Character Education in Atlanta
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| April-May 2014

Education Insight

Creating More Than Just Good Students

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.

On the public school side, 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, respect for others and 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 including respect, integrity and responsibility, among others. Instead of students receiving a separate lecture on self-respect, that lesson is incorporated into the regular curriculum, across all disciplines, says spokesman Doug Goodwin.

That 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 heart of each grade’s IB program are several distinct traits such as communication, open-mindedness and risk-taking.

At the beginning of each year, teachers work those principles into their lesson plans with an eye to sculpting students into ideal “global citizens” who will use their knowledge to make a difference in the world and in their community.

“Every time we sit down to think about what we’re doing with the students, it’s not only the [academic] objectives, but it’s the IB learner program that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do with our kids,” says Jennifer Weyburn, AIS’ head of middle school.

At The Children’s School, an independent school in Midtown Atlanta, guidance counselor Kathy Roberts visits each classroom twice a month to present a 40-minute class on the character trait of the month. Students learn the definition of each word and how to apply the trait in daily life.

During each session, Roberts teaches the students tools they can use to manage and communicate each character trait. If the trait of the month is courage, for example, the students practice using tools to conquer their nightmares, try something new, tell their parents that they’ve made a mistake or tell a friend that something is bothering them.

Teachers also incorporate the school’s character-building curriculum by having students journal about the traits and write reports on heroeswho exemplify those traits, among other activities.

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 on a regular basis in what Williams calls a “lively, discussion-rich environment.”

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

Respecting Differences

Along with thinking for oneself and learning from failure, learning to respect the viewpoints of others and peacefully resolve disagreements and differences of opinion is a key component of character-based education.

At AIS, says Weyburn, students are taught that different people have different frames of reference. The school exposes students to other cultures and different viewpoints, and teaches them to value others’ opinions, even when they don’t agree with them.

Similarly, each classroom at The Children’s School has a “peace table,” says Roberts, where students are taught to sit down and talk out solutions when they have disputes with others. The students are also encouraged to use statements such as “I feel angry when…” to communicate their feelings.

“These things teach the core values of respect, responsibility and cooperation,” Roberts says.

“All of that has to be part of what you’re using to interact with people to try and develop solutions,” Weyburn says. “Part of our mission statement [at AIS] says, ‘Others with their differences can also be right.’”

In the end, Weyburn says, students who ask questions, think critically and take risks are more likely to develop into lifelong learners.

“It’s very well to learn things in the classroom,” she says. “But if you can’t take that knowledge out there into the world and activate it in the messy reality and complex situations that are out there, then what’s the point of learning all of those wonderful academic things?”

Did You Know?

Georgia devotes the entire month of September to the importance of character. 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. Gov. Nathan Deal extended the idea to a whole month spotlighting state history and the positive character traits of Georgians past and present.

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