George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Teach Character in the Classroom

This school's Community Circle builds much more than a sense of community.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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Credit: Robbie McClaran

This how-to article is accompanied by the feature "Vital Signs: Learning Is Alive and Well at Faubion Elementary."

Mary Harbolt and Gayle Quigley have made life-skills education a staple of their team-taught fourth-grade classroom at Faubion Elementary School, in Portland, Oregon. Responsibility, initiative, friendship, sense of humor, and other skills feature in lessons covering a wide variety of topics. In Community Circle, children and teachers talk about each other's successes and shortcomings, and issue one another compliments for good behavior and challenges to do better. Here, Harbolt explains why the program packs more punch than the standard school campaign for kindness and respect.

Why should schools get involved in teaching character? Shouldn't those lessons come from home?

It has to do with classroom management. When you build community, you need to teach students about themselves, about the kind of person they want to be. Then you have fewer management problems, and you can teach the curriculum better.

How do you reinforce those skills in the classroom?

We reinforce them whenever we're reading about characters in books, people we're studying in social studies, events that have taken place, current events. We ask, "Do you think they were missing a life skill?" or "What life skill do you think they used?" We even talked about it when they raised gas prices: "How does that affect people, and what life skills do you need when things get more expensive?" It applies to everything.

What are the essential things you do to get the character lessons to sink in?

We use students' real-life experiences. We start with what's most important to them, and that's recess. The very first day of school, right after recess, we come in and we have a Community Circle, and we talk about what went well at recess and what went wrong.

How do you make the character skills relevant to their schoolwork, not just the playground?

Slowly, recess improves as the kids practice modeling life skills. Then we pick a character with trials and tribulations and talk about their life skills. Then we transition to life skills in the classroom: "Oh, I really like how Table 1 is modeling cooperation." We emphasize the positive. It starts with recess, then it moves into the classroom, it spreads into the rest of the school, and eventually we make a home connection as well.

How do you facilitate the children's use of the skills at home, especially if the skills are not reinforced there?

We usually tie that in with New Year's resolutions, so that doesn't happen until January. We talk about a resolution for school, and then we say, "Let's make one at home," and Gayle and I do it, too. We model the skills in our own lives for the students. We try to make sure the parents are aware that this is happening, and we try to steer kids toward things we feel a parent would appreciate and compliment.

What strategies do you use to make children comfortable discussing their areas of weakness?

When they complain about something at recess, we don't name names in the beginning. We just talk about the incident. When we make the transition to talk about people, we have already done it with characters in books. Then we pick an incident that was a simple incident to solve, and we add a name. It's a gentle transition, and it has worked every year.

How do you find time to do this while you're trying to cover all the academic content?

The Community Circle builds cohesiveness. It diminishes tattling, because the kids can wait till Community Circle to talk about something, and in the long run it saves our time. If you have kids who believe in themselves and set goals for themselves, you've cut way down on behavior problems, and then you spend more time teaching.

When it comes to life skills, where do you draw the line between teaching and preaching?

The students help us draw the line. They want to do the talking, they want to do the sharing, they want to analyze the life skills. Once you get them talking about life skills, it's very much hands off; it's just me facilitating a Community Circle, so I would say they keep me from preaching.

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Nick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teaching character and having sociable communication with your students is a good step to improving realationships with them. It also helps you explain your expectations to your students. There are lots of times when students do not know how to act in a group environment. Even when they are taught how to act some are taught to act violently. I have kids, as most teachers do, that have been told by their parents if someone is messing with them then they need to get back at them. This usually involves a fight. There are many times that I have to explain to my students that the way that they have been taught to act home is different then what is expected at school.
Also a student can feel out their emotions about a problem through talking. Too many kids have learned to react when they are mad. Insead of thinking or talking about the situation they would just rather punch the problem out. Talking gives them time to calm down and and look at the problem in a calm manner. Then it can be resolved in a more peaceful manner.
The more that you communicate your expectations to your students and listen to them the more they will be willing to accept your imput. The more you help them the more they will trust you. Eventually that aggressive student can become your best student.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Character education is one of the most valuable tools you can teach and model to your children. At my school, we have a new character word each month and our counselor comes in for visits to teach the value of each character word. We have Character Ed assemblies and give our character slips for our students. Along with our character education program, we have a structured behavior intervention program that places an emphasis on acceptance and regaining the child's responsibility on themselves. I think that we, as educators, have a tough job when it comes to teaching character and acceptable behaviors; however, it is well worth it in the long run. What would our world be like if we weren't attempting to place these morals in our students?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that character is a vital component of our job, as educators. Many of our students come to our classrooms without this instilled in them from home. We, in return, have a "parenting" hat to put on. I, too, find myself telling my students that it might be okay to do that at home, but at school, we do things differently. Many times, through that constant intervention, I find myself loving those children even more. Sometimes that is the only love and care they receive.

Nick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is sad but true in some cases. Their are parents out there that are still trying to live out their "childhood." They have not taken it upon themselves to live for there children that they took the time to bear. To teach them how to live and act. Most of all they forget to love them with the amount of care that all children need. Children need to be loved. If they are not they become dead inside and sometimes turn into the vicious and violent people that we see on the news every day.

Malik	T.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are are certain schools that integrate Character Education in all subjects taken by the students. Well it is really advisable to do so because when that child already wants to be independent, character may be a basis for both employment and unemployment.Unemployment is a growing concern and for good reason. The unemployment rate has hit levels not seen in decades, and a lot of people can't even get an installment loan to keep them afloat until they can gain new employment. Growing contingents of economists are predicting 10% unemployment by the end of this economic crisis; several states are already there. California, Michigan, Rhode Island and South Carolina have all hit 10% thus far in the recession, with Oregon and North Carolina about to cross that threshold. (Wyoming has it good - the sole state under 4 %.) Many companies struggle, and more people file for benefits every day. Let's hope the the good predictions are correct we'll see a drop in unemployment in 2010.

Anonymous- 06/09/98 (person's birthday)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that life skills are important to everyone because if the teachers or parents weren't talking to their students about life skills students would get in trouble a lot and the school could probably be a disaster. Parents should talk to their children about character more often.

Anonymous- 06/09/98 (person's birthday)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You are correct!

Kay's picture

Every student wants attention. Catch them making positive character choices. My own adult children benefitted from something called Honorable Character System out of Texas. I think they have a website. Private and public tool.

Natalie's picture

I really like what you're doing as far the step-by-step process of introducing them first through characters in books and then through real life-examples.

Also, in response to Kay's comment, Honorable Character does have a website and I attended the school that founded it - like Community Circle, they use a method of teaching character by using examples from the classroom.

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