Growing Character in the Elementary ClassroomDEB AUSTIN BROWN
Teaching is a calling. In fact, I believe it is the highest calling. I believe it is the job of teachers to call their students to personal — as well as academic — excellence. Students will never know how high their potential in life is unless we call them to it. Here are fourteen of my favorite practices for helping students achieve their character potential.
The very first week of school, I initiate a class discussion on "What makes a good teacher?" I record students' ideas on chart paper, take the chart home, and use it to make my pledge. I write down the teacher traits that I promise to use in the classroom in an effort to meet their expectations and to achieve my goal to be a good teacher.
I group my promises around six "pillars of character." (See box below.) Then the next day, in front of the students, I sign the pledge.
pledge is posted in the classroom — and referred to often during the year.
I use it as a measuring stick for how well I am doing. Students feel comfortable
and safe because of my promise.
2. The Student Pledge
I follow up the Teacher Pledge activity with
a discussion about what makes a good class. Using the same traits of good character
as a guide, the students and I talk about their responsibility and behavior and
their effect on classroom learning. Again, I take chart paper and record their
ideas. From that brainstorming session, the Student Pledge is written, signed
by each student, and posted next to the Teacher Pledge. Because the ideas are
theirs, students have ownership of the pledge. It becomes a meaningful part of
their quest for personal and academic excellence. Sometimes just a reminding glance
at the pledge helps students get back on track with behavior and academic responsibility.
3. Basic Civilities
It's important to teach students about the basic
civilities that make school a nicer place in which to work and learn. We start
off making a chart at the beginning of the year and add ideas as we go along:
saying please and thank you, saying sir and ma'am
when speaking to adults, greeting people we see at school, opening the door for
others, giving classmates space in line, being polite at every opportunity, and
showing respect at all times.
Building a climate that is conducive to learning requires that some parts of
the elementary school day be quiet times. Once students come to understand
that being quiet at certain times is a sign of respect, they are more likely to
comply. As a class, we brainstorm a list of times when we really need to remain
quiet. With student buy-in, this list has helped our school maintain a more orderly
learning environment. Quiet times include: during the intercom announcements,
when a visitor enters the room, during a test, when the teacher is talking or
teaching, in line, and in school hallways.
Five minutes doesn't seem like very much time, but if well used, it can help a child feel loved and valued. Find some time in your day to connect personally with your students. Go into the cafeteria and find a student who has finished eating breakfast or lunch, and invite that child to the classroom to chat or to work together on a task. I always make it a point to tell each child about something good I see in him or her. This practice helps kids develop the self-respect and confidence necessary for learning.
"Be in the right place
at the time, doing the right thing!
Several times throughout the day, I will say, "Repeat after
me!" I then recite a character axiom such as, "Be in the right place at the
right time, doing the right thing!" or "Actions Speak Louder Than Words."
You can squeeze in this activity five or six times a day without taking any time
away from your instructional day: at the start of the day; when lining up to go
to the gym, library, or cafeteria; when changing classes; or when packing bookbags
at the end of the day. By the end of the school year, students have learned 180
character messages to help them in their daily lives.
Each school year I select
a parent or two and ask for their help with an ongoing project. I buy a notebook
for each parent who commits to the task. In it I describe what I am doing to promote
character development in my classroom. I send the notebooks home to the parents
and they record their ideas, suggestions, and observations about the character
growth of their own child, e.g., "My son is now putting his dirty clothes
in the hamper, rather than the usual place — under his bed. He is trying
to be more responsible." The notebook is passed back and forth between parent
and teacher over the course of the school year. At the end of the year, I have
a wonderful documentation of our character efforts over the year.
Take math equations a step further, and let students
calculate the sum of each equation about good character. Here are a few: Responsible
Work Ethic + Effort = Good Grades; Friendship + Caring = A Happy Life; Honesty
+ Lots of Study Time = Good Test Scores; Responsibility + Hard Work = Skill Mastery;
Self-Respect + Integrity = A Kid of Character.
In an effort to promote integrity, I have students write an Honor Sentence on each test and special project paper. Students write sentences that explain their effort and the amount of study time given to the assignment. Here are some sample Honor Sentences from my students' papers:
This is my own work. I studied for 20 minutes each night for three nights.
I passed this test with an A+ because I studied long and hard. I went the extra mile!
I put things off this week and studied only 15 minutes last night. I know I failed the test — but at least I didn't cheat. It is my own work. I'll try harder next time.
Students come to understand that their
grades are usually earned in direct proportion to the amount of time and effort
put forth in study.
This strategy got its start in one of my math classes. We were working on a
difficult math skill, and the students were really struggling. I could tell that
they were on the verge of giving up. To keep them from becoming discouraged, I
stopped the math lesson and interjected an inspirational story about Thomas Edison's
effort to invent the light bulb. He failed over 10,000 times, but he looked at
each failure as a step toward getting it right! Success was only a try away. This
interjected story inspired them to look for their own talents and abilities and
to keep trying.
This is a way to help students develop a good work ethic. Tell them what it
means to put an assignment into this basket: "I am finished with my homework.
I have given this assignment my best effort. I have really worked hard. My paper
is complete, neatly written, and well thought out. I am proud of my work, and
I am now ready for you to read it!" I have seen students come up and put
an assignment in the Homework Basket, stop and think, then take the paper back
out again. They have reflected on the assignment and realized that they could
simple way to weave character into the spelling curriculum is to select character
words to add to the weekly spelling list. Words like nice, kind, hope,
and try all fit well into a primary list. More difficult words, such
as environment, citizenship, and honesty are obvious choices
for the intermediate level. Consider adding these words as bonus words for the
On the day that report cards are to be handed out, I give each student a goal-setting worksheet. The first section of the worksheet is for predicting what grades the students think they have earned. Notice that I am careful to use the word earned, not the word got. Teachers do not give grades; students earn them!
The second section is for recording the grades that students earned during the previous grading period.
Then I pass out the report cards. Students open them and look them over — and then move on to the third section of the worksheet. There they record the grades that they just earned in each subject.
Section four asks: "Did your grades go up or down? Give the reasons for any changes in your grades." Students now have to face the music. There is no room for excuses. This helps them develop accountability for their decisions over the last grading period.
The next step is planning for the future. We take a few minutes to think about our habits — really think. Then we do some goal-setting for the next grading period. Students eventually come to see the correlation between their work habits and academic success — plus they get the added incentive of knowing that it is never too late to wipe the slate clean and change their ways.
approach, I have seen students go from Ds to Bs ... and stay there!
This idea came from one of my 6th-grade students, Wesley. He figured out early in the school year that the character message we teach at school was quite different from the message he was learning at home. He asked one day if I would teach a character class for the parents of our school.
Wesley and I went to our principal to discuss the matter. Our staff felt that this might be a good way to get the character message into our school community. And so, a Family Character Night was planned: a fun night of friendship and learning, lots of food, a keynote speaker, families rotating through three sessions in which teachers demonstrated character lessons and activities, and lots of give-away prizes.
We bought Dr. Helen LeGette's insightful book Parents, Kids & Character to give away to each family. The kids got tablets, pencils, books, and videos that highlighted good character traits to take home.
One aspect of Family Character Night is a must: Kids cannot come alone. To be admitted, students must be accompanied by at least one adult from their family. If you make the program attractive enough to the kids, they'll bring the adults.
Deb Austin Brown. "Growing Character in the Elementary Classroom." The Fourth and Fifth Rs: Respect and Responsibility Newsletter vol.9 #3 (Spring, 2003).
Excerpted from Growing Character: 99 Successful Strategies for the Elementary Classroom by Deb Austin Brown.
Ms. Brown is a contributing author
to Dr. Philip Vincent's 1999 book, Promising
Practices In Character Education, Volume II. In addition, she is the
author of three books on the character message: Lessons
From The Rocking Chair: Timeless Stories For Teaching Character, Lessons
From The Beach Chair: Nature's Wisdom For Teaching Character and Growing
Character: 99 Strategies For The Elementary Classroom ISBN 1-892056-25-9.
It can be ordered for $19.95, plus $3 shipping from the author at:
Copyright © 2003 Center for the 4th and 5th Rs
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.