Learning That Goes Beyond Academics
By Daniel Beauregard
For many parents, a good education means much more than academics.While reading, math and science are all important, having their child learn about such values as kindness, respect and empathy for others is just as important, if not more so. Fortunately, most Atlanta-area public and independent schools incorporate some form of character education in their curricula, placing an emphasis on guiding children to become caring, involved members of society.
This is an area in which Georgia has led the way. The state devotes the entire month of September to the importance of character. Over a decade ago, a group of students and teachers at Cobb County’s Durham Middle School wrote their state senator, proposing a “Georgia Day” to honor character and good choices. Gov. Nathan Deal extended the idea to a whole month spotlighting state history and the positive character traits of Georgians past and present. In March 2012, Georgia be.came the first state to recognize and dedicate an entire month to history and character.
Georgia maintains this focus throughout the school year in its public-school curricu.lum. The Georgia Department of Education mandates character education as part of its Georgia Quality Core Curriculum Standards, required in elementary, middle and high schools throughout the state. This “character curriculum” focuses on citizenship, respect for others and respect for oneself.
The citizenship portion stresses the impor.tance of such values as democracy, respect for authority, equality, justice, liberty, patriotism and respect for the natural environment. Stu.dents learn to respect others with an emphasis on altruism, honesty and integrity, and are taught to respect themselves through self-es.teem, accountability and a strong work ethic.
The Cobb County School District boasts its own focus on character development, with a calendar that emphasizes different character traits on a rotating basis throughout the school year, including respect, integrity and respon.sibility, among others. Instead of students receiving a separate lecture on self-respect, that lesson is incorporated into the regular curriculum, across all disciplines. As students reach high school, a leadership development class called Principled Thinking focuses on developing character-driven skills to enable young adults to become positive leaders in their schools and communities.
A Larger Perspective
That approach is similar to the one taken by the Atlanta International School (AIS), an independent school in Buckhead that uses the framework of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program to instill positive character traits in its students. At the core of this program is the goal of developing students who will be ready to create a better world through inter.cultural understanding and respect.
At AIS, the foundation is laid early: The Per.sonal Social Education component of its Early Years program gives young learners models, methods and a vocabulary for handling social and emotional issues in a constructive way. As students continue, each grade’s IB program focuses on several distinct traits such as com.munication, open-mindedness and risk-taking. At the beginning of each year, teachers work these principles into their lesson plans with an eye to shaping students into ideal global citizens who will use their knowledge to make a difference in the world and in their community.
At McGinnis Woods Country Day School in Alpharetta, which has infants through eighth-graders, students have character education classes with a counselor each week, from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade. The classes start in pre-K with teaching subjects such as how to be kind, how to resolve an issue and how to deal with others who are not kind, says Principal Mary Johnson.
“With our older children … we’ll go into things like digital safety so they will not say things on Twitter or Snapchat that are rude to others or inappropriate, being mindful of those things because they can stay there forever,” she says. “We do things like exploring careers.”
The school also promotes character education through its morning announcements, which include the character word of the month, and by honoring a student as a Citizen of the Month for exhibiting strong character traits.
Along with thinking for oneself and learning from failure, learning to respect the viewpoints of others is a key component of character-based education. At AIS, students are exposed to other cultures and different viewpoints, and learn to value others’ opinions, even when they don’t agree with them. Diversity is a core value at other schools, including Woodward Academy in College Park and The Galloway School in Atlanta.
Learning from Mistakes
Lynn Mandelbaum, Galloway’s early learning counselor, says she’s seen a change in the way character education has been taught in the past 10 to 20 years. “There’s much more of a focus on other people’s points of view and diverse thought, understanding different people’s cultures will have an impact or express an emo.tion or how they celebrate and recognize and interact with others,” she says, adding children have more power in today’s program.
Galloway’s program focuses on social emo.tional learning (SEL), the field within educa.tion that promotes social and emotional skills as essential to learning and life outcomes, to encourage students to come up with their own ideas and learn from their mistakes. It’s taught in pre-kindergarten through the fourth grade, both through a separate class and embedded into other class curricula. Starting in the fifth grade, it’s included in the school’s advisory program within each class.
Woodward takes SEL one step further with its social, emotional and ethical learning program, which includes an ethics component. The program is taught as a separate class in pre-K and several grades in pre-K through sixth grades and integrated into the curricu.lum of other classes in all other grades. That includes a year-long curriculum as part of a capstone course for Grades 11 and 12, says Jennifer Knox, Woodward’s director of character education and the Ron M. Brill chair of ethical leadership.
The program asks students to look at them.selves and try to remain calm in high-stress situations. “What’s going on that relates to emo.tions, to the brain, to navigating those? How do we recognize those? How do respond when an emotion becomes difficult?” Knox says, adding it’s about making informed decisions.
For More Information
For a look at the Georgia Department of Education’s Quality Core Curriculum materials, including information on its Character Education program, visit georgiastandards.org/standards/pages/qcc.aspx.
For information on the Georgia Community Foundation’s history of character education in the state’s public schools, visit georgiacf.org/educational_freedom/page/character-education.
For more information about the Character.org 11 principles and program, visit the website.