“Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” – Martin Luther King Jr, ‘The purpose of education’. In recent years, character building has been emphasised in education from primary school all the way up to further education and beyond. Producing students with good morals, ‘soft skills’ and ‘skills for life’ is magnified as an important aim of teaching. In practice, facilitating both character building exercises as well as the national curriculum is a difficult juggling act. One element often falls by the wayside and there is not a clear way of countering the imbalance. More often than not, character education is the forgotten element.
Character building frameworks, like the ‘Six Pillars of Character’ developed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, help to guide our understanding of where to begin when considering character building in students. The Six Pillars are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship which cover off some of the main character criteria which theoretically make students “well-rounded”. One thing is certain, character education in school and preparing students for challenges, that they will face beyond exam papers, is a must.
Educational success, attendance, and positivity correlate with ‘strength of character’. Thus, it is a big plus if schools successfully educate their pupils in ‘character’ as well as helping them achieve good grades. In practice, it is evident that the former directly affects the latter.
We need to think ’emotional intelligence’ as well as ‘academic intelligence’, and ‘mental well-being’ alongside ‘brain power’. It seems that the character and moral education have, until very recently, been the underdog. This is possibly due to very minimal measurement of character improvement and our assumption that it must be improving if academic grades are improving – this is not always the case. There is also a lot less focus on the development of character education lesson plans and resources. Action must be taken to redistribute resources so that both elements of education are being fostered and measured independently.
For example, take confidence and resilience, two valuable character traits for career progression. Students who have developed confidence will deal well with interviews and the prospect of more responsibility within a role. If students have developed resilience, they will deal well with rejection and unforeseen obstacles rather than wasting time worrying about minor failures. The challenges we encounter in life after school are not easy and can often feel like having a net pulled out from under you. Confidence and resilience are two character traits that are essential for success in the workplace. We do not gain comfort from grades achieved in the past in these practical situations, we gain comfort from character traits like confidence and resilience. The knowledge that we are able and grounded. These traits are what help us to recognise that minor failure does not mark the end.
Teachers should feel confident in their knowledge about character building so that they can integrate character building experiences into lesson plans with ease. We must keep moving forward with the effort to prioritise character building activities and development games and to ensure that students succeed in achieving ‘the goal of true education’; ‘intelligence plus character’.
Activities for Building Student Character, School Community
In an already packed school day, finding time for character education can be a challenge. Most of these ideas can be worked seamlessly into the school day to build student character and to develop a sense of community in your school.
With all of the things that your school does for its students, how does it address one of its primary objectives--not just teaching students, but helping them to become good people? Every school can set a tone of honesty, respect, and kindness toward others. To help you get started, explore these ideas.
The first and most important advice for those who want to build character in students--and a sense of community in their school--is to focus on the Six Pillars of Character. These "pillars"-- identified by the Josephson Institute of Ethics--are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Other resources sometimes also include three additional qualities: courage, diligence, and integrity.
The Cleveland County Schools of North Carolina recommend emphasizing one trait of good character each month, with bulletin boards, writing assignments, and morning announcements. Students may pen slogans about the trait of the month, and a special section of the library might be designed to offer students easy access to the biographies and other stories of people who exemplify the best of each trait.
The following ideas are organized by the trait they most closely address. Because the traits are interrelated, the activities often support more than one aspect of good character.
In Character Count's Values Jar activity, students are rewarded with a marble placed in a jar when one (or more) of them is spotted "practicing a pillar." Emphasis is on the quality of the act, not on quantity. The group is rewarded with a special treat when the jar is filled. Trustworthiness plays an especially important role in this project because the acts that are recognized must be authentic and well meaning, not exclusively the means to an end.
Have the students illustrate the Josephson Institute's aspects of trustworthiness through art. These aspects are honesty (in what you say and do), integrity, reliability, and loyalty. Post their reflections on these concepts with the artwork around the school.
Establish a "board game bank" to which students donate board games, especially those that reinforce strategy skills and educational concepts. Students can borrow games overnight or for weekends. Students may operate the bank and track its progress.
The Center for Character Development shares a lesson called Building Trustworthiness that uses a wall built of empty shoeboxes to represent the aspects of character and illustrate the value of each pillar. This can be used to introduce the concepts, and then the school might establish a "wall of character"--with shoeboxes or in paper form on a bulletin board -- that contains specific acts of character that groups of students have performed.
Every teacher at one time or another has cringed at the personalities children choose to admire. The K-12 Giraffe Heroes Program provides a free lesson that opens students eyes to the true heroes of our world--people who pursue just causes, often at great personal cost and risk. Use the lesson to encourage students to identify appropriate heroes. Then invite them to design posters about the individuals. They may include facts, quotes, and illustrations. Create a display of the posters in a "hall of achievement."
Organize a corps of peer helpers for new students. These helpers may serve as friends or even tutors. They might generate "guides" to the school for newcomers, with rules, a map, insider "tips," important dates to remember, and more.
Invite guests to speak about positive character traits. Students may ask informed, thoughtful questions. The experience will reinforce the importance of good manners and respectful tone when dealing with guests and authority figures.
Bullying shows a complete disregard for the respect of others, and often their property. Give students the help they need to avoid conflict and handle it when it does occur. Sharing advice in the form of a message board in a common area, a newsletter, or in announcements can be effective. For some suggestions about what kids need to know, see Bullying Advice for Kids. The PBS resource It's My Life also offers information about bullies in a kid-friendly form. These resources even help those who bully to identify themselves and alter their behavior.
Ask students to write pledges for the character traits that describe how they will fulfill their promise to follow each pillar. Then have them sign the pledges. Keep the signed pledges on file and refer to them when behavior doesn't reflect the pillars of character.
Set up a peer-tutoring program. Tutoring may occur during, before, or after school and may feature students working with partners in the same grade or another.
Increase the number of jobs students may perform at school. Some ideas include making morning and afternoon announcements; helping the school nurse; assisting in the library, office, or other locations; turning in attendance forms and carrying out other daily tasks between classrooms and the office or cafeteria; and serving as safety patrols.
Offer training to youth leaders--such as class officers, student council members, and committees--and explain what is expected of them in those roles. Highlight the leaders' responsibilities to their fellow students as examples of good character.
How many times have students told you that school or classroom rules are not fair? Be ready to counter their complaints by basing rules on the traits of character. When appropriate, students can help to design the rules and choose the consequences of violations.
Focus on and reward academic integrity. Encourage students to complete all of their assignments and do their own work, and show them how to properly cite the ideas of others. Consider an "Honest Abe" or "Worker Bee" award for those who do their individual best.
How do your school's sports teams and other groups reflect on your school? Have coaches and supervisors share their character and team building suggestions.
Instruct students who generate the school paper to seek journalistic integrity--attention to detail, fairness, accuracy, and balance--in what they report. Editorials and articles should be clear in what is fact and what is opinion. The writers should proudly put their names on every article they publish.
The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation provides Educator Resources including project ideas such as RAK Sightings!, which gives students and staff the opportunity to secretly submit students' random acts of kindness and then rewards the doers with special certificates.
Have students identify a need in the school or community and develop a plan to help. This might take the form of a book and magazine drive for a retirement home, crocheting hats and blankets for newborns, or another project that displays care for others.
Structure volunteer programs within the school, such as opportunities for students to help out in life skills classes, read or tutor young children, assist in the computer lab, aid students in the library, provide support to students who are recovering from an injury or dealing with a medical condition, or gather work for students who miss school.
Collect donations for a worthy organization, preferably one that serves children. One such group is The Smile Train, which arranges for free surgeries for poor children who have cleft lip and palate. The students might conduct a recycling project, hold a penny drive, do work for donations, or take pledges for biking or walking or dancing. For a list of charitable organizations started by kids, see Idealist.org.
Follow the news. Share stories from your own community and the national news headlines about people who possess the character traits. Ask local leaders to address the students. The Giraffe Heroes Web site has a wonderful collection of Giraffe Profiles that is rich in stories of real people who personify good character and would be an ideal library from which to select tales to share with students.
Plan, or have your students organize, patriotic events. The Cleveland County Schools suggest a "Red, White, and Blue Day" and other events could be held around patriotic holidays. You might schedule a concert that features patriotic musical selections by a band or chorus. Readings of quotes or stories about the presidents can also be shared as part of the school day, particularly near the time of President's Day.
Involve students in beautification and/or environmental projects around the school and in the community. Local environmental organizations might invite students to join in water testing or ask for their assistance in constructing bat houses or bird nesting boxes, cleaning community parks, and more.
Help community members who are in need with clothing and/or food drives. Some children's clothing may be reserved for students within the school who may need it.
Need to give your students food for thought? PBS provides quotes from former presidents about character.
Visit Tolerance.org to follow current news about the effort to fight hate and promote tolerance. The site provides sections for teachers, parents, teens, and kids.
Editor's note: While some links go to archive pages, Education World still believes that the content on those links are useful. Please share your personal character building and school morale stories with us by emailing editor[at]educationworld.com. We welcome your bylined articles.