Cultivating Character: One School’s Story

Guest post by Bill Coon, Ed.D.

You enter a social studies classroom and are immediately greeted by a student who welcomes you and introduces himself. The student explains the learning target, or the tangible learning goal he or she can understand and work towards, and then he explains the Habits of Scholarship, or character, target. He shares that today’s Habit of Scholarship is, “I can work collaboratively with my peers to draft a thesis statement for an essay about Peter the Great.” The student invites you to sit down and enjoy the class. After you sit down at a table with three other students, the students unpack the learning targets together and then break into small groups to begin their work for the day. As an observer, you begin to see multiple examples of collaboration in each group.

Our goal at Meadow Glen Middle School is for all of our classrooms to look, feel, and sound like the one I just described. We want our faculty and students to identify the soft skills, or what we call the Habits of Scholarship (HOS), and we expect our students to demonstrate these traits each day. Cultivating character through our Habits of Scholarship initiative has been a rewarding journey that has helped to form well-rounded students.

Forming the Habits of Scholarship

Along our journey, we started with as many as 10 habits and found out through teacher and student interviews that neither group could name or describe the character traits. We realized that there were too many HOS, and the indicators were too long. An HOS committee, comprised of teachers and administrators, was formed and continued to research and revise our HOS. At the end of the 2013–14 school year, the HOS committee finally identified the five character traits—tenacity, leadership, communication, collaboration, and integrity—and described each trait with several indicators. Click here to see our HOS indicators.

In order to help everyone remember the character traits, Meadow Glen Middle teachers and administrators landed on one simple sentence: “I am a tenacious leader who communicates and collaborates with integrity.” I believe every student on our campus knows the sentence and can describe what each of the traits looks like in the classroom. A simple sentence that students, teachers, and parents can remember and talk about is powerful.

Teaching the Habits of Scholarship

Diverse group of teen high school students are sitting around round table in library. They are studying books and papers to prepare for a test. Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, and Indian teen boys and girls are smiling while working together on class project.

Our school has a structure in place that we call CREW (Creating Relationships and Exploring Within) that meets for 30 minutes, three times a week. CREW is a meatier, more thoughtful approach to advisory for students. Every teacher has a CREW of 15–18 students in our school. In CREW, students participate in a number of leadership development activities, develop specific academic and character goals, and learn the HOS through discussion with their CREW leader. Our faculty also teaches the habits in the classroom, includes HOS learning targets in their lesson plans, and displays them on their boards.

Assessing the Habits of Scholarship

Tracking and reporting HOS has been a challenge for us, one that we continue to discuss and revise in order to work toward a simple, easy-to-use approach to tracking and reporting HOS data for both students and teachers. Teachers use a variety of methods to track concerns with HOS, including Google Forms, spreadsheets, QR codes, and student-reflection sheets. What we have found is that teachers need to have flexibility in how they collect their data. Though the data collection methods differ, all of our teachers utilize the same HOS report card to send home to students and parents. Click here to see an example of our current HOS report card.

Practicing the Habits of Scholarship

The HOS have made a positive impact on our students, staff, and school. Students now actively discuss character traits during classroom activities and spend time reflecting on how to improve their HOS. In fact, during our parent and student orientations this past year, four of our sixth-grade students shared how the HOS have impacted their school and home lives for the better. During our monthly student-led “town hall” meetings, a group of six to seven students are recognized as citizen scholars by their peers and teachers for a habit of scholarship that they have consistently demonstrated. Teachers recognize each other with our Golden Gator Award for HOS work, as well during our faculty meetings. The peer-to-peer recognition is a sincere and much appreciated distinction for both students and teachers.

What is your experience with character education initiatives such as the Habits of Scholarship? How do you ensure that students possess these important learner qualities?

Bill Coon serves as the principal for Meadow Glen Middle School in Lexington, SC, with “the finest professionals on the planet.” Meadow Glen Middle is a Palmetto Gold and Silver Award-winning school, a TransformSC School, and on a journey to become an EL Education School. He is the 2016 South Carolina Principal of the Year. 

3 Comments

  • Michael Thomas says:

    I’m glad to see your school’s success with this HOS initiative. My school has had mixed success with character ed initiatives, with some teachers embracing it with great results and other teachers complaining of the time it takes on top of their already full plates (especially the assessment piece). Any advice on how to help acclimate these resistant teachers?

  • Elaine Starinchak says:

    Stories – begin class with a short story ( 2 minutes?) while class is getting ready for math, science, whatever, about someone/event where character mattered and changed life for the better. This could be drawn from the teacher’s own experience or materials in character ed. Stories are effective teachers. Let them stand by themselves. Just expose students to persons acting with character. No testings, etc.

  • Mark Whitaker says:

    I applaud you for doing this. The dispositions our students gain are just as important as the skills and knowledge they gain.

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