Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Importance of Character Education

Setting expectations and parameters and having a common language for expected behavior is crucial to any school community.

At Harding, the Community Code is introduced when students arrive in kindergarten and is the foundation for our common language.  Teachers speak consistently and directly to students about the Community Code through eighth grade.  It contains the seven most important tenets for our expectations for behavior and reads:

As a member of the Harding Academy community I will
  • Be Kind
  • Be Honest
  • Be Respectful
  • Be Open
  • Be Dependable
  • Be a Learner
  • Be My Best

In all grade levels, teachers model best practices when it comes to the expectations for students. We teach and model good behavior, and take the time to stop and teach when the educational moments occur.

Having accountability to others is one of the best ways to foster a positive climate. All of the Harding students are paired with a buddy and all of the students are in a ‘House’ system whereby they engage in varied and intentional activities together throughout the year. Community service is another excellent way to put others ahead of oneself and is an integral part of the curriculum. Every grade level has their own community service initiative, we have two all-school initiatives each year, and the middle school students have two days per year when they take the day to go into the community to serve.

Our guidance counselor moves throughout the school reinforcing these principles by working with the faculty, meeting with individuals, groups and classrooms, highlighting the power of kindness, the importance of listening and reaching out, and emphasizing the values that our community code encourages.

The faculty, administration, and staff model our Community Code as well because we believe in the principles that are encouraged for our whole community, as well as the strength of “walking the walk.” We realize that our actions have at least as much impact as our words.

At each grade level, there are intentional ways that we foster a positive learning environment:

In Kindergarten
  • Teachers introduce, and go over, the Community Code.  As needs arise, they fold it into discussion - for example, how do you say you’re sorry?
  • Teachers take the different points of the Code and read books, make charts and remind students about it throughout year
  • We don’t let kids choose partners in order to avoid exclusion
  • They may not exclude students who ask “to play” with them
  • There are daily references to the Code…are you being your best?

In First Grade
  • Students and teachers work together to start the year off building community in classroom
  • They talk about the Community Code and about how we treat one another
  • They read books with relevant themes aloud and discuss them together
  • Table tallies are used where students earn points or lose points towards various rewards
  • A Cracking the Code chart is used to help students measure their positive behaviors
  • A Jewels in a Jar (compliments) system is used whereby ‘jewels’ are put in or taken away according to positive behavior
  • Children seen doing something positive are Caught in the Code and given a certificate (which can be very motivating at this age)
  • Teachers intentionally work on a part of the Code every week
  • Classroom rules are developed with the Community Code being the guideline
  • Daily discussions based on behavior that occurs will refer to the Code
  • Students are assigned random tables at lunch at certain times in order to make new friends and sit with different students

In Second Grade
  • Classes use morning meetings, questions of the day, writing prompts and more to create and foster a positive classroom environment. This also has the benefit of everyone getting to know each other better and  embracing each other's differences.
  • There is a Responsibility Notebook that is tied to the Community Code. This reinforces the need for positive behaviors while providing ownership of negative behaviors.
  • Teachers and students read character books that provide fodder for important discussions.
  • At times, lunch tables are assigned to help encourage new friendships.
  • A 'Roses and Thorns' activity is used periodically to share positive happenings and affirmations as well as to share difficulties.
  • Students engage in community service projects (UNICEF at Halloween; MNPD Christmas Toy Drive) to understand the notion of putting others before themselves.
  • Classes use role-playing to act out situations and brainstorm appropriate responses.

In Third Grade
  • Students are involved in group work
  • Skits on the Community Code are developed as another way to reinforce positive behaviors
  • On Wacky Wednesdays different groups of students eat together so they spend time with different classmates
  • Sometimes the grade may meet and have class meetings to discuss how relationships are going
  • Teachers give stickers when students are caught doing something “good”

In Fourth Grade
  • On Wacky Wednesdays different groups of students eat together so they spend time with different classmates
  • Meet as a whole grade level once a week to share compliments and appreciation for one another  using the Community Code - time is given for greeting, sharing, compliments/appreciations, problem solving and conflict resolution
  • They hold compliment parties to celebrate the kindness in one another
  • Class meetings – by homeroom and grade –
  • Class meeting twice per week utilizing the Responsive Classroom model
  • Read aloud books with relevant themes regarding character
  • Utilize a focus area to emphasize such as, ‘Be Open’
  • There is a ‘problem box’ where students can confidentially put topics in for discussion

In Fifth Grade
  • Behavior is modeled and students are recognized for their positive actions
  • There is discussion and emphasis on working as a part of a group 
  • Students engage in Lunch Bunches where the school counselor brings up relevant topics for small group discussion
  • Through the use of literature there is discussion about how characters are treated, and different themes for character education
  • There are read-alouds where character issues are explored

In Middle School
  • Each year the three grade levels travel on separate retreats to set the tone for the new school year.  They engage in trust building activities, “cabin talks” to discuss inclusion and conflict resolution, work on team building and leadership skills.  Character issues and building relationships and trust are an important part of the agenda.  Student speeches are given on various topics such as friendship, leadership and kindness. 
  • Each student is assigned an Advisor and they meet every morning in Advisory where they often have a greeting or sharing for community building in addition to other topical conversations
  • The Life Skills curriculum is a formal part of middle school life and topics include how to treat one another, friendship, bullying, a focus on feeling responsible, lessons on how to handle shifting friendships, honesty, relationship issues and addressing everyday interactions.  Teachers may use video-clips or role playing activities to stimulate discussion.
  • The summer reading books - Crash by Jerry Spinelli, for example, provide a basis for talking with students about unkind behavior and the importance of inclusion
  • The study of texts such as The Outsiders, To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet provide a forum for teaching themes such as tolerance, respect and not bullying

Harding middle school advisors meet with their advisees (8-10 students) first thing every morning to check in and get the pulse of the day, then most Monday afternoons for a full period. During these times, we address “life skills,” which are a broad selection of topics that have been designed by the faculty and our full-time counselor. Topics range from homework skills and test preparation, to navigating changing friendships, conflict resolution, empathy, assertiveness skills, leadership, building a positive community, kindness and gratitude.  Each lesson is interactive and some are built around an exercise, film clip, or quote, such as, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” (Churchill)

We want our students to think about who they are, and who they want to be, how their actions affect others, how to meet challenges, push through difficult tasks, recognize the power of kindness, and lead their lives with integrity. We embrace this challenge as a part of our charge in educating our Harding students together with our parents, and encouraging them to be the best that they can be.

It’s also crucial that in all of the other areas of school life--art, music, computer, physical education, theater, or athletics that these lessons be incorporated so that students receive a consistent message. For example, in physical education students are recognized for their positive behaviors each week and their photo is placed on the ‘Watch Me Wall.’  Additionally, there are times when students are placed in small groups and they accumulate points as a group as they demonstrate inclusion or being a good sport and thereby earn a treat.    

In computer class, for example, students can earn stickers for doing something extra kind or special.   Additionally, Computer Class of the Week awards with handwritten notes for being exceptional to reinforce good behavior are given to students. Even at lunch and recess it’s important to be aware of student dynamics--teachers may even help to choose teams or tables to be sure that students are modeling inclusivity.