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It’s not just about test scores

September 19, 2011

Educators believe character plays a major role in helping students finish college and lead meaningful, productive lives. The question: what is character and how do you teach it?

An article in this week’s NYT Sunday Magazine profiles the efforts of two schools, a KIPP charter school and a Riverdale private school, as they seek to define character and make it part of their students daily lives.

Interestingly, here is the definition that school leaders have settled on:

 zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

As the author of the article points out, those strengths may relate directly to academic performance, but they tend to exclude the moral side of the equations, that is traits like fairness, kindness and empathy. Then there’s the question of how to quantify this kind of learning.

Teachers at all four KIPP middle schools in New York City had to grade every one of their students, on a scale of 1 to 5, on every one of the 24 character indicators, and more than a few of them found the process a little daunting. And now that report-card night had arrived, they had an even bigger challenge: explaining to parents just how those precise figures, rounded to the second decimal place, summed up their children’s character.

Another interesting note is an area where urban students may have a leg up on their more privileged peers: the ability to make mistakes and learn from them. At KIPP’s Infinity Middle School, that’s a focus of the discipline program, says Dean Tom Brunzell.

All kids this age are having mini-implosions every day. I mean, it’s middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: ‘I can rise above this little situation. I’m O.K. Tomorrow is a new day.’

That experience of failure, say many private school leaders, is exactly what is missing from the lives of many suburbuan students. As the head of the Providence Children’s Museum once wisely told me, kids have to scrape their knees from time to time so that they learn how to get back up again.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 2:26 pm

    Elisabeth, thanks for closing with wisdom from Providence Children’s Museum director Janice O’Donnell! The Museum is hosting a community conversation about Kids, Play and Risk on Tuesday, October 4 from 6:30 to 8:00 PM and we’ll discuss the importance of giving kids opportunities to take chances and make mistakes – a timely topic! Details here:

    Hope you can join us!

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