Four ‘Character’ Books to Explore

By Becky Sipos, Chief Operating Officer

When I was a teacher, I always looked forward to catching up on the pleasures of reading during summer vacation. I accumulated a big stack of beach reading and fun novels, but I also always took time to read some education books to improve my teaching and recharge my classroom practices.

Now that I work year-round for CEP, I no longer enjoy a long summer vacation. Although I find time to read more throughout the year, I’m envious of those of you getting ready for a summer break. I assume you have a big list of pleasure reading at the ready, but here are some character education books you may want to add to the mix. (These are just my personal picks that I’ve enjoyed reading this year and not intended to be endorsements by CEP.)

Character Compass book coverCharacter Compass
How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students toward Success
by Scott Seider, Harvard Education Press, 2012

I really enjoyed this book that showcases three public charter schools in Boston that focus on character development as the key to student success. What is so interesting is that each school emphasizes a different aspect of character. Boston preparatory Charter Public School looks at moral character, Roxbury Preparatory Charter School focuses on performance character, and the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School focuses on civic character.

Seider reports both quantitative and qualitative measures for each school. He shows how schools measure improvements in specific character traits and values, but he also provides the results of in-depth interviews with students that show deep changes in their thinking and behavior that test scores cannot convey. I enjoyed reading about what each school emphasized and how it affected their students.

Although the book is called “Character Compass” it is not intended to be a how-to manual. Sider says “[the book] seeks to offer useful insights to educators, parents, and policy makers across a wide range of schools and communities about the different ways in which character education can form the foundation of students’ success.” He references what Marvin Berkowitz and Melinda Bier refer to as “homegrown or grassroots character.” It is critical that schools not try to “copy and paste” a particular character ed program, but instead need to develop one that meets their school’s mission, context and goals for students—just exactly what CEP advocates with its 11 Principles.

Seider writes, “That is not to say that every educator or school must reinvent the wheel when it comes to character education.” We can adapt and learn from each other, and Seider’s stories and guidance offer much to educators who care about educating for character.

The Heart of Education
Bringing Joy, Meaning and Purpose Back to Teaching and Learning
by Dara Feldman, Motivational Press, 2013

I picked this book for my list because so many teachers that I know are frustrated these days. Burdened with the pressures of standardized test score, AYP, NCLB, new teacher evaluations, it seems the joy has gone out of their teaching. Dara’s book is designed to bring that joy back. She does that through a nice blend of storytelling and great resources.

I should add that Dara is a CEP consultant and a personal friend, but still I learned a lot from this book. Her resources and strategies are useful not only in the classroom, but also in all that we do with family and friends.

I think Hal Urban’s quote on the cover sums it up well, “It’s fitting that the word HEART is part of the title in this book. No educator I know has a bigger heart than nationally acclaimed teacher Dara Feldman. She’s shown this for years while touching the lives of both kids and teachers. This is a wonderful and valuable resource that reminds all of us why we became teachers—to bring out the best in young people.”

Sticks and Stones
Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy
By Emily Bazelon, Random House, 2013

So many books and resources about bullying have been released recently, that I hesitate to put this one on my list. You’ve probably read or heard about it anyway because Bazelon seemed to have the best book press agent ever. I heard her on NPR and saw articles about the book just about everywhere. CEP even did a blog about the book.

But I decided to keep the book on my list because I liked her approach. She took three stories of bullying that had all made the news and wrote in-depth about them. She added perspectives that added much to what had appeared in the news—although for me, reading those stories again was painful. Bazelon then followed the stories with a thoroughly researched section entitled “Solutions.” She cautioned about accepting the hype: that bullying is an epidemic (not true) or that it’s the biggest problem kids face today (also not true.). She offers thoughtful suggestions and even includes a Q & A section and a list of resources for kids, parents and educators.

You Can’t Teach Through a Rat
by Marvin Berkowitz, Character Development Group, 2012book cover You Cant Teach Through a Rat

I’ll just add a sentence or two about Marvin’s book since it has been out for a while, and most character educators know Dr. Marvin Berkowitz, the endowed chair of character education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Although the title may seem off-putting to some, the picture on the cover reveals the meaning and as you read the book, it becomes very clear. Marvin’s goal in his book is similar to Dara’s—to help teachers rediscover the true reason they went into education.

The book interested me more the more I read. As a former high school teacher, I felt much of his advice was designed more for elementary school teachers. But once he got into student empowerment and student voice, I was really engaged. I agreed with him that there is a disconnect between what teachers say they value and what they actually do. Whether this is a conscious choice or the result of the system is not so clear.

I think Marvin’s book would be a great one to discuss with a group.

Summer book club, anyone? I’d love to hear from you as to other education books you’ve enjoyed. Heck, I’d love to hear your beach reading suggestions as well. Happy Summer!