Submitted by Donna Dunar, principal, Alta Leary Elementary School

What’s that old adage, “Necessity is the mother of invention”? In 2009, we earned National Schools of Character (NSOC) winner status; in 2008, we earned standing as “finalist.” As a finalist in the NSOC process, our site visitors rightly recommended that we work on the integration of character education so as to make it more systematic. We took this feedback to heart as we grappled with what this actually meant.

In the summer of 2008, our district central office declared that it was the season for curriculum renewal for reading and language arts. The district selected, “Rigby, Literacy by Design” (LBD) by Harcourt. Thus, the task at hand was to codify this new program through the lens of Principle #6 that defines character education to include a “meaningful and challenging curriculum that respects all learners, developing their character and helping them to succeed.”

The new reading program, Literacy by Design, was selected by the district for its strong explicit, direct comprehension strategy instruction, and sensitivity to multi-modal learning. With the adoption of the new curriculum, the Leary faculty devised a plan to analyze the new program vis-à-vis character virtues, ethical decision-making, coping skills and authentic learning. What we constructed was a method and a means to infuse character education into the curriculum and instruction that mobilized strong teacher collaboration and the construction of a “Design” center, a small group character-literacy center during the language arts block. Here is how we did it…

One teacher initiated the study of the new reading series throughout the grade levels, examining the Literacy by Design “Sourcebook” (student textbook) and guided reading series for its alignment with character virtues, ethical decision-making, coping skills and authentic learning. From study and examination, one teacher devised a graphic format to take stock of essential questions that framed the content, human issues and themes and complementary learning activities. The learning activities that were suggested for gifted/enrichment students are problem-based, necessitating small group collaboration, research, discussion, empathy, design, scientific inquiry, debate, question of our civic community constructs and personal and community reflection, the affective domain. This graphic format became a terrific means to “account” for the character emphasis in our teaching and learning, and a point of departure in our faculty’s development of a systematic means to codify the curriculum. This graphic format was shared with the school leadership team and endorsed.

The notion of the graphic format for visualizing and conceptualizing the curriculum vis-à-vis character education became shared with key leadership staff and enthusiastically adopted in terms of getting the work done. The task at hand was two-fold: (1) constructing the Character by Design materials so that there was not only a teacher set but also a student-friendly activity center, and (2) a teacher-friendly mechanism to store character education curriculum and activities and invite dialog/reflections/ideas. Throughout a progression of school leadership team meetings, grade level faculty meetings and summer workshop sessions, the conception of “Character by Design” centers became accepted and adopted. The title, “Character by Design” was voted unanimously. A robust group of staff worked painstakingly on formatting the curriculum following the “model” and creating for each class an index box filled with laminated cards of character-activities for each of the units in the LbD sourcebooks.

The turning point in the change implementation arrived at a faculty in-service session where two faculty members presented to the faculty the winning features of what has become the bedrock in our literacy and character program. It became clear to the faculty that the work had been simplified and “made sense.” Character education was infused naturally through the essential questions and the lens provided through graphic format. The presenters modeled explicitly, (1) the graphic format that formed the basis of the Character by Design student centers and (2) the access of a WIKI, created by our librarian on our district’s T:drive (intranet). This computer-based construct allows faculty members to codify and share every attempt they make to merge curriculum with character-education standards and service learning. The WIKI allows us a school-wide venue to post samples that celebrate our students’ pursuit in living a noble life. Teachers can post examples of student’s moral growth whenever they witness it. The WIKI was embraced by the faculty and is regularly updated by all teachers and staff.

Ironically, the activities identified in each chapter of the Sourcebook intended for “Gifted/Enrichment” students, were precisely what we recognized as perfect Character Education constructs and pedagogy necessary for all students. Interestingly, what was earmarked by the publisher for gifted students, we believe, should be challenging and enjoyed by all students.