Days after Donald Trump won the White House, the Brookings Institution published an essay suggesting the 2016 presidential election should serve as a “Sputnik moment” for character education.
The campaign’s “extraordinary vitriol and divisiveness” offers a strong argument for a “renewed emphasis on schools’ role in developing children as caring, empathetic citizens,” wrote Brookings scholar Jon Valant.
Some advocates for character education see plenty of teachable moments through the lens of national politics — from President Trump’s language on Twitter, to the May episode when a Montana candidate for the U.S. Congress, Greg Gianforte, assaulted a journalist.
During a recent Education Writers Association panel, titled “Educating for Character and Citizenship,” several educators and experts shared their vision for character education, and what it looks like in action. The panel was part of EWA’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., which ran from May 31 to June 2.
The Fabric of School Life
A key refrain was that to be meaningful, character education has to be part of the fabric of school life — not just an add-on or a once-a-week lesson. And educators must practice what they preach.
“The Montana incident, our president shoving the [prime minister] of Montenegro incident, all of that just reiterates and reverberates with me the adage that modeling matters,” said Johncarlos Miller, the principal of Weaver Academy, a magnet high school in Greensboro, N.C. (The week before the panel took place, a video of President Trump apparently shoving aside the Montenegro leader during a NATO photo op went viral on social media.)
“It’s one thing to say what you should do,” said Miller, who has written on the importance of character education. “It is another thing to do it.”
Marvin Berkowitz, a professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the current political context is “not so much creating anti-social and dysfunctional motives and behaviors in people, as much as it’s lending more permission to that side of us.”
Berkowitz said there could be teachable moments buried within such incidents.
“There can be opportunities for great education, if you grasp them and use them in the right way, rather than denying them and burying them,” Berkowitz said.
Jessica Wodatch, the executive director of Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., said her school altered its planned professional development after the presidential election to guide teachers in helping kids who were worried about immigration and other issues.
The school also hosted sessions for parents — who come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds — to help them learn how to talk to each other about differences.
Two Rivers, which is part of the EL Education network (formerly called Expeditionary Learning), works hard to embed character in its school.
“I think of building … character, community, and citizenship as an integral part of all of our school,” Wodatch said in a recent interview. She cited as examples regular “morning meetings” for all students, the emphasis on “scholarly habits” such as working hard, being a team player, and caring for the community, and embedding character and citizenship dimensions into ten-week academic exploration projects students tackle, called expeditions.
‘It’s Just Not Nice’
Leyla Bravo-Willey, an educator in the KIPP schools network who has worked on character development, described an anecdote showing that kids are watching and listening the national political conversation.
“I just don’t get it, right?” Bravo-Willey recalled one of her former students from KIPP Infinity school in New York City, saying about the president. “Because it’s just not nice.”
The student ”put it in such simple terms. Maybe it wasn’t modeled, because that’s not how we do things at KIPP,” Bravo-Willey recalled. “That was it.”
The KIPP educator saw the student’s reaction and reflections as a powerful example of what educating for character can do. The student told Bravo-Willey, “Well, he’s not a bad person. These are just things we need to learn and need to be developed.”
Reflecting on this interaction, Bravo-Willey said: “If that’s not the best example of empathy, problem-solving, … optimism, I don’t know what is.”
Miller said character building means building informed citizens, and letting students know it’s OK to speak out against actions they feel are harmful.
“I wouldn’t say empower,” Miller said. “Our students already have the power. … We have to, as educators, provide the opportunity for them to exercise that power.”
Miller said it’s important to give students a way to engage with each other.
“You can have opportunities for students to get together to talk about things,” he said. “You have to make sure they understand there is a respectful way to do it. And a disrespectful way to do it.”
Bravo-Willey described KIPP “circles” — groups of six or so students who meet regularly to help each other achieve their goals — as important dimension of KIPP’s work on character education.
She talked about a student who was resigned to flunking science, who told her circle she just wasn’t good at it.
“The group said ‘Absolutely not. We are going to find a way.’”
They came up with a plan, including a tutoring schedule, and by the end of the semester, the student went from failing science to a B-plus, said Bravo-Willey, who will be the founding principal of a new KIPP school in Miami.
“This is what students are capable of doing,” she said. “These moments in schools, that KIPP tries to create on a regular basis, are where students are going to feel powerful.”
An ‘Eternal’ Issue
Berkowitz of the University of Missouri said he’s often asked whether character education is a new concept. But he said it’s as old as Plato and Aristotle.
“It’s an eternal human issue,” he said, noting that every society seeks to socialize its youth.
Berkowitz said schools must move beyond slogans, catchwords or all-school assemblies to promote good character. Schools that provide meaningful and effective character education usually offer strong training in the subject for staff members.
“Professional development is everything,” Wodatch said. “We start with making sure the adults in our building are a loving, learning community so they can create that for students”
Berkowitz said he often asks people to think about their own strengths, then reflect on how they developed them.
“Nobody has ever told me it was an assembly, a curriculum, an announcement, or a poster on the wall,” he said.
Instead, individuals typically cite positive role models they sought to emulate, or negative ones they vowed to avoid.
“That’s what character education is,” Berkowitz said.