How to Do Character Education (Part II)

January 28, 2008

Build a Caring Community

By “caring community” we mean that everybody in the school—students, staff, administration—treats everyone else with kindness and respect. To accomplish such a lofty goal, your students will need to play an active role in shaping the culture and environment of the classroom, as well as of the school at large. Here are some ways to make that happen.

  • Hold class meetings in which students establish group goals, decide on rules of conduct, plan activities, and solve problems.
  • Have your students collaborate on academic tasks by working in cooperative learning groups. Give them regular opportunities to plan and reflect on the ways they work together.
  • Organize a Buddies program in which younger and older students get together to work one-on-one on academic tasks and other kinds of activities.
  • Teach conflict resolution and other social skills so that students become skilled at resolving conflicts fairly and peacefully.

These strategies help students learn to establish and maintain positive relationships with others. They also turn the school into a laboratory where students practice the kinds of roles, and cope with the kinds of challenges, they will face in later life.

Teach Values Through the Curriculum
The curriculum you are currently teaching is undoubtedly filled with opportunities to engage your students in thinking about character and values. For instance, when studying a novel, why not have the kids scrutinize the character of the characters? In the novel Huckleberry Finn, Huck’s nagging dilemma was whether it was right or wrong to help a runaway slave escape from his “rightful owner.” Why not ask: What kind of a person was Huck Finn? What were his strengths and weaknesses? How did Huck process his dilemma? What do you think of his choices? What things do you admire about Huck and why? What things bother you about Huck and why? What do you think you would have done if you were in his shoes? What do your responses say about you? Have you ever had to deal with a very difficult conflict in your life?
In history classes students should not only learn what happened, they should be given an opportunity to make ethical judgments about it.

After all, history isn't just a timeline of events; it’s about people making choices that affected other people. Those choices had ethical and moral dimensions, and often produced profound consequences. Take, for instance, a unit on the Spanish inquisition, Nazi Germany, or the American civil rights movement. You might ask: Who were the people making those choices and what do you think about their actions? Did they do right, or did they do wrong? What kinds of values did these societies demonstrate? What do you think of these values? What would you do as a citizen of such a society?

Ah, you ask, but what about science? Are we to pass ethical judgment on the laws of physics? Well, no, not unless we are writing comedy. But we can explore the ethical issues of things like genetic testing or the use of animals in research. And we can learn about scientists who have refused to conduct research to be used for purposes they didn't approve of – like biological weapons. And if we are really bold we can look at what happens when scientific findings conflict with religious beliefs or lead to politically dangerous conclusions.

Apply this same lens to current events, movies and television programs, etc., and you have a lot of fertile ground to plough. According to the Character Education Partnership, “When teachers bring to the fore the character dimension of the curriculum, they enhance the relevance of subject matter to students’ natural interests and questions, and in the process, increase student engagement and achievement.” How can you beat that?

Class Discussions
“The best forms of character education also involve students in honest, thoughtful discussion and reflection regarding the moral implications of what they see around them, what they are told, and what they personally do and experience.”

It is difficult to overstate the benefits of a meaty, morally challenging classroom discussion. Properly facilitated, discussions like these develop students’ critical thinking skills, provide a group bonding experience, and engage the students in deep, meaningful reflection about the kinds of people they are and want to be.

The fact is that kids hunger for opportunities to discuss their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. We've seen this time and again in our 20 years of producing character education videos for grades K-12. In shooting our videos, we have employed two main discussion techniques:
1) the use of hypothetical situations, and
2) Socratic method. These two techniques have resulted in amazingly candid and wonderfully productive discussions in which students not only exercised moral reasoning (sometimes for the first time), they often came face to face with their own contradictions as well.

Classic hypothetical questions include: What would you do if you found a lost wallet, or suppose your best friend begged you to help him/her cheat on a test? When a student’s ethical sense is in conflict with his/her desires, the discussion can really take off.

One sentiment we heard frequently after taping these discussions was, “I wish we could have discussions like this all the time in school. I feel so much closer to these people now.” We think that kind of says it all.

Service Learning
Service learning is a powerful approach to teaching in which academic goals are accomplished through community service. Service learning takes the kids well past merely performing the service—they also select it, plan it, and then reflect on their entire experience. In addition to academic content, students practice valuable practical skills like organizing, collaborating, and problem solving. And they exercise such important character virtues as showing respect, taking responsibility, empathy, cooperation, citizenship, and persistence. Service learning is, in a word, transformative.

There are many different kinds of service learning projects for all age levels. A lot of them deal with community needs related to health, poverty, social issues, or the environment. Other good service learning activities involve students helping other students through mentoring and peer or cross-age tutoring. Here are some exemplary service learning projects:
  • Fourth graders at Strawberry Point School (Mill Valley, CA) collected $1,000 from Halloween donations and mall shoppers for a UNICEF polio eradication program. This year-long effort was tied in with science, health education, and geography.
  • Students at Marley Middle School (Glen Burnie, MD) learn how to determine acceptable water quality of the environment using surveys, observations, and test kits. They then test, analyze, and observe wildlife at Marley Creek to create a plan of action to improve the creek’s water quality and wildlife habitat.
  • West Roxbury High School students (Boston, MA) do cross-school tutoring with elementary school Book Buddies. Working with young children, older students raise their own learning standards and learn by teaching. Reflection Journals help them understand the mentoring experience. A Literacy Poster Contest, and a Teacher Shadowship Day open doors to literacy competencies and teaching as a career.

Please note—it is only when you involve the kids in planning and, especially, reflecting on their service, that you provide a complete service learning experience.
Explicit Instruction in Character and Values.

Up to this point we've been talking about ways of educating for character through indirect means, i.e., by weaving CE into the structure of the school or by drawing it out through the existing curriculum. The direct approach is to teach it as a subject in itself, by creating specific character education lesson plans. This approach is often organized around a list of specifically named virtues like respect, responsibility, integrity, etc., and typically involves the kids in reading, writing, discussing, role playing, and other kinds of activities that help them understand and apply these values.

Also, there are many commercially available CE programs that you can use right out of the box. Most of these are flexible enough to be implemented in a variety of ways depending on your particular needs. You can find these programs, along with a good deal of other useful material, on the internet by Googling the search phrase “character education.”

Program EvaluationRegardless of the scale of your character education initiative, it’s a good idea to establish some means of evaluating it so you know whether you are achieving your goals. According to Dr. B. David Brooks, a CE consultant and former school teacher and principal, implementation of a character education program must include a pre-assessment of goals and a post-assessment of results.5 Such an assessment may be as rigorous as a full blown longitudinal study, or it can be as informal as counting disciplinary referrals or gathering anecdotal teacher impressions.

Assessments can be designed to measure changes in the students, changes in the school climate, and/or how well the staff is implementing the program. The Character Education Partnership has three very helpful publications on assessment and evaluation available as free downloads on their website. You'll find links to these files at

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