I’ve been thinking a lot about our focus this month on integrating academics and character education in the classroom. We truly believe they should be intertwined, but sometimes when I go to a school for a site visit evaluation, I observe lessonBecky.pngs that seem like were planned just for my visit, as if someone had said, “Be sure to teach a character lesson today.”

I like it best when I get to observe a challenging academic lesson that engages the students and incorporates the natural intersections with character that most content contains. Exploring the ethical issues in science, debating historical decisions, and of course, exploring character traits and ethical dilemmas in literature are obvious choices, but there are ethical considerations in every subject.

In planning lessons that integrate character, the character considerations occur right from the beginning no matter what the subject. In addition to focusing on the ethical content of your subject matter, character integration requires thinking about character issues in the design and processes of those lessons.

We all have been taught the power of high expectations, but we don’t always realize how our biases keep us from those high expectations. I hadn’t thought about that as an aspect of integrating character, but an article in the May 2016 issue of School Administrator magazine made me think differently.  The article “The Window of Assignments” offers the example of a principal in an urban middle school who had really focused on improving the academic achievement of her approximately 700 students, mostly low-income students of color. For three years, the school worked to unpack the Common Core Standards and had provided lots of training, staff workshops, and team meetings to ensure that faculty was committed and prepared for this effort.

The principal then invited The Education Trust to help her assess her staff’s progress. The principal hoped to gain new insight into the actual progress by seeing what her low-income students experienced across core subject areas.  The reviewers looked closely at everything the middle school students had been assigned to do in English, history, and science over a two-week period. They collected every assignment — no matter how long or short, whether it was a quiz or test or even homework.

According to the article, when the principal reviewed the results from The Education Trust’s analysis of her school’s assignments, she was stunned. “Despite the professional development commitment she and her teachers had made to the new standards, fewer than one-third of the students’ assignments were aligned with grade-appropriate standards. And the overwhelming majority of the assignments required only low-level student thinking and almost no extended writing or application of ideas.

“Shaking her head, the principal asked, ‘Why will we not believe that our lower income students of color are capable of this deep-level thinking and work? We are spoon feeding them because we do not believe they can do it.’”

Unfortunately, the results found at the school are fairly typical. When the The Education Trust in another study reviewed more than 1,800 assignments across six middle schools in two states, the expert reviewers found only 13 percent reflected high levels of cognitive demand.

Has your school considered reviewing the assignments all staff give out? How do they match up with the standards of learning expected? Character education is focused on developing the potential of every child. Are we unknowingly shortchanging some students because of our hidden biases?

Setting high expectations and scaffolding assignments to help students achieve those expectations is a first step. We need to design lessons with that in mind. Edward Deci’s research into human motivation shows that students do become engaged when the lessons are challenging, but the lessons also should:

  • Appeal to students’ interest
  • Provide authentic learning opportunities that relate to the real world
  • Offer students “voice and choice” in what they do
  • De-emphasize competition
  • Rely on intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, rewards

You may want to research project-based learning or constructivist approaches to learning for more information.

In addition to lesson design, we need to reflect on our own presentation as teachers. Are we modeling the character traits we want to see? Are we modeling how to treat each other with respect, honesty and kindness? Do our classroom signs and processes also reflect that? But also, are we teaching students to develop intellectual character? Are we teaching them to be curious, open-minded, skeptical, and eager to find truth and understanding?

Chapter VI of Character.org’s Eleven Principles Sourcebook offers some good suggestions for teachers to model “thinking dispositions” to help students develop their intellectual character:

  • Displaying thinking postures and inspiring emotions. Rubbing the chin, looking contemplative, and showing delight, excitement, and curiosity make it clear that what the teacher is pondering requires deep thought and is naturally fascinating.
  • Framing problem-solving steps as questions that be asked and answered (thinking out loud). For example: Let’s see, what is the problem? What are some solutions? What might happen if…?
  • Making comments about their own thinking. For example: Maybe I shouldn’t take this idea as a given. I’m not at all sure about it. I think there may be other ways of looking at itl. Let’s think of some alternatives.
  • Identifying times when they are using a disposition. For example: That makes me really curious (curiosity); I’m not convinced of that (skepticism); Let’s think about how we’re going to tackle this problem (strategic); This discussion has given us a lot to think about; think about the different points of view voiced, and let’s take this up again tomorrow (open-mindedness).

The more I thought about character and academic integration, the more I realized how complex it is and that it could not be adequately addressed in one simple blog. Integrating character into the academic program includes the content focus, of course, but it’s also all about the process both in the design and the presentation of each lesson and the classroom routines that foster respect and collaboration. As you start a new school year, I encourage you to engage more fully how character can be integrated into your academic curriculum.

We often say that character education is not one more thing on the plate, it is the plate. I think that is true, but it takes work to get to that point.

Looking for more information on embedding character education into the academic curriculum? Register for the 2016 National Forum on Character Education to hear more at breakout sessions like “Integrating Academic and Prosocial Learning and Teaching” by Jonathan Cohen, Kristin Fink and Karen Geller and “Building Character Through Literacy and Service Learning” with Marilyn Perlyn.