Moving Forward Requires Character

Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status quo

In many sectors of our country, public education is spinning in preparation for the Common Core roll-out in the fall.  Districts, schools, and classrooms are frantically preparing for this new movement in education as they gear up for this new approach  Many districts are weary with rushed professional development and anxious about the results.  Teachers are learning new standards, writing new curriculum, and discarding former practices.  Everyone is in a buzz to prepare for education’s new launch.

apathyThe only group of people seemingly unfazed by this daunting new approach are the people most effected by it: the students.  For them it is school as usual, which translates to being ill-equipped to master the academic challenges facing them.  Equipping students to be in charge of their own learning and helping them prepare for opportunities outside of high school is near and dear to our hearts, but it’s the part of our work that challenges us most.  Still, we think of this issue as a worthy struggle because the answer changes with every student: how do we best accomplish the challenge of college and career ready high school graduates?

According to James Heckman, Nobel Prize winner, schools must also teach “soft skills” or “non-cognitive skills.”  Highly predictive character traits or “soft skills” were developed by Drs. Martin Segilman, Chris Peterson, and  Angela Duckworth for the  KIPP Academy.  The traits, although simplistic in design, allow the student to develop skills that will allow them to monitor their learning behavior and be in charge of their own learning. imgresUsing a common language to address character traits that create better learners, teachers can direct students to be in charge of their academic and social behavior to improve their own learning. But sometimes this approach could be misconstrued as “one more thing” on the teacher’s already long to-do list for the district and the school.  We concede that it is “one more thing,” but it’s the thing we didn’t know to add that could actually put wheels on our new program making it successful and profitable for our students.  It’s new information that helps us further develop our students. It’s a welcomed “one more thing.”

In Pattie’s view, high stakes testing pits state against state, district against district and school against school.  We create a class distinction through testing that is contrary to the purpose of public education.  And every time students fail a test, their self-esteem and their desire to participate plummet.  Pattie believes we can end that cycle if we create students who are more  involved in their learning. Researching and interviewing over 300 people considered genius, Dr. Duckworth found this trend:


The tendency not to abandon tasks is the KIPP trait of grit.  We tell students not to be discouraged or to work harder, and that means that all of the grit is coming from an external force-the teacher, rather than from the internal force-the student.  Duckworth’s research on grit demonstrates that the students with grit are not always the smartest, but they will stick with it until they have accomplished the task.  And isn’t that what we want from our students rather than entitlement we sometimes see when teachers are in charge of the grades? Employing this method  allows teachers to change the way students think about themselves and their schoolwork.

Dr. Carol Dweck found that telling students they were smart actually impeded their academic growth because they did not know how to respond to challenging work they could not easily master.  Her work on mindset in the classroom, requires that we need to re-think how we respond to our children.  Helping students develop the grit to overcome the classic classroom slump will help them reach the desired content learning goals.

KIPP Academy believes that there are keys to using the goals:

1. Believe It and Model It: Breathe life into the James Baldwin quote: “The children are ours. Every single one of them… children have never been very good at listening to their elders but have never failed to imitate them.”

2. Name It: Give the intangible and often-unnamed a name. Only by labeling and talking about the character strengths that Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson identified can we embark on the journey to develop them.

3. Find It: Introduce kids to real-world and fictional examples that display the various character strengths.

4. Feel It: Help kids and adults feel the positive effects of focusing on, and developing, their own character strengths.

5. Integrate It: Create dual-purpose experiences and lessons that involve the character strengths. Learn more about how character is integrated into the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching.

6. Encourage It: Provide people with growth mindset praise (i.e. precise, descriptive praise) around character.

7. Track It: Record and discuss progress toward character goals regularly.

Pattie recently assigned the KIPP traits to her students, requiring them to identify three that they were willing to work on over the summer.  The three traits most identified were zest, grit, and optimism.  As students wrote about their desired traits, Pattie was amazed at how clearly students saw themselves and took ownership of their own shortcomings. Her students realized that identifying their weaknesses’ was both humbling and energizing:

Learning about the KIPP traits has strengthened me because it helps me understand what I need to work on.  A person is as strong as their weakest part, so by knowing the weakest part I am able to strengthen myself.  — Sara Egbert

I thought this was a very good experience to look into ourselves… It was also very 912humbling experience.  –Darby Estes

Character needs to be developed in all students, and if we are united as a school, we can impact the academic growth of our students through character development.  With our passion and commitment to change, we can develop a classroom of independent learners who are excited to learn.  And that is what we all desire. `


About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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One Response to Moving Forward Requires Character

  1. Kara says:

    It is interesting to note that the two common traits of 300 geniuses listed above we’re traits that my son comes by naturally. These are the same traits that make school distasteful for him. They call it, “difficulty transitioning” public education is not structured to nurture long attention span. In elementary school, it is 10 to 15 minute activities. In high school it is juggling 6 to 8 classes simultaneously. It is lunacy! (I kind of hope my son never gets over his “transitioning” issues…..and I wish a wasn’t so good at it! 🙂

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