For the past seven years, much of my life has been devoted to character education. When people learn what I do for a living, they often ask, “Exactly what do you mean by character education?” They want to know whether I deal with two words that some public school educators have shunned because of their connotations: moral and values.
When I define character education as the planned and unplanned things that adults do to nurture the development of moral values in youngsters, I detect in their facial expressions that I have described an activity that concerns them.
Typically, these educators endorse the need for character education programs but cite the political minefields they face even in initiating discussions of the subject. For example, the word moral has religious connotations. Values evokes painful memories of the controversies that values clarification produced during its day in the sun. More recently, critics of outcome-based education have treated OBE and character education as synonyms.
Character education programs can be implemented without creating a political firestorm if planners give careful attention to the process and content elements that I have identified. During the six years that I facilitated the development of character education strategy in the Mount Lebanon, Pa., School District, a total of six families contacted me about concerns or objections. In a community of about 13,000 households where parent-initiated communication is quite common, the small number of objections suggests that character education initiatives can be implemented without turmoil.
In my experience, almost all educators and the vast majority of lay people will acknowledge that value-free schools are impossible. Curriculum, teaching methodologies, student-teacher relations, extracurricular activities, etc., are all value-laden. Therefore, the question is not “will schools nurture moral development?” but “how will they carry out that responsibility?”
At least two answers exist. One is to do what many, if not most, schools districts are doing. Those schools do not have formal, district-coordinated, comprehensive programs for supporting character development. That observation should not suggest, however, that individual teachers and administrators or teaching teams do not give explicit attention to character education. Schools convey values through their disciplinary codes. Teachers reinforce values such as respect and responsibility through their classroom rules and curricula. Coaches and sponsors of extracurricular activities address values through the rules they establish for participants. These are important steps in educating for character.
Some schools, however, have decided to take their commitment to character education to a higher plane. Citing factors such as increases in juvenile violence, he values curriculum offered by he electronic media, social conditions that have affected the family’s primary role in character development, and the self-destructive behaviors of youth as some of the conditions that give cause for alarm, increasing numbers of schools are giving increased attention to character education. (John Martin of the Character Education Partnership estimates one in five schools.) What does a higher level of commitment look like?
The essential elements include community involvement, core values, a comprehensiveness, effective curricula, formal evaluation, pro-social behavior codes, communications, family outreach, and leadership from a knowledge base.
Community involvement in the planning of character education is critical. In Mount Lebanon, the character education effort began informally with a discussion group of parents, teachers, and administrators spending a year studying character education and the role that schools should play in that process. At year’s end, the group decided to share some of what they had learned by sponsoring a voluntary day-long staff development workshop on character education conducted by Tom Lickona, author of Raising Good Children and Educating for Character. The PTA used him for an evening parenting program. One-third of the staff signed up for the workshop and more than 700 parents attended the latter.
Four months later, when the district’s strategic planning team met for three days to develop a five-year vision for the district, character education emerged as one priority. At that point more than 1,000 residents and staff had participated in discussions of character education through the Lickona programs or the district’s strategic planning process. Parents understood that character education is an intrinsic part of a school’s life and welcomed the opportunity to help shape their school district’s strategy for giving increased attention to this mission.
Soon after the development of the district’s strategic plan, the Pennsylvania Department of Education announced its intention to use an outcome-based approach to new curriculum regulations. The announcement elicited a well-organized movement to challenge the values that were reflected in the outcomes. Mount Lebanon escaped the kind of controversy that emerged in other communities because parental participation in the development of the district’s character education strategy had produced broad community understanding of and support for the effort.
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of a school committed to character education is the presence of a set of core values. Usually developed by a group representative of the community, the core identifies those values that the schools will nurture. Typically, these are universal moral values–such as respect, responsibility, and honesty-that cut across cultures.
Most schools avoid values around controversial topics (abortion, for example) because they know that a formal character education program can be torpedoed by a single controversial value. They focus on the values that unite rather than those that separate significant segments of society. Recognizing that some children will come from environments that do not nurture those values, the school does not succumb to despair or defeatism. Instead it declares that it will be a bastion of those values. Respect, for example, will be part o the school’s ethos even if it is absent in the child’s family or neighborhood
Nurturing the development of the core values requires a comprehensive character education strategy. A curriculum, no matter how fine, will not be sufficient if a school’s ethos or climate fails to reflect the values. If a curriculum defines respect and provides numerous illustration only to have the student observe disrespect as the norm in the school, the child will note the inconsistency. That dissonance may prove fatal to the curriculum’s objective for respect.
For a program to b comprehensive, the core values must influence all aspects of a school’s operation. If a school or district is not committed to infusing the core values into all aspects of its operation, it should abandon plans to develop a districtwide comprehensive approach. If the values cannot operate in challenging areas like athletics and labor-management relations, then people will see the lie and question the district’s resolve to take character education to a higher plane of commitment.
A comprehensive approach will seek to nurture the values in a variety of ways. Certainly the curriculum represents a natural place for helping students understand a district’s core values. I recommend integrating the core values into the curriculum from pre-school through high school. Programs like Heartwood, the Child Development Project, and the Jefferson Center’s STAR Program can be easily integrated into existing curricula.
We chose Heartwood, a literature-based program using award-winning children’s literature from a variety of cultural settings for our elementary curriculum. Stories have historically provided a natural means for talking about values. Teachers are comfortable with that medium and usually have received significant undergraduate preparation in the teaching of children’s literature.
Further, Heartwood easily fit into our reading and social studies programs. Finally, the program’s family outreach activities were consistent with our desire to develop new character education partnerships with the home.
At the secondary level each department identified ways of reinforcing the district’s core values through their existing programs. All curricula offered the opportunity to provide explicit attention to one or more of the values, e.g., respect as an environmental issue in science.
At the junior high school, a committee of teachers developed a middle-level reading-based curriculum using the elementary version of Heartwood as the model. Heartwood now offers a junior high/middle level version of their program.
The downside of integrating values into the existing curriculum is the potential for insufficient and/or inconsistent attention to values in some classrooms. Schools should consider, especially at the secondary level, writing a character education unit into one or more courses required of all students.
For example, a ninth grade English course might include a unit called “Language and Ethics.” The unit would explore what writers through fiction and non-fiction have observed about the nature of people and specific issues of right and wrong behavior. It could introduce several basic semantic principles that would help students reflect on the ethical use of language.
That idea then could lead into a curricular topic that is new to many American schools: media literacy. This content helps students become more critical consumers of the mass media’s powerful values curriculum that too many students absorb without critical reflection. To illustrate, students need to understand the commercial mission of television and how that fact drives programming decisions: what viewers are offered and not offered.
Further, children need to understand how the media can blur the distinctions between the concepts of heroism and celebrity.
A boy is lost in the deepest part of the forest. He’s frightened. He can’t find his way home, he doesn’t have shelter and it’s growing dark. He’s so scared he can’t think. His muscles ache. Then he hears the sounds of a song. It’s coming out of him — he’s singing the song his father sang to him when he was a baby. He sings it softly at first, and then louder and stronger, till it fills him and quiets his jumbled nerves. When the song at long last is finished, he knows that he’ll be alright, that he’ll find his way home.
A simple song can’t rescue the boy of the story of course, but it can quiet his jumbled nerves so that he can think clearly. Songs and singing can soothe and celebrate, and are as close as our own throats. A repertoire of songs is a rich resource for the woman on the bus who rocks her fussing baby or for the child on her way to school who skips over the sidewalk cracks, singing as she goes, or my immigrant mother who cleans her house with a scrub brush and hymns, and for my professor-friend who kneads bread dough to 17th century madrigals.
Parents can get lost in the duty of caring for children and they need to be reminded to play. Most parents are not taught to play with their children and must learn this on their own, or have the good fortune of coming into contact with a Parent-Child Mother Goose Program in their area, where nursery rhymes are presented as a suitable form of play. Parents receive instructions in both gestures and words for a wide variety of rhymes from such sources as Mother Goose and Canadian poet Dennis, and versions of old songs such as “Good night ladies”.
For infants the rhymes and chants can mean important language and emotional achievements. The program rituals include sitting in a circle on the floor, the children in the parents’ laps. The children are introduced to the cadences, intonation and patterns of speech and can experience a range of emotions. Participants can play joyfully or can be soothed and calmed by the sounds of language as well as the physical closeness. The leaders note that over the course of the program parents and children make more eye contact and become more attentive to each other.
By the age of 2 many children are quick to pick up new words, and can learn rhymes easily. The program builds on the narrative structures of rhymes so that by the time children are 3 they are able to sit and listen to a story. Stories are told by individual adults but are also learned communally. Not only do children’s heads fill with the stories they hear, they learn to visualize, that is, create pictures in their mind and to tell their own stories.
Play is a suitable medium for learning. The parents interviewed on the video said that the program made them better parents because they felt more relaxed. One parent said: “I use lullabies a lot. Lullabies give me something other than yelling or praying `please go to sleep’ “. They also felt they had more options for dealing with unhappy children in public places. Two adults said they’d grown up with nursery rhymes but hadn’t realized the full potential and joy of playing with their children.
This video is 27 minutes long, and is comprised of program footage which demonstrate a variety of techniques and participants. Parents and instructors are interviewed, and Celia Lotteridge, a well-known storyteller, provides commentary. The video is racially inclusive, although the stories and songs are not. The program would seem to be helpful to new immigrants as they can learn the language with their children. Not knowing the words does not exclude them from participation; they can learn at their own pace. It seems that including the native or ethnic songs of the participants would enrich their experience. Although the participants were predominately female, one father said that even though his nine-month-old daughter could not understand his native stories (African perhaps?), he enjoyed telling them for his own sake. He reminds the viewer of the pleasure of telling one’s own stories, and of the intimacy of telling stories as they move from mouth to ear.
Parents may come to the program to be part of their community and may not realize the effect they have on their children’s development. They can leave this program, however, with a repertoire of songs and stories. Learning patterns of language and the effect of conjoining language and rhythmic body movements such as bouncing or rocking can have long term effects. This video reminds parents and educators of the rich literacy experiences with which children come to school and which should play an integral role in developing and expanding children’s literacy.
In the two and a half years I lived among Stone Age Indians in the South American jungle (not all at once, but on five expeditions with much time in between for reflection), I came to see that the innate expectations of infants are not what we in our society have been led to believe they are. Infants during human history have been held during the day by their parents, older children or other adults, and at night they have slept with their parents. This physical contact continues until the child begins creeping, at the age of about six or eight months. Being held is an expectation of infants, evolved from the hundreds of thousands of years that infants of our species were held. I found this expectation respected among the Yequana Indians, whose infants’ behaviors and temperaments were remarkably different from ours.
In the book, “The Continuum Concept (Addison-Wesley, 1985), Jean Liedhoff explained some of these differences. For example, far from requiring peace and quiet to go to sleep, as we assume is necessary, babies of the Yequana tribe snoozed blissfully whenever and wherever they became tired, while the women, men, or children carrying them would walk, run, dance, shout, paddle their canoes, and otherwise carry on their normal activities.
Yequana babes in arms almost never cried. Neither did they wave their arms, kick, arch their backs, or flex their hands and feet, as ours do. They sat quietly in their slings or slept on someone’s hip, thereby exploding the myth that writhing babies are “exercising.” They also did not “spit up” unless they were extremely ill, and they did not suffer from colic.
This behavior sharply contrasts with the desperate discomfort of our infants, tucked tenderly in cribs or carriages and left to scream with desire for the living body that is their rightful place. These distressed infants need someone who will “believe” their cries and relieve their craving with welcoming arms.
Our instinctive response to babies’ signals has been undermined by the ever-changing advice of the “experts.” Today, unfortunately, people want to know how to make the baby accept our rules. We trouble ourselves with how long we should let the child cry before picking her up or whether we are “spoiling” her by letting her “have her own way.”
Babies, the true experts, let us know that we never should have put them down in the first place. Since this option has not customarily been considered in educated Western circles, the relationship between parent and child has remained steadfastly adversarial. Today most people ask, How do we get children to sleep alone in their cribs despite their protests? We never stop to ask whether the crib is the baby’s proper place.
Yequana toddlers and children of all ages played together all day without fighting or arguing, and they obeyed their elders instantly and willingly. The notion of punishing a child had apparently never occurred to these people, nor did their behavior show anything like what we call permissiveness – no child would have dreamed of inconveniencing, interrupting, or being waited upon by an adult. By the time they were adults, the Yequana were comfortable with themselves and did not require threats of punishment or the help of psychotherapists to persuade them not to behave antisocially.
The Yequana experience showed me that ignoring the evolved expectations of our species inevitably diminishes our well-being. The fear that responsive treatment will create a clinging, dependent child is the precise opposite of the truth: the fulfilled child does not spend his life unconsciously seeking the confidence-building experiences he missed in infancy.
Parent-child sleeping arrangements offer another example of this truth. Tine Thevenin, in The Family Bed (Thevenin, 1976), discusses in detail the subject of children sleeping with parents, which ought to occur from birth. For young children who have never had the experience of sleeping in the parents’ bed (even ones up to the age of about seven years), it is extremely healing to be invited by the parents to sleep with them. To make room for the child, it may help to put the mattress on the floor and another one next to it.
It can take some time and patience before a child who has been made to sleep alone can trust her unconditional welcome enough to sleep peacefully all night and leave of her own volition when she has been there long enough. But once the child is confident that she is always welcome, she will want a place of her own to sleep. One four-year-old child I know needed three months to settle down completely. His parents though, remained patient and reported that at the end of that time he slept quietly through the night. Not only did his relationship with his parents improve, but the child also stopped being “aggressive at school.” A few months later, he moved back voluntarily to his own bed, returning only occasionally if he was distressed, knowing that his welcome there was unconditional. Without that certainty, no child is fully prepared to move toward independence.
Daytime closeness can be accomplished by a variety of carriers. The one I think best is a long scarf that ties behind the bearer’s shoulder and twists once in front before going under the baby on the opposite hip (see Resource). If it is long enough, it can also tie into a sort of backpack for hiking or to free the arms entirely when necessary. But I think it is important that for general use the carrier not be the kind that can only go on the front or back. If in the front position, facing in, the baby must twist around to see what is going on, and the child is also in the way if the bearer is trying to work with his or her hands. The back-only position obscures much of what the baby wants to see and does not allow the rapport the hip sling does. The baby and bearer need to balance against one another with the hip sling, and as the baby matures, the responsibility for adjusting shifts more and more to him, giving valuable experience as he observes the character, pace, and details of the life he will join when it is time to creep, crawl, and walk.
Concerns of parents in our society, especially of working mothers, that carrying a child throughout the day is unrealistic I answer in two ways. First, I cannot overstate how crucial the in-arms experience is for the development of an independent, confident child. Second, the responsibility of holding a child does not have to be borne solely by the mother – any adult or capable child may carry the baby.
It does not take much imagination to see that if the in-arms experience makes babies tranquil, as I saw among the Yequana babies, it can change their reputations as unwelcome disturbances in their parents’ workplaces and begin to resolve our society’s dilemma of child care versus career. The reason children behave in ways that make them unwelcome is because they are under enormous stress. Allowing them what their nature requires, that is, to spend their first months in the arms of a caretaker who is living an active life – not necessarily one doing baby care or paying particular attention to her charge – will eliminate the baby’s need to fuss or to cry.