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Tips for Teachers


Mose Durst co-founded a small private K-8 school in Oakland, California called The Principled Academy. He wrote a book, Principled Education, in which he argues that educators must ask themselves—and engage students in asking—questions about “first things.”   Questions such as: What makes life worth living? What is a life that is honorable and virtuous? To what should we give our efforts?   What is the purpose of learning? 
When Durst teaches writing to 7th- and 8th-graders at The Principled Academy, he begins by talking to them about the purpose of writing: 


I explain that first of all, we should have a love of the truth. We should see writing as a way of communicating truth.   We should want to be able to express to others, in a beautiful way, the truth about our own lives or about life as we learn about it through a work of literature. I find that if I can get students to connect with the purpose of writing, they are more motivated to take up the challenge. 


Motivated by a sense of purpose, students are more likely to engage in the quest for excellence that is a central part of the quest for character. 
The next step is to engage them in the often painstaking effort needed to pursue that quest. In Mose Durst’s class, learning to write means learning to re-write. He and his junior high school students work hard on improving their first drafts. He makes a copy of everyone’s paper, so that each student gets a full set. Together, for each paper, they identify strengths and areas for improvement. He works with students not only on getting their grammar and punctuation right but also on style—on varying their sentence structure (“not always using simple subject-verb statements”) so as to produce syntactically pleasing sentences.
When we encounter instruction of this quality, we can see why teaching and learning can be considered moral acts.   There is a dedication of self to something inherently worthwhile. You learn to be obedient to the demands of the process. You accept that there are no short-cuts to success.   All this builds character.


            Low expectations have been called the "soft bigotry” of education.   They are often institutionalized as tracking and justified on the basis that some students have “low ability.”
            It’s certainly true that we have to meet students where they are. It’s also true that more and more students are coming to school with attitudes and habits that interfere with their ability to follow directions, concentrate on a task, and learn. But a school of character finds a way to challenge all students and help them achieve their potential.  
As a reminder that such potential is waiting to be tapped, we can’t do better than to consider the story of Jaime Escalante, subject of the book Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Washington Post writer Jay Matthews. In 1975 Escalante became a mathematics teacher at East Los Angeles’s Garfield High School, where fewer than half the students graduated.. He refused to believe that Latino students whose parents were 6th-grade dropouts could not learn calculus—something no one at the school had ever tried to teach them. In the beginning his students were boldly disrespectful, wisecracked their way through class, and had to count on their fingers to do even the simplest math problems. One day Escalante came to class in a chef’s outfit with an apple and a meat cleaver. He slammed the cleaver through the apple. “Let’s talk about percentages,” he said. He had his students’ attention.

Low expectations have been called the "soft bigotry” of education.

He told them they could do the hardest problems if they worked hard enough.   In 1978, he started Garfield’s Advanced Placement program in calculus. He worked after school or in Saturday sessions with students who needed the extra time. Only five students took the course the first year, but four of the five passed the Advanced Placement Test. (Only 2% of U. S. seniors even attempt it.) By the late 1980s, he was producing more successful AP calculus students than in all but four other high schools in the country. Escalante’s story is also told in the film Stand and Deliver, worth showing to both students and teachers as a character education lesson in the virtues of love, determination, and unswerving faith in the potential of every human being.


            Columbine Elementary School in Woodland Park, Colorado, is a 2000 National School of Character. Its mission statement commits the school to helping “every child become competent in academic skills, responsible for their actions, confident in their abilities, and enthusiastic, lifelong learners.”   To make these goals a reality, Columbine has seven “Personal and Responsibility Standards”—viewed as “habits of mind”—that are integrated into classroom instruction and students’ report cards:

  1. Practices organizational skills
  2. Supports and interacts positively with others
  3. Is enthusiastic about learning
  4. Takes risks and accepts challenges
  5. Accepts responsibility for own behavior
  6. Listens attentively, follows directions, stays on task
  7. Evaluates own learning

            Each standard is broken down into four or five specific skills. For each skill there are four levels of competence: “in progress,” “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.” Charts posted all around the school help students understand what these standards or good habits look like in practice. For example, the first item under “Practices Organizational Skills” has to do with “completing and turning in work.” The four levels of competence in this particular skill are:


In progress: I rarely complete my work and turn it in on time.


Basic: I sometimes remember to hand in my completed work, but I need a lot of reminding.


Proficient: I usually remember to hand in my completed work with few reminders.


Advanced: I consistently hand in my work with no reminders.


Teachers teach students the seven standards and use them to evaluate students’ progress. Students use them to self-assess. In assemblies, the 5th-graders (the highest grade in the school) do humorous skits showing what kind of behavior meets a particular standard and what doesn’t. (“It’s a hoot,” says principal Michael Galvin.) Before parent-teacher conferences, teachers sit down with all students individually to rate where they are on the standards and help them set goals. Says one teacher:


            I had always evaluated the children’s behavior for the quarterly report cards, but it was always difficult because it was so subjective. With the Personal and Social Responsibility Standards, I now have a rubric with objective benchmarks. Because the whole staff uses these, any child who attends our school has the same standards throughout their time here.


            Principal Galvin adds: “Our students are really hooked on the idea of being aware of their own learning. Once you achieve that, you can let go of extrinsic incentives.   You won’t see many pizza parties at our school.” 


            Columbine’s staff noticed that if a particular student scored low on Standard 7 (“Evaluates own learning”), he or she also tended to score low on standardized reading tests. So they designed a tutoring program that coached those students in both reading skills and ability to evaluate their own learning. Subsequently, standardized reading scores of Columbine’s 3rd-grade students rose from 79% reading at or above grade level in 1998 to 98% in 2000. (For information on Columbine’s Seven Standards and its award-winning character education program, contact: columbineelementary@myschoolmail.com).


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1 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Paul Nash
Dec 15, 2008 2:04am [ 1 ]

Heard you on the radio and will be looking at your web site early in the new year for support and different approaches. Thanks

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