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An Interview with Scott Seider: Character Compass

Oct 12, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Scott, Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success has just been released. What brought this book about ?

For nearly a decade now, my research has focused on the civic and character development of adolescents. As a former English teacher, I’m particularly interested in the role that literature can play in fostering such development in young people. Several years ago, I learned that the Boston Preparatory Charter Public School—one of the schools profiled in the book—strives to nurture the character development of its student body through weekly coursework in ethical philosophy. I was intrigued by this practice and initially planned to simply compare the changes in moral character development of students at Boston Prep (as the school is known) to students at other highly similar schools. In seeking out appropriate comparison schools, however, I discovered that a number of other high-performing urban schools in Boston also saw students’ character development as central to their mission, but defined character in entirely different ways than Boston Prep. Schools like the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School—another school profiled in the book—focused on what is referred to as ‘performance character’ while the third school in the book—Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School—focused on students’ civic character development. Character Compass emerged from my interest in trying to discover the effects of these different character emphases upon the students attending the three profiled schools.

2)      Scott, there seems to be this nationwide emphasis on “Annual Yearly Progress “ and Standardized Test Scores. Where does character fit into the schools nowadays?

As I explain in the book’s Introduction, character education has been part of public schooling since its inception. In fact, some of the founding fathers of education such as Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann had explicit character development goals in mind when they pushed for free public education. Over the past fifteen years, however, the intensive focus upon high-stakes testing ushered in by No Child Left Behind has pushed character education to the backburner of many American schools. With both students and educators facing significant pressure to demonstrate that students are achieving “adequate yearly progress” in core subject areas such as reading and mathematics, many school leaders have reluctantly given short shrift to character education as well as art, music, health education, and even history and science.

What Character Compass focuses on, however, is that—in recent years—several key players in the education reform movement have begun to put their own mark on character education. Rather than viewing character development as a goal distinct from student achievement, these educators have come to see character education as a tool for facilitating students’ pathways to and through college. Character Compass focuses on three schools that treat students’ character development as a key tool in fostering student achievement.

3)      Tell us about these three schools that you studied.

On the surface, the three schools that are profiled in Character Compass—the Boston Preparatory Charter Public School (Boston Prep), Roxbury Preparatory Charter School (Roxbury Prep) and Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School (Pacific Rim)— appear to have a lot in common. All three are public charter schools located within ten miles of each other in Boston, Massachusetts. All three serve student bodies comprised predominantly of low-income youth of color. And, importantly, all three have supported their student bodies in achieving impressive results on both high-stakes state assessments as well as in their acceptance and matriculation rates to four-year colleges and universities. Finally, all three schools cite character development as a key lever in achieving these impressive results. Where the three schools diverge, however, is in what they mean when they say that they prioritize “character development” as a tool for promoting student success. Specifically, Boston Prep focuses on students’ moral character development—the character strengths such as integrity and compassion that allow individuals to approach their relationships and responsibilities in ethical ways. Roxbury Prep, on the other hand, focuses on students’ performance character development—the character strengths such as perseverance and grit necessary to achieve one’s potential in a variety of endeavors ranging from athletics to academics. Finally, Academy of the Pacific Rim prioritizes the development of students’ civic character— the qualities and skills that motivate and enable individuals to fulfill their responsibilities to local, national and global communities. In short, then, all three schools profiled in Character Compass are utilizing character education to achieve impress results, but they are doing so in very different ways. And, as a result, there are clear distinctions in the pathways by which the three schools’ students are arriving at their ultimate goal of graduating from college.

4)      I believe Howard Gardner wrote the Introduction to the book. How was he involved?

I was fortunate enough to work on the Good Work Project with Howard Gardner while completing my doctoral work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The Good Work Project is an ongoing study into the supports and obstacles that individuals face in doing work that excellent, ethical and engaging. One branch of the Good Work Project has studied these issues in regards to young people, and one of Dr. Gardner’s important points about the cultivation of good workers is the idea that different young people need support in different ways. Some young people need support from adults in learning how to do work that is excellent in quality while others need more support in learning to approach their work with a commitment to ethical behavior. This idea parallels a point raised in Character Compass that school communities benefit from taking stock of both their core values and the needs of the students they serve, and making some decisions about which type of character development to prioritize. The three schools profiled in the book have made three different decisions in regards to this question. One has focused on moral character development; the second on performance character development; and the third on civic character development. Both because of our past work together and his interest in these issues of character development among young people, Dr. Gardner was gracious enough to write the foreword to Character Compass.

5)      Now, you may have heard about the Character Counts program. What is Character Compass? Is it a program?

You might say that Character Compass advocates “programming” rather than a “program.” All three schools treat character education as a central focus of their work with youth, but none of the schools use a “prepackaged” character education program. Rather, all three are examples of what character education scholar Marvin Berkowitz refers to as “homegrown character education.” Boston Prep, for examples, engages students in a weekly ethical philosophy class in grades 6-12. To make this possible, the school has allocated the resources for a faculty member to focus exclusively on designing ethical philosophy lessons that underscore the school’s focus on moral character strengths such as integrity and compassion. With its focus on civic character, on the other hand, Academy of the Pacific Rim has chosen to turn its senior social studies course into an action civics course during which all Pacific Rim seniors engage in a six-week internship at a non-profit organization that addresses a civic issue about which they feel passionate. Finally, Roxbury Prep—having chosen to emphasize performance character— holds a weekly community meeting that offers numerous opportunities for students to perform to their potential. Performances at Roxbury Prep’s community meeting range from the school’s annual “Powerful Speaking Extravaganza” to the “Pi Recitation Contest” to a weekly book review offered by the “Reader of the Week.” Through each of these practices, the three schools have sought to develop character education programming that fits the particular needs of their school community. That is a very different approach than a school which purchases character education “in a box” and hopes this programming will meet its needs.

6)      Scott, I am with you- I believe we need to teach kids maturity, responsibility, reliability, dependability, judgment, common sense- but how do the schools do this while also teaching reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, geography, maybe some science and civics and art and music?

Well, I think what is most interesting about the three schools profiled in Character Compass is that they regard character development as teaching and learning that promotes student achievement rather than something happening alongside student achievement. For example, with its focus on moral character development through ethical philosophy programming, Boston Prep is exposing students to the writings and reflections of thinkers ranging from Aristotle to Mahatma Gandhi to Malcolm X. In so doing, Boston Prep is actually drawing upon not only philosophy but also literature and history to engage students in reflection upon moral matters. And these discussions and reflections expand into students’ other content classes as well. For example, a geography teacher at Boston Prep explained to me that when she introduced a unit on the Chernobyl disaster to her students, the ensuing discussion drew upon the moral philosophy language and concepts that students had been exposed to via the school’s character education programming. There are similar examples of such “transferability” in the other schools as well. In short, then, I think that effective character education supports the teaching and learning of traditional academic content rather than detracting from it.

7)      Along those same lines- what responsibilities do parents have to teach a moral compass if you will ?

I think that nearly all of us would agree that the primary character educators in children’s lives are their parents. None of the schools profiled in Character Compass would describe themselves as trying to take over this role, but rather to supplement and reinforce the lessons that students are learning at home. As one parent that I interviewed explained of the character education her child was receiving at school: “We all have a value system… and they mimic [at school] the same thing I feel we should all be living up to.” So, by and large, the parents of children at the schools profiled in Character Compass feel like the character education programming reinforces the character development they are working on with their children at home.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there are never differences between the value systems that students are exposed to at home and in school. For example, a number of teachers across the three schools noted that their students sometimes received conflicting messages from parents and teachers about how to respond to being picked on by another student. It is true that such conflicting messages can be confusing for youth; however, part of the process of developing a mature adult identity is being able to consider different value systems and make decisions about the value system that an individual wants for him or herself. In a way, then, exposure to some differences in values between a student’s home and school is a natural part of that student’s process of developing into a mature adult.

8)      What responsibilities do colleges and universities have?

One of the earliest traditions in American universities was that all students were required—at the conclusion of their university experience—to take a capstone course in moral philosophy that was often taught by the university’s president. This requirement represented the university’s assertion of its responsibility to support students in not only acquiring academic knowledge and skills, but also applying that knowledge and skills in ethical ways. I think that there are many ways in universities today are beginning to re-embrace this idea that they possess responsibility for the civic and moral development of their graduates, and one indicator of this is the growing number of universities featuring certificates and minors in community engagement or community service learning. These programs provide students opportunities to learn and reflect upon the different ways in which they can apply their

9)   Where can interested people get a copy of your book?

You can purchase a copy on Amazon.com or directly through the Harvard Education Press website!

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1 Comment

  1. This was a great interview and it gave me an idea to use in my afterschool program with Kindergarten children. The children that I serve come from families with different socio-economic backgrounds within the same communities or surrounding communities.

    A lot of the children come from single parent homes. The children spend a lot of time with other family members or their older siblings. I believe that a lot of the children imitate the behavior of the siblings, relatives, or caretakers.

    It is my belief that since the parents are working that the values they want their children to follow are not always reinforced. I am confident that if a few of these characteristics are taught to the children, they will be more conscious of the behavior and work ethics displayed inside the classroom and will trickle into their homes.

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