The Milken Family Foundation Fall 2004
Giving kids the strategies and solutions made monumental differences in the way kids responded to the challenges they face in school and life as reported by former students.
Read their stories in the latest Milken Family Foundation Newsletter Fall 2004. Code for the Road.
Giving them a code for the road rather than fulfilling their appetites of self indulgence and self centeredness enable these students to overcome a number of life’s roadblocks and build character. They continually surprise us with how they have applied their learning to life situations which proves all the more that value based education is not only essential but also a curriculum for life.
More than ever, character education should be an essential part of the school curriculum.
I first met Louie when he was beating his fist on the floor of the school hallway shouting, “I hate this school!” He then turned on his mother, saying how much he hated her. Finally, he said, “I wish I was a worm and someone would smash me into the ground!” It was difficult to hear how much hatred had been bottled up inside a 6 year-old child. Hatred toward schools, people, teachers, family and himself. It was hard for some to believe that Louie would amount to anything; his father was incarcerated and his only role models were negative teens with whom he associated at the park. Within a year of focusing on compassion and kindness, this child-who once made a habit of wadding up his papers and throwing them at people-was close to becoming one of the school’s best writers. What made the difference was a value-based curriculum that helped Louie and his classmates know they mattered and that they each had a purpose for being here.
Searching for the character traits that set good people apart from others has been both a professional and personal pursuit of mine for the past 40 years. As founder and CEO of the National Character Education Center, I have worked to provide educators with solutions and practical strategies for developing value-driven, respectful and responsible young people.
When I was a young educator, like many of my colleagues, I used to focus only on the disciplines of language arts, math, social sciences and science. But the more contact I had with kids and their parents, the more I realized schools needed character education as well. One need only observe the steady decline of ethics in our society and the lack of available role models to recognize the importance of deliberate character development.
Identifying the Values
When I became principal of El Camino Real Elementary School in Irvine, California in 1975 one of the first decisions I made was to change my annual theme from “Everybody is Somebody” to “Who We Are Determines the Effectiveness of What We Do.” I began to explore with my staff the core ethical virtues that we could focus on annually and tried to see where character fit into our curriculum.
We found that character education fits into every aspect of school life. In social science, students learn how to build ethical communities. In physical education, they learn how to exhibit sportsmanship in competition. In English and language arts, they learn about the character of the characters whose stories we read. In science, they learn how the choices they make about life affect our environment.
In other words, character development is a curriculum for life.
We then created a list of over 100 role models whose character traits we could study to see if there were any values they all shared in common. These people included everyone from our parents and grandparents to notable figures such as Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez.
In looking at these people’s lives, we discovered seven core ethical virtues: positive mental attitude, respectfulness, integrity, compassion, perseverance, cooperation, and initiative.
Since all of these character traits can be demonstrated by our behavior, we titled our program Values in Action! These virtues became our annual theme.
Over a 20-year period, we developed activities and strategies to instill these values in our children. We now offer many of these activities and strategies on a comprehensive Web site launched in 1994 (www.ethicsusa.com) to promote ethical behavior among teachers, parents and children.
Included on the site are a free monthly newsletter and books such as Character Lessons for Life-52 of the most important lessons you can teach your kids about character-and Heavy Freddy, designed to teach children responsible and respectful behavior. Time and time again, the feedback we received from the high schools our graduates attended not only validated our work, but surpassed our expectations. We heard comments such as, “We know which feeder school the kids attended without even asking them because of the way they behave!”
A “Code for the Road”
Kathy had trouble completing assignments. She was frustrated, and her frustration often led to angry outbursts and open defiance. If there was one lesson Kathy needed, it was perseverance.
I decided to give her a positive nickname-“Completer Kathy”-and had her participate in activities to teach perseverance. They had a lasting impact. When I spoke to Kathy at one of our reunions, she was a high school student and a member of the cross country team. She reminded me of the lesson we had shared on always finishing the race: everyone begins the race; it’s those who finish who really make a difference. She remembered the times we spent drawing a line through the word quit. She could still sing every word to a rap song we had learned that year, “You Can Do It If You Put Your Mind to It!” And though as a member of her high school cross country team she had yet to receive a single ribbon, Completer Kathy was now seeing every race to its end.
Like Kathy, all children deserve to develop a “code for the road” so that they can explore the options and outcomes of their choices. As educators, we can make this exploration a part of our students’ daily learning. The power to help them become more ethical people is in our hands.