Teaching Character within a Rigorous Curriculum

by Rebecca Bauer

Creating opportunities for character education within a rigorous curriculum sounds great, but teachers are overwhelmed by constantly changing requirements, high stakes testing and large class sizes. Finding time for character education in an already busy schedule can feel impossible.

“I don’t have time for character education. My focus must be on teaching academics.” Do these worries sound familiar?

Our education system fails to recognize that a rigorous academic curriculum is an important part of character education. In fact, when referring to social, emotional and character development, the skills are often referred to as non-cognitive skills or “soft” skills. This misconception is one of the reasons that it is important to talk how about Principle 6, offering a meaningful and challenging curriculum, is an essential part of character education programs.

But how do schools make it all work? I turned to 2014 National School of Character, West Sand Lake Elementary (New York), for the answer.

When I asked West Sand Lake teachers how they make time for character education, while dealing with so many requirements, principal Laura Kyer responded, “Character education is truly embedded in each and every part of the day.” One example of how it is integrated into the routine is that the school recites a pledge each day, which reminds them that they have the right to be educated and free of distractions. This is one way that the the school sends a clear message, at West Sand Lake, academics are a top priority.

School counselor, Maureen Flanigan, explains, “Character is a part of the lesson plan because it is a part of our culture.” At West Sand Lake, the teachers rely on a program called Kelso’s Choice, a conflict management skills program that walks students through a series of choices to help them solve their problems. Often teachers incorporate Kelso’s Choice as a way to bring problem solving and critical thinking into their lesson plans.

Teachers at West Sand Lake make sure to address standards without letting testing dictate how they teach. They find ways to creatively integrate character education into required lessons. In fact, it’s not as hard as you might think. Laura says that the Common Core does lend itself to character education, citing the required unit on Native Americans as an example. She explained that teachers use this unit as an opportunity to talk about the importance of getting along well with others.

Read alouds also incorporate character education. The fifth grade students read rich texts such as “Wonder” and “Malala.” Maureen added one of the reasons that character education is integrated so seamlessly is that “teachers are careful with their selection of books.”

Fifth grade teacher, Kerry Lajeunesse, designed the Universal Human Rights Declaration lesson plan featured in Character.org’s 2014 NSOC Magazine. The lesson plan serves as yet another example of the potential for combining character education and the Common Core. She feels strongly that challenging concepts, like human rights, aren’t too complex for elementary school students if they are framed the right way.

“The kids are ready for it if you take it in little chunks,” Kerry said. “The kids rise to the challenge.” She has one piece of advice for educators looking to delve into serious topics likes these: make sure you connect it back to their own lives. When teaching students about the UDHR, she helped them to understand the concept of the “spirit of brotherhood” by asking them what they think the “spirit of brotherhood” would look like in the lunchroom, the classroom or at recess. If you’re going to get students excited about complex and challenging ideas, it’s important to find ways that they can relate to those ideas.

Rebecca Bauer

Rebecca Bauer

Rebecca is a former employee of Character.org.

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