In my last blog, I mentioned the importance of a school developing a list of the traits that describe the character of Jesus, and then practicing them together in every aspect of school life. At a workshop my wife and I facilitated on deeper learning last summer, teachers from The Niagara Association for Christian Education (NACE) came to a more intensive understanding of the role these character traits play in establishing the distinct identity of a Christ-centered school. Now they are developing a description of what living them might look like at each grade level. Still a work in progress, Kevin Huinink, Executive Director of NACE (I don’t mean Kevin is a work in progress, but he is) shared with me the process his schools are going through to permeate every aspect of school life with the yeast of their Community Character Traits.
I interviewed Kevin to learn about what he and his staff are doing and learning.
How did you decide to develop school-wide character traits?
Our journey into establishing character traits as central to fulfilling our mission began by asking our parent community WHY they sent their children to a Christian School, and what they expected. Overwhelmingly, we heard back that parents were looking to see their kids live out their faith daily. This top reason beat out worldview, scriptural knowledge, safety, academic standards, and individual attention. It was at that point that we knew we needed to pay close attention to character development in our students.
Were there models from other schools you found useful?
We began to look at many different models, but the one model that resonated most clearly was the way the Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester pursued character. On a site seminar visit there, we were able to see how central character development was for them, and how they were able to intentionally weave it in and throughout many of their school activities.
How did you go about choosing the words? What voices did you engage in developing them?
We began with large lists of 50-100 positive character traits from word banks and started to ask staff members and some parents to highlight words that indicated what qualities they most desired to see in students, both academically and personally. Ron Berger refers to character development as the ‘other side of the academic coin’. We kept our work as an academic institution at the forefront, but our additional task as partners of Christian parents was also considered. The process took about a year, but the ‘aha’ moment came when we asked students what they thought. The ‘serious business’ of character development created by teachers and parents resulted in the words ‘Curiosity, Compassion, Collaboration, Perseverance, and Integrity’. The students, through a variety of activities, revealed to us that a central character trait that they admire in others is ‘Joy’. It was a holy moment, actually, to realize that our students were demonstrating character to us – a longing for something more – that a Christian life lived truly in gratitude displays and reflects ‘Joy’. The students became the educators.
What were the steps you took in bringing them alive to the community?
By adding ‘Joy’ to our character traits, we became intentional about making sure that our work was also intentionally enjoyable. The leadership team selected the final words based on all of the input from teachers, parents, and students. The teaching staff was led on a discovery of each of the ‘final words’ by going on an ‘amazing race’ in a town nearby. The traits were introduced to students at regular chapel gatherings, and students were invited to tell stories about how they saw each trait being exhibited in their peers and classmates. A public celebration of students who demonstrated the character traits became a regular occurrence. Leveraging our professional development focus on developing student-friendly learning targets, we began to weave character targets into daily lessons. For example: “I can show compassion by making sure that each of my classmates has a spot in our activity.” Or “I can demonstrate perseverance by keeping my attention on our task this afternoon.” Or “I can show curiosity by asking great questions and finding connections to other material we’ve learned this year.” Celebrating how these traits were being embodied by students became a regular feature in our weekly and quarterly publications to parents and our wider supporting community. Our most recent extension was to represent each trait with a specific ‘artifact’ to visualize or touch. These, too, were a result of input from and collaboration with students and faculty.
What results have you seen?
Character development has become a regular part of our school communities’ conversation. Students have begun to refer to each of the words as they go through the day to describe their academic work, but also during extra-curricular activities and general socializing on the playground. We are diving more deeply into our character traits for a second year in an effort to ensure they become embedded in our school culture for the long haul.
What challenges have you encountered?
When looking for results, we are continually reminded that, like the fruits of the Spirit, our character is, and will continue to be, flawed. We will always fall short of achieving an ‘upstanding character’. In a fallen world in need of redemption, we can never truly claim to be fully ‘connected in Christ’; there will always be stumbling along the way. This challenge keeps the need and desire to continue our pursuit of development fresh. Our work is never done. It can also be difficult for a student who has a hard time focusing to hear that the next learning activity will demand perseverance, or for the introverted student to know that collaboration is again a focus. For those students who struggle with these character traits, we need to remind them, as well as ourselves, that growth is the agenda of the day. We don’t expect every student to be a complete and shining example and model of each trait. We do, however, expect that there will be growth. That is what education is all about, after all!
How do you keep the character traits alive, fresh. How do you avoid them becoming rote, taken for granted?
One tactic we have used is to ensure that we describe each trait in age-appropriate language and expectations. In divisional groups, we have identified very general learning targets for each age range at the school. Curiosity, perseverance, and collaboration all look very different for a 4-year-old than they do for a 14-year-old! For the older students, we can begin to investigate the intersection of some of the character traits, for example curiosity and perseverance. Sustained inquiry (curiosity + perseverance) is an academic and personal trait that serves students well in their academic work and development. The possibilities are numerous as they explore these intersections and uncover deeper and more complex traits. It’s also important for our adults to practice these traits. Our faculty and volunteer committees use our character traits to guide some of their questions as they work together, such as “How will we demonstrate collaboration in our task?” Before faculty meetings they anticipate what trait might be a challenge and prepare to overcome it together. At the end of the meeting they might check in to reflect on successes and failures.
What advice would you give to a school who is interested in developing their own set of character traits?
The traits that we arrived at were a function of what we found important and relevant to our work. Each school may very well come up with different trait words, and many do. School leaders or boards should not determine the character traits and then announce them to the community. Consult your parent community, your faculty, and make sure you consult your students. Buy-in from all members of the community is essential for long-term adoption. While character development is serious business, remember to have fun with it. I would say that our most significant discovery was the fact that the expression of ‘Joy’ is something worth pursuing along with other valuable character traits.
After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.