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When Character is Center Stage, Teens Rise Up

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“What do teenagers need most? They need space, time, and support in school to practice their leadership on issues that matter to them. They are watching, waiting to see if we care enough to invite character onto center stage. We must,” Ryan Maxwell, senior director at EL Education. 

In this article that originally appeared in ASCD Express, Ryan Maxwell, senior director at EL Education, details how schools can and should become a place where it’s not all about academics and character takes center stage. Read the full article below or in ASCD Express

When Character is Center Stage, Teens Rise Up
By Ryan Maxwell
May 9, 2019

Last May, in Flint, Michigan, middle and high school students from Detroit and Rhode Island partnered with Flint students to distribute pure, safe water to community members who have been affected by the water crisis. These students recognized that an injustice to any one of us is an injustice to all of us, and rose up to support the community. Their sense of fairness was nurtured by schools that intentionally set character development at center stage by providing a culture of belonging, relevant curriculum, and opportunities for action to improve their world.

Foreground Belonging and Character

For teens to commit to purposeful action in school or in the community, they first must feel a sense of belonging. At many remarkable schools across the country, the wellspring of this feeling is a daily meeting or advisory period with a small group of peers called “crew.”Crew is not the homeroom from days past. It is a place and time where students come together with the explicit purpose of helping each other to succeed as students and as members of the larger community. In crew, peers challenge and encourage one another, learn to listen deeply, practice using strategies for positive communication and effective action, and plan collaborative service projects that benefit the broader community. When a crew member does not show up, her peers call her, asking if she is okay and letting her know she matters. When crucial race, class, gender, or other issues arise, students have a trusting place to practice expressing their needs and listening with compassion. Their crew leader, a teacher, often serves in this role for many years, deepening relationships and facilitating group and individual goals the way a good coach does. Inevitably, crew members make mistakes, and when these mistakes happen, the crew circles up to reflect on character, to develop new habits, and hold each other accountable to their best selves.

Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago, for example, focuses on developing student character as a core component of student achievement. Teachers at Polaris believe their classrooms should create students who are not only effective learners, but also ethical agents in their own lives and civic-minded contributors to their communities. As a Polaris alum, Symone Barton affirms, “There are five Points of Polaris—compassion, critical thinking, integrity, active citizenship and exploration—and I know what they feel like.”

Symone’s ability to feel and live the school’s character codes, their Points of Polaris, is the result of school routines and rituals that value character growth equally with academic achievement. As a school ritual, students can nominate other students for demonstrating the Points of Polaris. Vetted by the staff, these nominations sometimes result in a Light Leader Ceremony, a moment that provides collective and public recognition of demonstrating character. Closing their week on Friday afternoon at community crew, the entire school gathers in the gym. Leaders begin describing a student anonymously, naming the positive points that demonstrate her compassion, integrity, or other Points of Polaris. Eventually, it dawns on the nominated student that the entire school is hearing her best self described. The student is called forth from the crowd, takes hold of the ceremonial torch, dons a star-emblazoned t-shirt, and with 450 of her community chanting her name, steps up on an Olympic podium where she calls: “Polaris!” to the response of hundreds of enthusiastic and energetic faces calling back at once: “Rise Up! Rise Up!”

In addition to public routines and rituals like these, teens need opportunities to reflect on their work and their own character journey. Structures like student-led conferences, passage presentation, and senior talks provide teens with an authentic forum before a purposeful audience to take stock of their own growth and reflect on their assets and goals for character development. At key moments of passage, students review their accomplishments and challenges, publicly setting goals in front of their parents, teachers, and community members. If we don’t make these conversations center stage, our teens will inevitably look elsewhere for confirmation of their identity, value, and worth. It is up to educators to ensure we provide powerful, compelling moments to support and celebrate student self-reflection on character.

Put Character at the Core of Curriculum

A compelling curriculum that puts character at the core promotes equity, empowers students through active learning protocols, and studies character through real-world and literary examples. Such curriculum creates opportunities to connect texts to local issues, takes students out into the community, and builds students’ capacity to give back to their community.

At Graham Elementary and Middle School in Columbus, Ohio, for example, students recently analyzed the archetype of a hero through reading and real-life research. With a focus on heroes in history who have changed the world around them, students read texts including Code Talkers, Flygirl, Sunrise Over Fallujah, and Fallen Angels. Students closely read primary sources related to WWII, then interviewed veterans being inducted into the Ohio Veteran Hall of Fame. Students asked about veterans’ early life, what caused them to join the military, and how they affected their community. Students compiled these stories into a professional book for an authentic public audience, including the veterans themselves. Teacher Jisuka Cohen described their work. “Our students really took to this task seriously. They were honored to interview their heroes and write their stories.”

Help Students to Make a More Equitable World

The world our teens have inherited is riddled with injustice and increasing acts of hatred. Schools need to be places that bring those conversations to the forefront as students grapple with a complex world. Teachers need to give students opportunities to discuss the issues of the day, understand diversity in their world, and take meaningful action in response to injustice.

At Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine, for example, when a student was assaulted in a hate crime, student leaders in the school rallied to respond as a community, leading crucial conversations in crew and hosting a walk in solidarity. Their diverse school was ready to act because the daily fabric of the school was already designed to form bonds, to lean into courageous conversations about race and difference, and to empower student voice.

Teachers can create authentic learning opportunities to serve others. The students in Flint were a part of something bigger than themselves, a nationwide Better World Day. This day was not a one-day act of service, but an expression of an on-going ethos of service and care. Demonstrations of service like this one are happening across the country. Students from Parkland High School rose up to respond to the horrific event that arrived in their lives. Other young adults, like members of the violence intervention program Youth ALIVE! in Oakland, California, take action in their own neighborhood by educating younger students about gun violence. Earlier this month, students in hundreds of schools across the country celebrated Better World Day through art work, advocacy, and action in their communities. You can see them in actionor follow the hashtag #BetterWorldDay across social media. We too can tap into students’ potential and desire to contribute to a better world.

What do teenagers need most? They need space, time, and support in school to practice their leadership on issues that matter to them. They are watching, waiting to see if we care enough to invite character onto center stage. We must.