Character Education in the Public Schools: A Guide to Strengthening Core Values
When I arrived to collect my 7-year-old from her after-school program the other day, many youngsters were gathered on the playing field to admire a fabulous rainbow arching across the sky. After a while, the rainbow faded. The children and the after-school teachers turned around and returned to their regularly scheduled activities. In a similar way, many educators and parents gather to admire the beauty of the notion of values in the school. Then, after awhile, the beauty of the moment fades and all return to the ongoing demands of school life.
How to make values last? How to bring the beauty of the goal of holding laudable values such as compassion, persistence and responsibility, from outside the framework of the school day to a phenomenon that thrives within it?
There are no simple answers, only a tapestry of individual school experiences. For over five years, I've chaired the Core Values Committee of the Cabot Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts.
Our committee is composed of our school's principal, Marilynne Quarcoo, teachers, and parents. When I came to the committee, parents and teachers had already identified three: Becoming Lifelong Learners, Respect for Self & Others, and Commitment to School & Community. From the outset, our challenge was how to weave these central concepts into the fabric of school life. "Core values allow the school community to remain focused on what's important", says Quarcoo. "They provide a mirror for our decision making, and provide a guide and reason for our actions and behaviors."
Here are some approaches to strengthening core values that worked for us, and may work for you.
(1) Define Your Core Values -- It Creates a "Default Position"
Nearly ten years ago, the principal, teachers, and parents at the Cabot School, over an extensive process (or so I heard, since it occurred before I entered the school system), identified such concepts. Concomitant to that, all public schools in Massachusetts in 1991 were mandated to formulate a strategy of core values.
Since that time, we've found some unexpected benefits to having articulated these ideas. Jodi Escalante, a kindergarten teacher at our school, was the first to coin the phrase "default position" relative to the benefits of core values in the classroom. "As a teacher, I'm frequently called upon to make decisions, resolve conflicts, work through dilemmas or problem solve in other ways," says Escalante. "Having core values gives me a consistent direction. It removes Âmy opinion' from the equation, substituting a default position, a previously agreed-to authority." She adds: "If a solution promotes a core value, it is acceptable." As a parent, I, too, soon found that having a default position accessible was just as handy a tool at home.
One frenzied morning not long after, my then-7 year-old cried, "Why do I have to brush my hair? Why does it matter anyway?" While I fruitlessly searched for a plausible answer, a worry tugged at the corners of my mind: "You know her hair will only get mussed in the course of the day..." Almost without thinking, I grabbed onto this explanation: "Because brushing your hair shows respect for yourself, and ÂRespect for Self & Others' is one of the Core Values of the Cabot School!" Thankfully, the phrase had popped to mind, if only because I had memorized it. And so, in the flailing of the moment, these stated ideals had provided me a safe landing ground.
Thus, our two-dimensional core values, painted on a poster in the main lobby, have come alive within the subconscious of teachers and parents walking throughout our school.
(2) Each Year, Spotlight a Different Core Value or Concentrate on an Arena of School Life
Transforming a school to exemplify an array of core values is, indeed, a daunting task! Better to divvy up the task into smaller, more manageable pieces. At the Cabot Elementary School, we first decided to focus on one value each year. Though we remain conscious of all of them, the core value on rotation receives special emphasis. At the nearby Angier Elementary School, parents and teachers identified five which they also spotlight, in turn.
H ave Courage
T ake Responsibility
[Here's their slogan:] "At the Heart of Angier"
A different approach is to focus each year on a certain arena of school life. The challenge here is to brainstorm how the dynamic that occurs within that arena can be improved to reflect core values. The arenas may be physical places such as the bathrooms, cafeteria, hallways, homeroom, or playground. Or, you might prefer to concentrate on procedural arenas such as class routines, conflict resolution, curriculum, students reward systems, or traditions & ceremonies. At the Cabot Elementary School, however, we found that one year hasn't been enough time for a given core value; without fail we've extended an initial year devoted to a given core value to a second year. With two years devoted to each of our three core values, a given student is immersed in core values activities throughout the elementary school experience from kindergarten to grade five.
(3) Display Student Interpretations of Core Values for Other Students to See
Not to be underestimated for its impact on students is the public posting of work by other students. Take advantage of any chance you have to display writing assignments, art projects, holiday work (such as for Martin Luther King Day) that ties to your school's core values. Here's an example: At the Cabot Elementary School, each year the 5th grade gives a gift to the school as a departing gesture. Several years ago we provided the 5th graders a banner showing the three core values of our school and asked each student to write their interpretation of them on attached fabric triangles, later attached to the bottom of the banner. The banner is now on permanent display in our main lobby. Here's a sampling of comments from the students:
Listen to your heart.
When someone is in trouble, never turn your back on them.
If you want friends, be yourself.
Remember that everyone has different talents.
Never stop learning.
Do your best at everything at school.
If you have to walk the race, walk it but never give up.
Don't exclude people just because you're not great friends with them.
Life is short, use time well.
For awhile, a floor-to-ceiling paper machè tree was secured to the wall in our main lobby. Once, when we were spotlighting the core value, "Becoming Lifelong Learners", we asked each student at the beginning of the school year to write on a red cut-out of an apple a single goal of something she or he would like to learn that year. That springtime, we asked each student to identify on a white cut-out of an apple blossom one learning goal that had been achieved. The beauty of this approach is that as students search to find their own apple or blossom cut-out display on the tree, they inevitably read a number of other students' goals as well. Thus, they couldn't help but be struck with the collective nature of the effort.
Making values last is an aim that, challengingly, reaches a moving target. Each year, one grade graduates and a new class of kindergartners and their parents enter. You might plan for this by sharing the school's core values with new entrants. Distribute to incoming kindergarten parents, during the springtime orientation, flyers that explain the school's core values. Discuss in the first few parent-teacher meetings in the fall the history and goals of the school's core values. Be sure that new hires, including lunchroom monitors, librarians, janitorial, school nurses, as well as teaching staff, are conversant with your school's core values.
At the same time, with new entrants come a fresh source of energies and ideas. It may well evolve that a consensus of core values that had been formed by parents or teachers no longer with the school may be rewritten to reflect the priorities of an ever-reshaping school community. This, thankfully, ensures that the most important quality of the core values experience, that is the quality of dynamism, is built into the equation. Only when the individuals who are expressing the core values, in their own hearts, believe in the underlying concepts, will they become forces that move that lovely rainbow admired outside into a transforming experience that lasts within your school's walls.