Breaking into the Heart of Character (book review)

Our Norwood Summer Reading selection for this year is Breaking into the Heart of Character by David Streight, Executive Director of the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education. The first sentence of our school mission statement declares: Norwood School’s mission is to ensure that each of its students grows intellectually, morally, physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually, while preparing to function productively and generously in our pluralistic society. Naturally, a book on the heart of character through moral development is a perfect complement to our initiatives in Character and Spiritual Development. (This is also one of the committees that I serve on with great pride.)

It is a short book, chock full of ideas and research surrounding the concept of Self-Determination Theory as defined by the work of Dr. Edward Deci. The three main principles of this theory revolve around the concepts of Autonomy, Relationships, and Competence. When our human needs are met in these three areas, we can build healthy moral development. The book stresses the need to build intrinsic motivation for our daily life and work, specifically, our work with students. It offers practical suggestions for working with our students to develop their sense of these three pillars and offers research in each individual area.

I found this book to be filled with “yes!” and “uh-huh” moments. It aligns perfectly with my educational philosophy of helping students develop themselves rather than dictating every moment of their lives and learning. He quotes from the Character Education Partnership 11 Principles of Character Education, “When teachers promote moral and performances values such as academic integrity, intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and diligence, students are better able to do their best work and gain greater autonomy, competence, and self-confidence.” (p. 20) This is it, in a nutshell, the entire book!!

The concept that we can be our best selves (and our children can be their best selves) when our needs of autonomy, relationships, and competence are met seems like a no-brainer, but it takes intentional practice in the day-to-day of schooling to remember these elements. We must be intentional practitioners of character development. Striving to know our students, to understand the motivation behind their behaviors and choices-this helps build relationships. We must provide opportunities for our students to have true elements of choice in their learning-and may I selfishly add innovative choice-so that they develop a sense of ownership or autonomy. We must provide effective feedback that focuses on the strengths of our students and allows them to see areas for growth in a way that is constructive and developmental so they will build their internal sense of competence. This is a lot to ask of a teacher juggling 16+ children and many subject areas and differentiation. But, it is our task. It is our task to be responsible for the whole child and this means the moral development of children is paramount to academic learning. They are intertwined as a mass of roots and branches-character as the roots and academics as the branches.

Each chapter of this book offers keen reminders and suggestions for implementing strong character development. I won’t go into them in detail because Mr. Streight’s work should be required reading for administrators, educators, and parents looking to develop their children to be independent, morally sound, and competent individuals. I will however, quote his last paragraph-as I think it is the “Charge” statement for all of us:

“Schools whose missions point to academic excellence, character, self-regulation, motivation, or well-being may even see a moral duty of their own to implement relevant practices. These practices are not a curricular add-on; they are not one more thing on a teacher’s “plate.” They do not even call for an extra assembly, and they especially do not call for the purchase and distribution of stickers or stars. Rather, they are all easily implemented, necessary, and available for use by every professional educator, in every class, every day.”(p.96)

And with that, I say, Amen!!

Further Resources based on Breaking into the Heart of Character.


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