Character in the Classroom

by Elaine Rogers 

When it comes to teaching children values and strong character traits, most people agree that parents are their kids' first and most important educators. But schools continue to play an important role, says Bernice Lerner, director of the Center for Advancement of Ethics and Character (CAEC) at Boston University's School of Education. The center has developed programs and publications, and trained school teachers in character education.

Character lessons have historically been built into our education system. Currently, 10 states mandate character education in their public schools, while another seven states have passed legislation encouraging it, according to the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, Character Education Partnership (CEP).

That doesn't mean that educators are doing an effective job, however. Character education in the schools has its share of critics.

Arthur Dobrin, a humanities professor and author of Teaching Right From Wrong, believes that many of the nation's public schools are not teaching good character traits effectively because the lessons often don't carry on beyond the classroom.

"No matter how much positive dialog occurs in class, kids will take bigger [negative] lessons from a teacher or administrator who doesn't treat them with respect," Dobrin says. "And there's also the question of what the school culture celebrates. Is the lobby full of rewards for organizations that do good works in the community or of trophies for athletics?"

Merle Schwartz, CEP's director of education and research, agrees. The CEP promotes character education that is infused throughout the school day - not solely in a classroom lecture, but carried over into the cafeteria, school hallways and on the playground.

"It's not about having just one teacher who is the character curriculum expert or one class that addresses it," he says. "A school that just talks about it on face value - that's the worst thing. You've got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, because kids are smart and they know when it's just words."

This "systemic approach" is the only way to help young people become responsible and engaged citizens, Schwartz says.

The Josephson Institute's youth education initiative, Character Counts, also follows this premise, says Julie Dwyer, the program's national director. Character Counts covers six "pillars of character"- trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship - and all are designed to be woven into what a school or community is already doing, rather than implicitly taught, she says.

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