Connecting Character and Content

by Gary Smit

Finding time for building character in schools and in students within the context of the academic curriculum can be a challenge. Since school is the first social structure the child encounters, the setting provides an excellent opportunity for character building. However, this must be more than a poster on the wall, a favorite maxim to share or selection of a monthly student of character.

Richard Jones has said, “It is primarily the teacher’s responsibility to engage the students, as opposed to the teacher expecting students to come to class naturally and automatically engaged.”  With this understanding, character building requires a proactive approach through planned learning experiences and activities within the classroom. By being part of a school-wide initiative, we realize that character and values should be weaved through every aspect of school life, including the academic curriculum, co-curricular activities, staff modeling, and all human relationships.

How then can character traits and values be taught within the context of the school curriculum? I have come to understand that there are four ways for the classroom teacher to directly instill values in students, regardless of the students’ ages.

The first is through direct instruction. This could take the form of lecture or large group discussion. The teacher serves as the instructional leader for students, actively directing or leading the learning activities through specific asking of higher level questions associated with the desired values or character traits.

The second method is to utilize experiential activities. Instead of simply telling students information, the teacher involves students at every turn, generating self-discovery and an emotional commitment to desired beliefs and behavior.

A third way is to intentionally and explicitly integrate character into academic content.  I believe that values and academic content can be taught at the same time. Tom Lickona has concluded that to be effective in integrating character within an academic curriculum teachers need to move from incidental to intentional methods of teaching character and values. This requires a teacher to “mine the academic curriculum” for its character-building potential. A teacher needs to examine the subject matter and ask: “What are the natural intersections between the curriculum I need to cover and the values I wish to foster?”  The intersection between content and values creates character connections.

Finally, a teacher can implement instructional practices within the context of the curriculum by initiating vicarious experiences through oral storytelling, videos, or movies. Kerry Patterson in the book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything states,  “Poignant narratives help listeners to transport themselves from the content of what is being spoken and into the experience itself. Because they create vivid images and provide concrete detail, stories are more understandable than terse lectures.”

Reflecting on these four methods encourages teachers to consider the following questions when preparing a lesson:

  • Is there a character point or application I would like students to discover while engaging in the academic content?
  • Where in the lesson will we see evidence of values as an outcome of the choices made?
  • What questions can be asked to direct or enhance a character discussion?
  • Can a character module be added that includes an experiential activity or vicarious experience of a story told or viewed?

No matter the approach in lesson planning, I have found it useful when working with teachers on the integration of character into the academic curriculum to achieve an understanding that character isn’t considered an “add-on,” but part of the academic learning of each student. Effective teaching requires character to be intentionally incorporated into teaching objectives with instructional methods and activities to involve students in reflecting about character and ethical issues. When successfully initiated, teachers can then evaluate and assess student learning for evidence of understanding and personal growth in matters related to character.

Gary Smit

Gary Smith was superintendent for 25 years in Illinois and Wisconsin, and has been a school principal and classroom teacher.

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