Weaving Character Education into Language Arts

BETSY STECKER

If you are passionate about bringing character into your classroom, you'll want to find ways to integrate it into everyday academic instruction. I pursue that integration through my subject area, language arts (grades 5-8).

1. Establish Language Taboos

The first thing I address in my classroom in September is the use of language itself. For instance, I do not accept the use of "Hey" before my name, and I post a list of offensive taboo words on my blackboard. These are all too-common among middle-schoolers: suck, shut up, idiot, stupid, and retard. Today's television unfortunately supports the idea that these insults are acceptable, but all would agree — including our students, if we ask them — that these words are counterproductive to an environment that encourages kindness and respect.

2. Use Character Questions for Journal Writing

Having students write in journals, using character qualities as the prompt, is an easy way to integrate character into your classroom. For instance, during our study of industry (hard work), I have students write on this quote by Thomas Edison: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed up in overalls and looks like hard work." When studying justice, I ask students: "Does 'fair' mean 'equal'"? The book Character Quotations, (available from www.KaganOnline.com) is chock-full of quotations and follow-up questions that can stimulate journal entries.


SPORTSMANSHIP ESSAY

THINK: How is good sportsmanship
related to good character?
  • FIRST PARAGRAPH: What is good sportsmanship? Why is it important? What character qualities do people with good sportsmanship have?

  • SECOND PARAGRAPH: Describe a professional athlete who demonstrates good sportsmanship. What is this person's sport? How does this person show good sportsmanship? Give a specific example.

  • THIRD PARAGRAPH: Now describe a professional athlete who does not show good sportsmanship. What is this person's sport? How has this person demonstrated poor sportsmanship? Give a specific example.

  • CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH: What can you learn from both of these persons?

I've also used journaling to get kids to reflect on the music they listen to. Sample questions:

  • What are some of your favorite songs? What do you like about them?

  • What messages do they send?

  • Why is some music considered "objectionable"? What messages do those songs send?

  • What about the language used in some songs — is it appropriate? Why or why not?

  • If you woke up in the morning and were a popular music artist, what kind of music would you sing? Why? What would be your message?

    3. Assign Character-Centered Essays

    The essay is my favorite tool for teaching writing and simultaneously getting my students to think about character. I assign a character-centered essay once a month. The writing skills I focus on include outlining, compare and contrast, self-reflection, using topic and concluding sentences, persuasive writing, simile, metaphor, and clearly defending an original idea. I teach these skills using character as the subject.

    One of my favorite essay assignments focuses on sportsmanship. Because so many of today's youth are involved in sports, good sportsmanship has considerable importance. The writing skills I teach through the sportsmanship essay include: (1) doing research on sports figures and (2) critical thinking, as students evaluate the actions of athletes and consider what lessons can be learned and applied to their own lives.

    Another of my favorite essays has students write about a character quotation related to one of our school's focus virtues. At Japhet we study 18 qualities that rotate on a two-year cycle: gratitude, judgment, peace, initiative, joy, personal habits, respect for self, courage, self-control, thrift, patriotism, justice, humility, obedience, punctuality, industry, reliability, and respect for others.

    WRITING ABOUT QUOTATIONS:
    FOCUS ON JUDGMENT/CHOICES

    Read the quotations below about judgment/choices.
    Think about what each means. Circle the one that you
    really like, understand, and can best write about.


    "Decisions determine destiny." - Frederick Speakman

    "We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves." - Thomas Merton

    "The last of human freedoms is to choose one's attitude in any set of circumstances." - Viktor Frankl


    ASSIGNMENT: Write two paragraphs, a minimum of 5 sentences each. Begin your writing assignment by restating the quotation in bold face and centered at the top of your essay.

    • FIRST PARAGRAPH:
      (1) What does the quotation mean? What point is the speaker trying to make?
      (2) How does this quote relate to judgment/choices?
      (3) What proof do you see in the world that the quote is true?

    • SECOND PARAGRAPH:
      (1) Do you do what the quote recommends?
      (2) How can you do better? What specific actions can you take to improve?
      (3) What do you think would be the result?

    The accompanying box shows one of my essay assignments on the virtue of judgment. Students choose a quote and write two paragraphs: one explaining the meaning of this quote and offering evidence of its truth, and another applying the quote to their own lives.

    4. Literature: Rich in Character

    From King Lear to Anne Frank, literary figures with good or bad character abound. Whether you pose questions simply for discussion or require written responses, students' replies will be richer when the judging of values comes into play. Because I teach the same students for four years, I teach four years' worth of novels. Here is a smattering of questions I have posed:

    • King Lear: What are the most important qualities for a good king to possess? Did Lear demonstrate them?

    • Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl: What character qualities did the Jewish families need in order to endure their forbidden stay in the Secret Annexe?

    • To Kill a Mockingbird: How does Atticus define courage?

    • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry: How is Cassie a true hero?

    • The Taming of the Shrew: How does Katherine finally learn the true meaning of humility?

    • My Brother Sam Is Dead: At the end of the novel, Tim asks the reader whether war is needed to achieve freedom. What do you think?

    Recently we read a short story about a Jewish boy stuck in a snowstorm with his goat. Students immediately recognized how his qualities of courage, initiative, self-control, and judgment enabled him to survive. Without my prompting, they began to discuss whether they would apply these same qualities if they were in a similar situation. I just sat back and listened .

    ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

    Betsy Stecker. "Weaving Character Education into Language Arts." The Fourth and Fifth Rs: Respect and Responsibility Newsletter vol.11 #2 (Winter/Spring, 2005).

    This article reprinted with permission from The Center for the 4th and 5th Rs.

    THE AUTHOR

    Betsy Stecker teaches at Japhet School, 31201 Dorchester, Madison Heights, MI 48071 — a 2001 National School of Character. She welcomes your questons about how to incoporate character into any language arts unit. E-mail: betsy@japhet.org.

    Copyright 2005 Center for the 4th and 5th Rs


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