Having become convinced that all teachers need to be actively involved in raising their students' moral awareness, Ms. Gilness devised a formula that enables her to weave character education seamlessly -- and painlessly -- into her content lessons.
To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.
- Theodore Roosevelt
AS A TEACHER of language arts, I never fail to be astonished by the rhetorical impact of a well-worded quote. I collect and savor those that strike me. I indulge in philosophical wallowing. A pithy quote speaks volumes. When I first read the quote by Roosevelt, I was overwhelmed with the sense of my responsibility as a teacher. I had always felt fairly confident in my ability to impart content, but this was an added obligation I could not ignore. I grappled with the following question: How can I use my position as an instructor to imbue my students with a strong sense of moral awareness and still commit to the job of teaching content at the same time?
Character education has become a primary concern of mine, and I have searched the Web, pored over many a curious volume, and come to the conclusion that character education cannot be isolated, codified, and packaged into tidy little instructional units in a how-to manual. Assessments of character can't be conjured up with checklists, rubrics, and clearly defined results. That would be too easy.
As I pursued my research, I kept running into complex philosophical constructs that finally led me to circle back on a few homely truths. From these I put together what I have come to call the "character cocktail," a full-bodied and harmonious blend of community, manners, and ethical decision making.
"The best and the deepest moral training is that which one gets by having to enter into proper relations with others," wrote John Dewey. "Present educational systems, so far as they destroy or neglect this unity, render it difficult or impossible to get any regular, moral training." Another truth. The first truth I discovered in the classroom is that a teacher cannot begin to think about fostering character without first creating a positive classroom climate replete with a strong sense of community and proper relations among members. Could I integrate this concept into my instructional strategies? It would surely be difficult, but it seemed well worth the effort. I decided to rely on one of my finer qualities: unabashed deviousness. If kids think you're too obvious, they'll think you're preachy.
One method I found of integrating the concept of community into my Honors English 10 classroom was through the use of eulogies. I told the students that we were studying prefixes and roots. As an example, I asked them what a eulogy was. They all knew and were quick to tell me that everyone knows eulogies are given at funerals. Nice words and kind thoughts about dead people are delivered to the mourners. I then instructed them to look up the prefix (eu) and the root (logy). I asked them to define them, and they came to the conclusion that "eulogy" simply means to "speak well."
Once they had thought about the word, I asked them why we wait until our loved ones can no longer hear us before we say something nice about them. Because I was new to the district, I told the students that, while I didn't know them, they knew one another very well. I asked them to give eulogies for one another so I could get a sense of who they were. They loved the idea. I allowed them to set the criteria for delivering a eulogy, but I was quick to point out that students who were uncomfortable with being in the limelight would not be required to participate. Being genuinely ghoulish creatures, they insisted on playing the role of the dearly departed, selecting background music, and so on. I was surprised by how much thought and planning some of them put into sharing their thoughts about their classmates. …