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.


NAIS reflections, short version

I can’t possibly calm my mind enough yet to truly process the last 36ish hours. Six meetings, three workshops, and one keynote later…so much to think about from this years NAIS/LINK conference.

Since I spent today live tweeting (is there dead tweeting?) from the conference, my first reflection will be in take away snippet form.

1. It was an awesome sight to behold thousands of independent school minds in one place. Talk about a smarty party.
2. I’m so glad I was able to smile myself into the Klingenstein reception despite my lack of RSVP (thanks Cindy, as always, you rock). it was great to see KSI friends and mentors for even a few brief moments.
3. I loved using twitter to follow the conference. It allowed me to check in with things I could not attend, most notably the Fri gen sess, during which I sorely was double booked! It was also a hoot to make a twitter connection during the 21stC session with the person sitting literally in front of me. What a chuckle we got there!
4. Being the scheduling wonk that I am, I was impressed with the open minded and mission driven process articulated in the session by Hawken School. Talk about bold innovators using time to best serve their kids!!
5. I am not alone in my desire for mission driven, progressive-why thinking, technologically rich, student centered learning. I was constantly reminded of this as I traversed the halls and spoke with many folks leading our schools.
6. It was so nice to see and hug my colleague who teaches in Turkey, even if it was for only a brief few moments. She is an amazing human being and role model of courage.
7. I love the guys at Evernote and Idea Paint so much I went back twice. And my new friend gave me the coolest pink evernote tee.
8. I was disappointed by Geoffrey Canada, which makes me so very sad. I talked about seeing him with several folks and I eagerly anticipated inspiration. I wanted him to know his audience and speak to how we, the Educators of the demographics that we teach, can make a difference in the lives of the demographic that sadly, we do not often reach.
9. I’m very sad I missed the Heath brothers, but I bought their new book….(yea! Another nerdy change book!)
10. I love being an independent school educator. I love using technology to collaborate. I love talking about the mission and the why of things, and I love kids. This 36 hours of driving, gas money, parking money, traffic, conference fees, and two days in high heels were worth every minute, penny, and pinched toe. I am enormously blessed.

“Making” them face the challenge

On Friday our school will celebrate its annual International Festival. Each and every year we begin this event by honoring the US with the singing of the National Anthem. This year I told my awesome 8th grade girls that they were going to do it. To this I received quite a bit of hesitation. It is a scary big deal for five girls to stand up in front of the school and sing one of the hardest melodies ever. (Seriously, an octave and a half?!) For two weeks I have been reassuring them over and over about their abilities and my unabashed faith in them. I have full and absolute faith that they can take on this challenge.

I just read a quote from a review of “Race to Nowhere” that talked about resume building and it made me think a moment. One of my rationales to one of the girls was, “this will look good on your resume”. In retrospect, this is not why I want them to do this, I think it takes away from building the intrinsic joy of facing a challenge. I want them to do this to challenge their fears, to show their gifts, and to show a different group of student leaders. For the most part, they are facing up to their fears and coming around to the idea. After they sing for the performance and as they reflect, I know they will be glad they faced the challenge and be as proud of themselves as I am of them.