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Guiding Students in Finding Their Truth

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Wooden Pinocchio sitting with a long nose

What is your students' relationship with truth? It may seem like an odd question, but knowing your middle and high school students' relationship to the truth may tell you a lot about their character and their path to future success.

Tavis Smiley raises this point in his new book about the last year of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. titled, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had opinions about segregation, education, housing, and local, state, and federal laws. He also had opinions about how people should live together and treat one another.

Tavis Smiley felt that one of the most distinctive characteristics of Dr. King was his relationship to the truth. He always tried to ally with the truth. Of course, he also knew that others disagreed with him, believing in other truths.

In the Classroom

So what does Tavis Smiley suggest we can do for our young people?

1. Have a conversation with them about how they know when something is true.

This should include things they read, internet information (including photos), things they learn from media sources, and things they believe about other people and about relationships.

A related conversation is about the values they hold most closely. Books like Urban Dreams: Stories of Hope, Resilience, and Character help teens think about their values by reading about peers' values, and how and why they came to hold them.

2. Present these four aspects of truth and discuss them with your students.

  1. You have to Seek the Truth. You can't assume it's coming your way. Many people want to get you to agree with them and hold their opinions, but it's not necessarily the truth. You also have to feel the truth is right. If you have doubts, continue to seek.
  2. Speak. Once you believe something is true, you have to communicate it clearly. That's why it becomes so important to have good writing and speaking skills, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did. If you can't express your ideas in ways that people can understand, the truth is not being well served.
  3. Stand By. Know how to defend your point of view. Avoid peer pressure, with is really following other people's goals for you. Act like an upstander for your values, especially with your peers. It takes courage, but this is what it means to be a person of character.
  4. Stay With. People who are always shifting their point of view and values lack integrity. Tell your students the following: Your problem-solving skills and ability to overcome obstacles are important. Your values matter, too, but don't be afraid to reevaluate them. However, this must be serious. You can't shift just because there is some questioning. Think it through, and do what makes the most sense to you.

3. Spread the truth. Encourage children to know that if you believe it, share it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a famous and important letter from the Birmingham jail. Ask your students to read it, and ask them why they think he wrote it. Help them see that it was not enough for Dr. King to know and believe the truth. It had to be spread to others.

Setting the Historical Context

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 similarly required extensive communication, not only about the march itself but also about the principles of nonviolence that had to govern the marchers, regardless of provocation. If the truth were only held by a select few, our nation would be a very different place today. This will also lead to a discussion about how individuals differ about the truth.

Those who supported segregation believed (and, sadly, still believe) in the truth of separation of races. This is another reason to follow the four aspects of truth and to spread what you believe, when you believe it strongly, while being respectfully open to, and analytical about, disagreement.

Talking to your students about truth can help build their values and, most of all, their sense of integrity. That is a quality that will serve them well in college and careers.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Comments (2) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mike Raven's picture
Mike Raven
Former Head of Department (Science), Teacher, Brisbane, Qld., Aust

Hi Maurice,

I strongly agree with your article - it is very important for students to find their truth.

As a matter of fact I have made a YouTube discussing this topic ..

"Student Performance and Life Issues"

( I was quite unwell when I made this so it was hurried but the main points are clear)

------ Cut and paste description of the presentation ------

Part 2 - Exploring from the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits !

Gaining a better awareness, outlook and balance through considering :

1 ) A Sense of Perspective; [Outer Limits] Looking at where we fit in on the grand scale of things - size, distance, time and our place. We are just a life-form on our tiny planet. Mysterious, wonderful but insignificant in the big picture.

2 ) A Sense of Place: [Nothing really changes] A Thought Experiment. Human activity over time. Designed to increase awareness of society, patterns of living and rituals - from generation to generation.

3 ) Meaning and Purpose: [The Big Questions.] Where do I fit in ? What role will I play ? What is important ? Do I matter ? Does the world need me ? Is there a future for me ?

4 ) Self and Others: [Getting along] Self, personalities and relationships.

5 ) Inner Self: [Inner Mind] Self-examination. Partiality, biases, temptations, distractions - barriers to learning.

How do these thoughts, awareness, self-examination and experiences help me ?

Well .. as an uncertain student trying to "gain traction" this mental exploration should help your overall learning effort and determination by:

Developing a better Worldview

Building motivation

Increase understanding

Greater interest and curiosity

Better sense of direction

Boost you study effort

Achieve better results

Enjoy more stable friendships

Now you may feel more confident to say ...

"I know who I am, where I fit in, that I am needed and I know what I want"

I hope that you find something helpful in this YouTube video !
(A Prezi presentation)

The is no magic wand !!

Observe, think and practice - and so over time you should become a stronger, more independent and balanced learner and member of society.

(c) Copyright 2014 School of the Mind - All Rights Reserved.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

The immediate inspiration for my blog about the truth was Tavis Smiley's book about Martin Luther King, Jr., and Black History Month. But as Mike's comment shows-- and it comes from Australia, I should note!!-- the relevance of the topic is wider and deeper than I originally imagined. This is about students' sense of identity, who they are and who they want to be in the world. It's about finding their own relationship to society and all within it-- thereby defining their sense of personal truth. I appreciate Mike's sharing this broader perspective.

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