Character Education, Part 2: How to Teach Core Values To Kids Meaningfully

Last week, we looked at how to pick significant books to teach the core values that will guide our classrooms and school communities for the coming year.

In addition to having the right books with fitting characters and messages, we need to embed these core values in additional activities in the coming first weeks or months of school.

There are three rules in teaching students about core values: model, model, model. Students must see core values in practice in order to grasp abstract concepts such as empathy, persistence, or pride. Below are a sample of ways to integrate core values into character education and ELA instruction.

1. Extend a fiction or nonfiction book’s message of characters struggling with the core value beyond the text.

-Ask questions during and after the reading: How does this character demonstrate respect? Or, how does this character struggle with respect? (look at the character’s actions, feelings, opinions about and interactions with other characters, and dialogue) What advice would you give this character? How should this character handle the situation next time?

-Have students in small groups act out how they would have handled the situation in the book differently or give advice to the main character(s).

-Invite students to create a job ad looking for a person that demonstrates the selected core value. On the flip side, have students create a “Wanted” poster of a character not demonstrating the core value and describing the character.

-Turn the book into a Reader’s Theater script so students can perform it to younger grades and lead a discussion on why this book is good for learning about the particular core value.

2. As a class or in small groups,  have students brainstorm on chart paper what the core value looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Teachers at my school were great about encouraging students to make a list of examples of actions that demonstrate the core value, things we might hear or could say that demonstrate the core value, and feelings we might experience when we practice or see someone practice the core value. Post the resulting chart on the wall for students to refer back to during character study or throughout the year to inform their own choices.

3. Use the core values as the first vocabulary words of the year. In doing so, you will create a classroom-wide common language and create a space for all students (including ELLs) to access academic vocabulary and become familiar with your vocabulary instruction routine. Consider multiple vocabulary acquisition strategies: Have students make predictions about word meanings, look up and record word definitions from a dictionary, write the meaning of the word or phrase in their own words, draw a picture of the meaning of the word, list synonyms and antonyms, create an action for each word, and write a meaningful sentence that demonstrates the definition of the word.

4. Take photographs of your students modeling the core values. Let students brainstorm in teams what one of the core values looks like in action, take a photograph, and then display the example on your classroom wall. (For example: picking up trash=responsibility or helping a younger student=kindness) When students struggle to practice any of the core values, remind them of the photo wall of their peers or themselves modeling the core value. This is wonderful positive reinforcement for students who may struggle with behavior and making good choices later in the year. Whether observing examples or non-examples, students will love describing what their peers are doing well or what they need to change to demonstrate the core value.

5. Make the first wall displays for the year core-value themed and make them visible for all visitors to see. Students can bring in pictures, drawings, or magazine and newspaper clippings. Encourage students to mine advertisements and local news stories to find a celebrity or significant person they admire demonstrating one of the core values (For example: post a picture of an Olympic athlete training=persistence). Feature a collage of these examples on a wall alongside the photographs of students modeling the core value and the chart defining the core value. Think about leaving these up throughout the year to remind students of how far they have come.

6. Apply the core values to students’ lives with real examples and scenarios they may face over the coming year at school, in their homes, and in their community. In addition to realistic fiction books with similar settings and characters with which students identify, discuss realistic situations and have students create skits to solve real world problems using the core value.

7. Remember that those first few weeks offer countless teachable moments! When a child demonstrates a core value, point it out to the class. Encourage students to observe their peers in the classroom and at home. Create a time for students to reflect on one or more of the core values and share who they saw making good choices. Since you can’t observe every moment, involve your students in catching their classmates being diligent, generous, and more. Students will love the positive attention and you will get the chance to turn any tattling into a positive tool.

Have other great ideas to share with our educator community? What activities do you do every year to teach character education?

For further reading:

Character Education, Part 1: How To Choose Books For Core Value Study

Jill_EisenbergJill Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

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