Promising Practices: Cultivating a Culture of Character
What an honor it is for me to spotlight several of the 246 Promising Practices recently recognized by Character.org. Many of these featured practices touched my heart.
For example, I wanted to join the staff at Anthony Elementary (KS) where each month staff members recognize and celebrate other staff members who display the core values that braid together the school’s culture. I wanted my own children (two boys) to join “Woodmont Knights,” a program at Woodmont Elementary (NJ) where fifth-grade boys learn to push beyond gender stereotypes, how to stand up to bullies, and why “leading with your heart” is the source of all good things. I wanted to be a parent of a student at
Liberty Elementary (GA) so I could prominently place on my refrigerator the PRIDE magnet and be more intentional about reinforcing at home the core values emphasized at my child’s school.
I truly wanted to feature every single Promising Practice. So many focused on service-learning, whether it was a food drive at North Park School in Buffalo, NY, peer tutoring Alamo Heights School in San Antonio, TX, or an amazing student-led restorative practice program at Belton School District in Belton, MO. Clearly, a significant percentage of our 2020 Promising Practices have focused on what we call the 4th and 5th R’s (Respect and Responsibility).
But in reading each of these 246 Promising Practices, I also noticed another group of R’s: Relationships, Recognition, and Reflection. Below, are a sampling of Promising Practices that focus on these essential building blocks of character development.
Dr. Arthur J. Schwartz
Imagine a school where everyone is encouraged rather than criticized: a school climate that emphasizes the importance of building bridges rather than walls and where school leaders recognize that healthy relationships is an essential nutrient to positive youth development. The Promising Practices profiled below exemplify the power of relationships.
- Each month, Boulan Park Middle School students in Troy, MI lead small groups of preschool students through a STEM lesson. The middle school students are asked to reflect on their experience after each visit, including how they have grown as mentors and gained confidence by leveraging their different character strengths.
- Cornerstone Schools in Birmingham, AL (grades 6-12) foster peer relationships across grade-levels inspired by student-led discussions that aim to personalize different character principles.The student-led discussions create an environment where students are open and honest about how a character principle can be applied to the
daily lives of teenagers.
- Greenwood Elementary in Hamilton, NJ created “Boga Buddies (Books and Yoga). Every week, 1st and 4th graders partner to practice reading in a mindful setting.
- Students at Clear Brook High School in Friendswood, TX organize a Field Day for students with special needs to create an inclusive environment, build connections, and spark friendships.
- Clark Creek Elementary in Acworth, GA proudly calls itself the Redhawk Nation. School leaders have created six cross-grade “tribes” to foster collaboration, service-learning, and peer mentoring.
- Hewitt Trussville Middle School in Trussville, AL created an opportunity for students and staff to develop personal connections by establishing different “Interest Clubs.” Teachers report they enjoy meeting students from other grades who share their interests. Clubs have been organized around archery, chess, fantasy sports, crafting, genealogy, comics and graphic stories, and gardening.
Each of these Promising Practices speaks to the wisdom that sometimes we need to step back and recognize students and staff making a positive difference. While we should never want our students to be kind or honest just to receive a ribbon or certificate, these programs exemplify the power of recognizing behavior and choices that help create a positive school culture.
- Kaiser Elementary in Klein, TX created “Praise Reports” for students exhibiting the Kaiser Core Values. A team of counselors and administrators come to each classroom to celebrate the recognized students with a quick, impromptu Praise Party.
- Camden County Technical Schools in NJ encourage their teachers and staff to recognize students who exhibit one or more of the school’s five core values. Every student recognized has their name placed on the “Challenge Wall” and a letter is given to each student that includes who nominated them and why.
- Hiram Neuwoehner High School in St. Louis, MO recently launched “Paws for Applause” to recognize and celebrate students and staff. Every nomination is displayed in the main hallway.
- School 19 in Buffalo, NY created a Character Behavior Matrix that teachers and staff use to recognize students who are “caught” exhibiting a behavior related to one of the school’s six core values.
- Teachers at Langtree Elementary in NJ award a “Bulldog Ticket” to any student practicing one of the Six Pillars of Character. Students bring their ticket to the main office and once a month a student is selected to be that month’s “Bulldog.” The student receives a stuffed bulldog and their picture is posted on the bulletin board and the school website with all the previous months’ awardees.
Carol Dweck tells us that people with a growth mindset are constantly reflecting on two questions: What can I learn from this? What will I do next time I’m in this situation? John Dewey captured this wisdom years ago when he wrote: “We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience.” We can never forget that teaching is also a reflective practice. These Promises Practices exemplify this enduring wisdom.
- Cambridge Elementary in San Antonio, TX, has developed a reflection activity for students to journal about thought-provoking questions on the school’s core values. For example, one question asked students to “Name 3 ways you can help a new student feel less lonely today.”
- Harvey Austin Elementary in Buffalo, NY created “PAWS time” – 25 minutes dedicated to character development each day. PAWS stands for Positive Attitudes Will Succeed.
- At the end of each month, students at Imagine Andrews Public Charter School (located on Andrews Military Base in MD) reflect on how they exhibited the month’s core value and how they could improve. Whether it’s first-graders drawing pictures of themselves practicing a particular core value or eighth graders writing a reflective essay, everyone’s character reflections are posted and shared.
- H.L. Brockett Elementary in Aubrey, TX created five daily themes to showcase the school’s core values. There is Mindful Mondays, Talented Tuesday, Wise Wednesday, Thoughtful Thursday, and Friendship Friday. These daily reminders help students and staff to examine the meaning and actions of the school’s core values.
- Students at Lawrence Elementary in Lawrence, NY begin each day by writing in their “Attitude of Gratitude” journals, as a way to practice gratitude and identify their unique strengths.
- Each year the Imagine Bella Academy of Excellence in Cleveland, OH conducts a “character survey” to understand more intentionally how students are making sense of the school’s character practices. After reflecting on last year’s results, the staff realized that a large percentage of students felt they did not have opportunities to be leaders in the classroom or school. The staff developed Leaders of the Month, a program that focused on respect, integrity, generosity, empathy, and perseverance. At the end of each month, students in each classroom anonymously vote on who they believe in their class embodies these leadership strengths.
- Memorial Middle School in Spotswood, NJ created a “Rank Your Strengths” for teachers to self-assess themselves across 10 dimensions of classroom teaching. The data collected was compiled and utilized to drive growth opportunities, including peer support.