Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Comprehensive character curriculum...

flickr image via stevendepolo

I was compelled by this NBC Education Nation presentation. The idea of character development in schools always grabs me, and the panel poked at my brain a lot...

NBC News Education Nation: Can Character Be Taught? from The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic on FORA.tv

Among other elements of the dialog that peaked my interest, the idea at 18:45 was, I think,  particularly important. Collaborating across difference as Russell Shaw referred to it, is a concept I feel educators need to be open to, and explore with increased rigor. I wrote about this idea in chapter 17 of Innovative Voices in Education- Engaging Diverse Communities...
Culture is more than who we are, our skin color, where we come from or our ethnic or religious values; it’s the summation of all the elements of our lives that influence our thoughts, ideas, values and passions. The kind of school I want all kids to attend is one where thoughts, ideas, values and passions are nurtured and shared toward increased understanding of others. When we are exposed to the thoughts, ideas, values and passions of others, our eyes are opened to learning possibilities we may never had considered otherwise.
Alas, it is the differences among us that make life and learning interesting. Each one of us is at a different place and time along our own learning path, and there is no need for anyone to slow down, or catch up. We are where we are, and that is where we all need to be.
Engaging each other from our personal learning places authenticates all of us; where we're at individually in our learning stories. It enables us to throw ourselves into the mix without feeling a necessity from the outset to conform to any group-think or predetermined set of notions. Learners may ultimately conform to a broader perspective (the thinking of the group as opposed to group think,) or understand a predetermined principle more deeply as part of the interpersonal process of questioning and creating dialog, but when we expect and celebrate individual differences at the forefront of any group interaction, we remove the pressure many feel to conform to something; take a side, so to speak, right off the bat.

In groups, I actually believe there is great value in common thinking and the acceptance of predetermined principles with one caveat... every member of the group must be included in the process designed to arrive at either of these states. In the realm of character development, my school (Glendale) has begun this process. We haven't at this point determined absolutely how that will look, but we're working on it. The statements starting at 6:02 of the presentation by Dominic Randolph got me thinking about how we're doing this, and perhaps how we can do it better. He explained how it was necessary in both schools (although it looked different in each; an important point regarding the necessity to grow from a core as opposed to looking for a boxed solution for an institution... a harder, but infinitely more rewarding and productive process,) he works with to vet a "common set of strenghts" between them that moved away from the set of moral character traits like honesty and integrity that seemed vague, and try to define a list that was much more concrete.

I'm particularly intrigued by Randoph's description of the Riverdale method designed to create a narrative of character... a common language if you will to define what character looks, sounds and feels like at the school. This is something we intend to develop at Glendale so we can move character teaching and learning away from a typical focus on traits like honesty or integrity where September may become honesty month which folds into integrity month in October and so on as the year progresses. My experience over many years has shown me that toward a context of sustainable and transferable character development, this sort of approach is not optimal. For character development to be optimized in schools, it needs to be comprehensive and ubiquitous so every lesson plan, classroom and school-wide activity includes within it an element of character growth.

In graduate school I learned a great deal about comprehensive school guidance principles. This video presents comprehensive school counseling in a beautifully simplistic way...

The only element of comprehensive school guidance counseling that I feel is missing from this brief and simple explanation is the notion that every member of a school staff can, and should be part of the process. In order to do this, however, a common understanding (common language is a critical element of common understanding...) of what needs are to be addressed, and what sort of outcomes are being sought is imperative. If this framework is viably put in place with input from all involved, it becomes easy for all staff to support kids in common, but also creative ways working from the established platform. It makes sense that there isn't one counselor in a school building, but that each teacher and support staff member supports the counseling process comprehensively as lay counselors providing multiple points of access to support for all kids (and for each other.)

So working off the context of comprehensive school guidance counseling, I believe that comprehensive school character development is not only possible, but necessary in the quest toward better schools that support kids in becoming high quality graduates entering an increasingly competitive world. The "non-cognitive" skill-set required to thrive in the world hasn't really changed much over history, but as the panelist suggest, perhaps we haven't defined it as comprehensively as necessary in school contexts. At 11:22 Russell Shaw alludes to the value of resiliency at age 35; the ability to fail, rally around the failure and then take something useful away from it is undoubtedly a very good skill to possess. So how do we define skills like this, and then teach them in implicit and explicit ways so they engage kids and become transferable to other contexts? This question speaks directly to the heart of what we're trying to evolve at Glendale.

Like they are asking at Georgetown Day School, culturally speaking, we need to ask ourselves at Glendale School, "what is our desired skill-set, and what do we intend it to look like in kindergarten, grade four and grade eight (we are a K-8 school), and importantly to measure transference, what will it look like for our kids as they move onto high school and beyond?  This is our first step.

To that end we have established a team around what we're calling our Empathy ReBoot Project. We understand that empathy is one of those less specific character traits that needs a more specific context if we are to effectively teach and learn about how it looks at kindergarten, fourth grade, eighth grade and beyond. Our Empathy ReBoot Team is tasked with the responsibility to frame this at Glendale, but if we're to do this comprehensively, we're going to have to solicit the perspectives of every member of our school family willing to contribute. In the new year we're going to begin this work using Thought Stream as our medium, (we are after all a science and technology focused school.) We need to define the shared values of our organization and not be afraid to promise that Glendale students will be prepared at every stage of the game for the learning and life challenges they will encounter, and they will display resilience and creativity as they walk their learning paths.

Hope is an action word. If we are to authentically hope for this to happen, this is the action we will take.

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