Character Education by the Book
Two teachers tell you how they use literature to explore universal values.
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
If someone were to ask you whether you include character education in your curriculum, you might pause before answering. But if you were asked whether you address issues of respect, honesty, loyalty, and tolerance with your students, your response would most likely be yes.
In this article you'll meet two teachers — Penny Levy from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Jean Johnson of Boston, Massachusetts — who explore these basic values, harnessing the power of literature and discussion to help students grapple with difficult questions about friendship, courage, and fairness. Jean Johnson describes her move toward character education this way: "Given the mixed messages kids are getting from television and movies, and increasing social problems around us, you have to enter your classroom prepared to address big issues."
To help you build a character education program of your own — and select books you can use to launch discussions — please choose from the following:
- Guiding the Discussion (Plus books to try)
- The Issue of Everyday Life (Plus connecting to parents)
- When Talk Spins Out of Control
- Why Character Development Counts
Guiding the Discussion
At East Hills International Studies Academy, a public magnet school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, reading/language arts teacher Penny Levy works with third and fourth graders using the Heartwood Program, a trade-book-based curriculum designed around seven universal values: courage, loyalty, justice, respect, hope, honesty and love. (For more information on the Heartwood program, see Resources.) From the first day of school, Penny wants her students to feel they can put themselves on the line during discussions.
Jean Johnson, who teaches first grade at the Advent School in Boston, selects books to address the same values as Penny does, though she doesn't use a structured program.
- Choosing Books
"Using books to teach character education works," says Jean. "Good literature serves as a neutralizer in a discussion about character and ethics," she says," and students can comfortably discuss the problems and choices faced by a book's character without the sting of infringing on anyone's personal beliefs or background." But, Jean cautions, careful thought has to go into choosing books that will inspire students to consider and express different perspectives. When making your selections, Jean and Penny both advise that you look for books that: feature children making difficult choices; enrich children's experiences with other cultures; explore problems children can grasp; and are not written around a particular message or an obvious choice.
- Naming Specific Character Attributes
Penny sees her role in book discussions as that of a neutral facilitator. Here is a glimpse of a discussion about Fire on the Mountain, the story of Alemayu, an Ethiopian shepherd boy who wins a bet with a rich man, but is cheated out of his prize.
"I think the rich man showed disrespect when he didn't believe Alemayu knew about fire, but Alemayu and his sister showed hope by believing they could get up the mountain," says one of Penny's third graders.
"I think Alemayu was honest when he was scared on the mountain, but he had the courage to get up there," says another.
As part of the Heartwood approach, the children are naming specific attributes they see in a character, using a vocabulary they all share. This helps children identify behaviors in characters — and in life — that express these traits. In time, children apply what they've learned to their own choices.
- Using visual aids
When Jean leads a discussion, she likes to use charts at certain points to frame children's comments and to build connections between literature and kids' lives. After discussing Sheila Rae, the Brave by Kevin Henkes and Brave Irene by William Steig, Jean invites students to list on a big chart all the things they have done that showed courage.
"I swung really high," says one girl, motioning with her hands.
"I climbed this really big fence near our house," adds a boy.
Children added tree climbing, swimming in deep water, and taking a turn on a scary ride at a park. Then Jean switches direction. "Those are all situations where you were brave about something that you did that was physical," she says, running an index finger down the list. "Can you think of a situation at home or somewhere else where you were brave but where you didn't have to do something physical like climb a tree?"
Children mention not being afraid of the dark or meeting a dog for the first time. When their ideas fill the chart, Jean redirects her class to consider more "feeling situations" and asks the class if they could think of a time in which someone had to be brave with a person or a group.
A student mentions Tomie dePaola's Oliver Button Is a Sissy, a story about a boy who isn't afraid to play with dolls. Soon the children are comparing notes on whether boys and girls really can do all the same things. Jean lets the conversation flow.
"Girls can't luge race," said one boy.
"That's not true," responds one girl hotly. "Girls can luge race. But maybe not in the Olympics," she adds in an uncertain voice.
Jean believes that helping children see how missing information can misinform — and how basing an opinion on a single experience can lead to misunderstandings — is one of the most important things teachers can do to broaden children's thinking.
The Issues of Everyday Life
While Jean and Penny know in advance many of the books and positive attributes they plan to address during the year, they're very aware that discussions about these concepts are most effective when linked to the everyday life of the classroom
Jean's first graders, for example, often have a hard time sharing math manipulatives and other materials during the first few months of school. Jean reads aloud Harriet's Halloween Candy by Nancy Carlson, a book about sharing candy, and follows it up by reading Bet You Can't by Penny Dale, which is about sharing chores.
From there, Jean and her students move on to a story like My Mama Needs Me by Mildred Pitts Walter, about a family with a new baby, to explore how sharing is connected to the concept of love. Jean reads these books and others over a period of a few days, or even a few weeks. "Then, throughout the year, we might revisit some of these books and concepts, as things happen," says Jean, stressing that her students "are able to bring more of their experiences and insights to issues they have previously discussed."
Using the Heartwood Program, Penny Levy also links the discussion of a universal attribute to the familiar terrain of students' experiences. Recently, she led a talk about Demi's The Empty Pot, a Chinese folktale about honesty.
After reading the story, Penny asked students: "Have you ever worried about a time when you had to tell the truth but knew you might get into trouble?" Penny encouraged them to think about their responses before talking, and to share something only if they felt comfortable. After a few minutes, Penny asked them to share their stories with a partner.
- Going Beyond the Books
In addition to guiding class discussions, Penny and Jean give their students opportunities to reflect individually on their reading, often by writing their response to a story in a journal. Kids also work with partners or in small groups, writing together, talking together, sharing book-journal entries, and creating book-based projects such as murals, poetry, and stories.
Penny and her third graders also tie community-service activities to their reading. "Once a month we celebrate the attribute we've been reading about with an activity," says Penny. "When we explored hope, students said they hoped things would be better for people who were struggling, so they donated vegetables to a soup kitchen."
Jean and Penny also work hard to practice what they espouse. "Kids learn so much from the way we treat them," says Penny. "They are always watching us. I am much more aware of what I am modeling now that I've worked with the Heartwood Program." Penny feels the changes in her teaching are subtle, but profound. "I am more consistent and more aware of being fair," she observes.
- The Parent Connection
Penny and Jean both use newsletters to update parents on books the children are reading and attributes or issues being discussed. Both recommend books for parents to read to their children. The Heartwood Program includes discussion questions for parents, to go along with the books. Jean prefers to let such conversations between parents and their children develop on their own.
Penny invites parents to come to the classroom to read books and share their own stories. "One mother had struggled to become an attorney while working and raising a family," says Penny. "She had a difficult time balancing everything, but she passed the bar and is now a practicing attorney. She talked to students about justice, but when my students heard her story, they told her she is an example of courage and hope."
Neither teacher has ever experienced any resistance from parents, in part, they believe, because of the ongoing communication between home and school, and because it is made clear that no classroom discussion will infringe on a family's beliefs or personal values.
When Talk Spins Out of Control
What do you do when a student says something insulting or prejudicial during a book discussion? Lynn Murphy, director of the Reading for Real literature program at the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland, California, shares her techniques.
- Politely ask the student what experience or facts he or she is basing the opinion on. Guide him or her to see how this viewpoint might change with more information.
- Stop the discussion and ask the class to imagine that someone who might be hurt by a remark is sitting in on the discussion.
- If the comments are really out of line, it is reasonable for you to tell the student that the comments are inappropriate for school and ask him or her to stop.
Why Character Development Counts
A talk with Eleanor Childs, founder of the Heartwood Institute, a nonprofit ethics program that uses multicultural literature to help children understand the attributes of courage, loyalty, justice, respect, hope, honesty, and love.
Q: What led you, as a practicing lawyer, to start the Heartwood Institute?
A: After practicing criminal defense law for 15 years, I got very discouraged because I was working with a lot of death-penalty cases. I began to defend juveniles, because with juvenile law there is the opportunity to show why a child is amenable to treatment. So there is some hope in the system. But I was still dealing with some terrible crimes. In one case five boys tied an elderly couple to two chairs facing each other and then slit their throats. When I asked them about what they had done, one boy criticized another for not having the courage to do some particular part of the murder.
I began to wonder what they thought courage was. I saw the same confusion over terms like respect and loyalty. Hope seemed the hardest concept for them to grasp.
Q: What did you decide?
A: At first I blamed TV, which does play a part in some of the violence we see. I blamed drugs and the breakdown of the family, but then I began to think a lot about culture and about how so much of our understanding of character comes from stories.
I began to read Native American and Chinese tales and other cultural stories. Since the beginning of time, wisdom has been passed from the elders to the young through stories. These living histories hold the key to life and the important lessons that keep a society strong.
We have exposed our children to violent images without the guidance and nurturing needed to help them make hard decisions and choices. Children have big hearts if developed with care, and they must be helped to understand that the mind must work along with the heart — that they need to think before acting. This impulsive acting, by the way, is not limited to inner-city youth. We must all gather our children around the campfire.
Q: How did this lead you to Heartwood?
A: At the time, one of my children had a wonderful first-grade teacher named Pat Woods, who got everyone in her class excited about reading. Meanwhile, I was watching the crime rate escalate and waiting for the government to take some action. I realized that a grassroots approach would create the firmest base.
I turned to Pat and called in two elementary master teachers who were eager to contribute to a curriculum focused on ethical understanding and character development. We studied Lawrence Kohlberg, Jean Piaget, Carol Gilligan, and all the experts. We knew our curriculum should use fine multicultural literature. We read mountains of children's stories and commentaries on character education. For years we met every week around a kitchen table and tried to figure out which values on our list of 58 were universal. We settled on seven: courage, loyalty, justice, respect, hope, honesty, and love. The program we piloted in the Pittsburgh school system has grown from there.
Q: What do you say to people who feel character education doesn't belong in school?
A: School is the perfect place — as a support to the home — for this kind of education to happen because of the time quotient. Children really need to learn these basic concepts as early as possible. These are basic universal ideas that teachers already deal with every day. We are not asking teachers to take over the role of parents. We're using the program in fact to draw parents into the school.
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Developmental Studies Center conducts research and develops programs that address children's ethical, social, and intellectual development. The center's Reading for Real program is a literature-based curriculum for elementary school children. 2000 Embarcadero, Suite 305, Oakland,CA 94606-5300; (510) 533-0213, (800) 666-7270.
Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at the Boston University School of Education offers information concerning teachers' important role in the education and development of students' character. 605 Commonwealth Ave., Room 356, Boston, MA 02215; phone: (617) 353-3262, fax: (617) 353-3924.
Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) offers instructional materials and teacher training on character education, conflict resolution, and violence prevention. 23 Garden St., Cambridge, MA 02138; (800) 370-2515.
The Heartwood Institute uses literature to help children understand universal character attributes. See text for details. 425 N. Craig St., Suite 302, Pittsburgh, PA 15213; (800) 432-7810.
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