Building a Strong Character

An education that goes beyond academics

By Daniel Beauregard

For many parents, a good education means much more than academics. While reading, math, and science are all important, having their child learn about such values as kindness, respect, and empathy for others is just as important, if not more so. Fortunately, most Atlanta area public and independent schools incorporate some form of character education in their curricula, placing an emphasis on guiding children to become caring, involved members of society.

This is an area in which Georgia has led the way. The state devotes the entire month of September to the importance of character. Several years ago, a group of students and teachers at Cobb County’s Durham Middle School wrote their state senator, proposing a “Georgia Day” to honor character and good choices. Governor Nathan Deal extended the idea to a whole month spotlighting state history and the positive character traits of Georgians past and present. In March, 2012, Georgia became the first state to recognize and dedicate an entire month to history and character.

Georgia maintains this focus throughout the school year in its public-school curriculum. The Georgia Department of Education mandates character education as part of its Georgia Quality Core Curriculum Standards, required in elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the state. This “character curriculum” focuses on citizenship, having respect for others, and having respect for oneself.

The citizenship portion stresses the importance of such values as democracy, respect for authority, equality, justice, liberty, patriotism, and respect for the natural environment. Students learn to respect others with an emphasis on altruism, honesty, and integrity, and are taught to respect themselves through self-esteem, accountability, and a strong work ethic.

The Cobb County School District boasts its own focus on character development with a calendar that emphasizes different character traits on a rotating basis throughout the school year, including respect, integrity, and responsibility. Instead of students receiving a separate lecture on self respect, that lesson is incorporated into the regular curriculum, across all disciplines. As students reach high school, a leadership development class called Principled Thinking focuses on developing character-driven skills to enable young adults to become positive leaders in their schools and communities.

A LARGER PERSPECTIVE

This approach is similar to the one taken by the Atlanta International School (AIS), an independent school in Buckhead that uses the framework of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program to instill positive character traits in its students. At the core of this program is the goal of developing students who will be ready to create a better world through intercultural understanding and respect for others.

At AIS, the foundation is laid early: The Personal Social Education component of its Early Years program gives young learners models, methods, and a vocabulary for handling social and emotional issues in a constructive way. As students continue, each grade’s IB program focuses on several distinct traits such as communication, open-mindedness, and risk-taking. At the beginning of each year, teachers work these principles into their lesson plans with an eye to shaping students into ideal global citizens who will use their knowledge to make a difference in the world and in their community.

At The Children’s School, an independent school in Midtown Atlanta for ages 3 to 8th grade, the goal goes beyond knowledge for its own sake. Here, the reason for learning is for students to better understand the world around them so that they can fully engage with and make a positive impact on it. Immersive project-based learning expands their horizons beyond the campus so that they develop a sense of themselves as part of a larger community.

The school’s graduating 8th-graders have a unique opportunity to put their learning into practice in a new capstone experience that empowers them to take action on a social issue from an entrepreneurial perspective. Offered in partnership with Kennesaw State University’s Shore Entrepreneurship Center, the project lasts the entire school year and partners students with social entrepreneurs from the Atlanta  business community. As the project progresses, students explore the issues important to their community, and through self-directed projects, create solutions to benefit those issues and put them into place, right where they live.

RESPECTING DIFFERENCES

Along with thinking for oneself and learning from failure, learning to respect the viewpoints of others is a key component of character-based education. At AIS, students are exposed to other cultures and different viewpoints, and learn to value others’ opinions, even when they don’t agree with them. Diversity is a core value at The Children’s School, not only as the basis for empowering children to authentically be themselves, but to give them the competence necessary to engage in their community.

LEARNING FROM MISTAKES

Polly Williams, elementary school principal at The Galloway School in Atlanta, says she’s seen a paradigm shift in education over the years, with more and more schools emphasizing project-based learning and collaborative problem-solving—an approach the Galloway School has employed since it was founded in 1969.

Students at the Galloway School are encouraged to come up with their own ideas, and to learn from their mistakes. As a process school rather than an outcome-based school, Galloway encourages its students to take risks, and provides a safe environment for them to do so.

“They can learn a lot by trying something,” Williams says, “and perhaps not having the outcome they anticipated, but learning from that.”

Students are also encouraged to explore their passions and beliefs, to ask questions, and speak out often on a regular basis in what Williams calls a “lively, discussion-rich environment.”

“It’s coming from them internally, instead of somebody telling them what to think or believe,” she says. “We think that’s incredibly important.”

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