murray told The Argus Observer that the school faced misbehavior problems with its 4th graders last year. “We knew we needed to be proactive about behavior,” he said.

Valor Club is a character building group. Teachers recommend the participation of interested students, who perform such service projects as sweeping bathrooms or picking up trash. School counselor Bobby DeLeon said 12 students are signed up for the Valor Club, with many more interested in joining.

Principal Murray said the school began Circle Time sessions at all grade levels this year. Students gather around and are given a chance to air out their feelings and release pent-up emotions. Sessions typically are performed two or three times a week, at the teacher’s discretion.

Circle Time sessions have been coupled with a program called Toolbox, by Dovetail Learning, which—according to a program description—teaches children 12 inner skills to help with self-awareness, self-management, healthy relationships, and responsible decision-making. Students use the breathing tool, for example, to calm themselves before acting irrationally.

Nyssa school leaders have committed to making character a priority. They also knew that they needed to try to measure their impact. One way that they are doing this is through a school climate survey that asks whether students feel that they belong.

A sense of belonging—beyond being good itself—can strengthen the moral culture of the school, according to Richard Fournier. Fournier writes in The Content of Their Character, an upcoming publication from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, what he observed in his field research: “One common goal among the schools’ administrators, often acknowledged by teachers, was to create a sense of belonging among students and staff. This sense of belonging built trust, which in turn gave teachers and administrators more clout when pointing students in the right directions.”

Nyssa school leaders are taking an intentional, multi-pronged approach to addressing behavior challenges and building character. The students who volunteer to pick up litter around the school now have a greater sense of belonging and of pride in their school.

Literature can provide another opportunity for a multi-faceted approach to building a sense of belonging. Facing History and Ourselves offers a lesson for middle school students that begins with a story to help students think through conformity, peer pressure, and belonging.

Learning responsibility by growing salad greens

In Montpelier, VT, biology students are tending to both their own education and a greenhouse serving their whole school district’s food system. The high school students are thriving with the responsibility of growing salad greens, which are purchased and served by all three schools in their district, as covered by Edutopia.

The greenhouse is part of an extended service-learning project led by Tom Sabo, science teacher and sustainability educator at Montpelier High School. He says, “When we’re producing food, there’s that purpose and that brings relevance. It’s all about student engagement and by engagement I’m not talking about just paying attention. I’m talking about an emotional, psychological commitment to their learning.”

All educators strive for the student engagement that Sabo describes, but it can be difficult to get there. One of the teachers he collaborates with on the project, Anne Watson, a physics teacher, breaks down the initial plan for a service-learning project: “I first look at, what are my objectives? What do I want kids to walk away with by the time this unit is over? How are the kids going to get from not knowing anything to a final product that is useful and helpful?”

In the case of Montpelier High’s greenhouse, that means all biology students tend daily to two trays of salad greens, that are harvested twice a week. Students handle all the necessary tasks of planting, watering, monitoring of harmful pests, and “thinning.” They also blog about their experience and constantly have to be on the lookout for new ways to apply their learning.

Local cafeteria staff feel that the project has positive results outside of just food production. They’ve noticed that students who played a role in the growing process are more likely to choose the nutritious greens for lunch.

Sabo reports, “The level of responsibility—we didn’t realize how big it was going to be . . . If you skip a day [the salad greens] die.”

It turns out having meaningful responsibility is the key to the engagement that Sabo described earlier, as well as forming character, and having the learning stick. As Watson reflected: “The kids are going to remember it forever.” She adds, “It’s not just about the grades for them.”

“I’ve seen students who are not really that engaged in school come alive when they get to a project that is going to mean something to someone else.”

Building responsibility and care for others through service learning is possible in all sectors of American education. The School Cultures and Student Formation project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture studied secondary schools in ten sectors—public, private, and home. Notre Dame sociologist David Sikkink studied pedagogical schools, which frequently use service learning. “Local service projects and social activism were seen as important forms of engagement” in caring for the local community, Sikkink writes in The Content of Their Character.

Vanderbilt University offers this definition of service learning: “A form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.” It doesn’t have to be a greenhouse. Edutopia offers a guide for planning a service unit.

Retired Air Force General wants kids to have a purpose

Craig McKinley is a strong proponent of developing social and emotional skills in students, and the retired four-star U.S. Air Force general recently sat down with The Aspen Institute to explain why.

“I think SEL prepares young people to be part of a process where they believe in something bigger than themselves,” said McKinley, who also served as president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association.

McKinley discussed his views on social and emotional learning last fall during a meeting of The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional & Academic Development. McKinley serves as a commissioner with the group, which is “uniting leaders to re-envision what constitutes success in our schools.”

The Commission works with teachers and students across the country to “explore how schools can fully integrate social, emotional and academic development to support the whole student,” according to The Aspen Institute website.

With social and emotional learning, students “are taught it isn’t all about them,” McKinley said, “and that they can achieve excellence by practicing integrity, and doing all the things that some kids get naturally, and some kids get late in life.” “SEL is that tool, that conveyance, that takes a young person from not believing in himself or herself to a place where he or she can be a very productive part of society and contribute as much as they can,” he said.

The Aspen Institute’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD) program researches and champions the role of social and emotional learning (SEL) in education because “overwhelming evidence demands that we complement the focus on academics with the development of the social and emotional skills and competencies that are equally essential for students to thrive in school, career, and life.”

When students thrive, they’re accomplishing much more than simply succeeding. As General McKinley suggests, it points to a connection to something greater than the self, and it’s an acute need in education today.

University of California, Los Angeles sociologist and researcher Jeffrey Guhin studied the formation of character in urban public schools for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture’s School Cultures and Student Formation Project. In contrast to General McKinley’s vision of a connection to a greater good, Guhin reported in The Content of Their Character, “[I]n the absence of a stronger ethical sensibility that could carry throughout the school community, students were left to find larger ethical visions that might work for them . . . 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.”

General McKinley points out that SEL is not simply about self-realization, but rather a deep recognition among students of a purpose “bigger than themselves.”

Often, students learn to develop social and emotional skills through service to others. Edutopia featured one example of a meaningful service project that builds character with a 4-minute video about Eminence Independent Schools in Kentucky, where students collaborate twice a year on projects to help their community.

Students find purpose in ‘little free libraries’

Schools and students are frequently the beneficiaries of charity drives that collect books. Students at two schools in Prince William County are flipping that paradigm, reports Prince William Living.

The students at Hylton High School and Beville Middle School [an International Baccalaureate (IB) school] are contributing to their community in a tangible way by constructing Little Free Libraries. The libraries—stand-alone cabinets that are placed in public spaces, and in this case near schools—allow residents to take a book for free as long as they replace it with one of their own.

The little free library project is a good example of project-based service learning. It was the brainchild of Schenell Agee, supervisor for the Office of Library Media Programs and Research, who came across the concept at a conference. She first worked with Doug Wright, supervisor for the Office of Career and Technical Education(CTE), to incorporate the construction of the libraries into CTE classes.

Beville Middle School joined the project when John Dolan, a Project Lead The Way Teacher, brought it to his students. He and his young carpenters were so enthusiastic that they worked on the libraries on their own time after school.

“Once the students started building them and fully understood the purpose of the project, they developed a sense of pride in their work and really tried to do their best,” high school teacher Thomas Ehman said. Ehman’s reflection demonstrates the power of project-based service learning.

The purpose of the project animated the students in a way that learning from a textbook cannot. The constraints of the project required them to apply skills and knowledge in unique ways. By the end of this school year, students will have built 30 libraries.

Caleb Dolan, a seventh grader at Beville Middle School, said, “I think it is cool that we are doing something to help our communities.” Dolan’s pride and satisfaction in his work is touching. At an age when many other students are immersing themselves in the latest pop-culture fad, Dolan is learning that he can use his skills to construct public goods that benefit those around him.

The community has also rallied around the project. Funding has come from the school districts education foundation and an all-volunteer animal welfare organization. Local government officials have met with various teachers involved with the program.

The Little Free Libraries project and its ramifications are consistent with the report of Dr. David Sikkink, the lead researcher of alternative pedagogical schools, like IB schools, for the School Cultures and Student Formation project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The underlying foundations of this approach to education are particularly conducive to service-learning projects.

Sikkink reports that “important studies have shown that the moral philosophy of an IB education teaches commitments beyond individual self-interest and instills empathy across social differences, while still emphasizing the autonomy and ultimate value of the individual.”

Dr. Sikkink’s findings appear in The Content of Their Character, to be published in February. The book is available for preorder with a CultureFeed discount.

How students are bridging divides with a hot meal

Students at Murrieta Mesa High School in California brought their community together, while helping those less fortunate with a massive Thanksgiving dinner.

Members of the school’s Interact Club continued a tradition of service by organizing the third annual “Share the Harvest” dinner for the Saturday before Thanksgiving, when about 1,600 folks from the community joined together to celebrate the holiday, reports.

Interact Club faculty advisor Mike Stowe said the purpose of the event is to help the hungry, and to remind students why “serving others before self” is important. Stowe told the news site he “specifically designed this dinner as a community event” and it’s made a significant impact on students as it’s steadily grown over the last three years.

“In the three years that we’ve been here on campus and done this dinner, there’s been just a tremendous explosion of student programs for helping other people,” he said. “It’s always important; no matter whether it’s good times or bad times, there’s always people who need help.”

Several of the other student clubs also participated in this year’s event, including the Culinary Club, the Pink Ribbon Club, Leadership Club and USB. A flood of volunteers from community organizations like the Kiwanis Club and Rotary Club of Murrieta helped to make the dinner happen, as well.

A Rotary Club announcement of the event states roughly 700 people were fed in the event’s first year, and last year 1,100 were served. Organizers hope this year’s total hits 1,600, though an official count is not yet available.

Stowe said he hopes as many as 5,000 folks attend in 2018.

He credited help from the district’s food service staff, community businesses and churches, students, and generous donations from the school community for supplying food and manpower for a good cause.

According to

The donations included 120 turkeys from Abbott Vascular in Temecula and 250 turkeys from students, staff and parents of Murrieta Mesa High School. Other donations of cash or other items came from at least another 11 businesses and at least four churches.

Both Murrieta Mesa and Vista Murrieta schools held food drives, and the district’s food services department prepared the turkeys for the feast, cooking 100 birds at a time.

“It’s been an overwhelming outpouring of the heart from people to come out and serve,” Murrieta Mesa Principal Mary Walters told the news site.

Murrieta isn’t the only community reaching out to those in need. Ohio State University has hosted an annual Thanksgiving dinner since 1991 that serves as many as 1,600 guests per year, mostly international students who can’t travel home for the holiday.

In an age of “clicktivism” and campaigns to “end poverty” or other issues through donations to organizations online, gathering around tables with people from different walks of life is increasingly important.

Those meals provide opportunities to bond with each other and understand each other as people.

Philosopher James K.A. Smith explained in The Hedgehog Review, a publication of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture:

Charitable giving bent on fostering community has to be local. Whereas the technocratic machines of Big Philanthropy need to be as abstract as possible—hence the ‘global’—communion philanthropy can only be realized in particular places, with particular people, who share a place and a story.

The “Share the Harvest” dinner connects people who share a place and a story. It strengthens the fabric of the community by forming trust and relationships across education and economic gaps.

Teachers who want to connect similar practices of service with subjects like American history should consider lessons from What So Proudly We Hail, such as this discussion guide of George Washington’s “Thanksgiving Proclamation.”

Children helping the fight against leukemia

Students at St. Paul Catholic School are working to cure cancer while also building character through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Pennies for Patients program.

According to The Weirton Daily Times:

Pennies for Patients is a three-week program for elementary and middle schools where students collect change and raise funds online while learning about service and philanthropy. Thanks to Olive Garden, Student Series’ national partner, LLS has designed a series of lesson plans for teachers to use in the classroom in response to the growing trend of making serving learning and character education part of the curriculum. The lesson plans integrate the theme of LLS’s Pennies for Patients programs into all academic areas.

“By participating, not only will kids learn about making an impact, but about leadership, teamwork, philanthropy, and what ‘doing good’ for others can mean,” said LLS’s Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia Chapter Executive Director Tina Thompson. “It’s a program that is truly meaningful because kids learn that their efforts really make a difference. As children move through their years at school, they can grow with the Student Series.”

St. Paul Catholic is among thousands of schools across the United States participating in the LLS program, which focuses on helping students set and reach goals and design programs that boost community involvement in the fight against leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and myeloma.

“Since it began in 1993, Student Series has helped LLS invest almost $1 billion in research to advance breakthrough cancer treatments that are saving lives today, and improving the quality of life for patients and their families,” according to the news site.

This year, elementary students at the Weirton Catholic school raised $2,006.93 for cancer research.

But the money is only one benefit of the program.

“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,” James Davison Hunter wrote in The Death of Character.

The qualities of leadership and philanthropy that the students of St. Paul Catholic School are demonstrating will only grow as the students’ commitment to helping others grows.

The Student Series program is one of several programs through LLS aimed at developing good character, leadership skills, and philanthropy. Others include Collect for Cures for high school students and a Students of the Year program.

The 2017–18 Student Series campaign includes a K-5 STEM curriculum aligned with Common Core learning standards that offers teachers hands-on experiential activities and other lessons on key skills.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues also offers lessons for students to think about their life’s purpose and goals, and help guide students to a fulfilling life that puts selfless service to others above pursuits of wealth, status, and power.

In one lesson, students are tasked with imagining their lives 70 or 80 years into the future, and to reflect on the things that motivated them by considering Aristotle’s vision of good character centered on courage, fairness, generosity, and other important virtues.

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