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Character Counts: Informing Students' Goals and Values

In the beginning of each year, I ask my students to write out some goals. I split them into short-term goals ("Get all my homework done," "Make an 80 average," "Don't get any phone calls home") and more long-term goals ("Graduate high school on time," "Get a good job," "Go to college"). The goals the kids come up with range from quotidian ("Pass all my Regents exams with 65 or higher") to ambitious ("Get a scholarship at a top school") to outlandish ("Become a professional MMA fighter and get endorsements"). They're always entertaining to read, and afford some great discussions with the kids.

The problem is, a lot of them lack follow-through. The same kids who tell me at the beginning of the semester that they want to pass all their classes will then show up so late to my 2nd period English that they miss all but the last 10 minutes--and then wonder why their quiz grades are low. A student who told me he expected to become a professional baseball player when he got older didn't even bother to try out for the school team, let alone any outside programs wherein he might have had a chance of getting scouted. Kids who tell me they want to become veterinarians are failing their science classes. In both short and long term ways, I've seen that many of the students lack foresight; they don't grasp how their actions (or inactions) will have consequences later on, in terms of failing to yield certain opportunities, and they don't see the benefit of hard work in the short-term. I have no doubt that I sound curmudgeonly saying this, but many of them--as earnest as they may be, in their goals--lack the discipline or work ethic to show up on time and produce.

In his post "The Character Factory," NYTimes columnist David Brooks explains that both liberal and conservative approaches to poverty treat recipients of social mobility programs as "hollow men," shaped only by economic structures, as opposed to individuals surrounded by certain values and attitudes. These programs tackle only the economic underpinnings, and not the social ones--lack of visible opportunities, lack of role models, limited aid in developing beneficial standards and goals.

All of Brooks' ideas make sense; the difficulty is getting the buy-in from poorer families, particularly parents, who in many cases trod the same meandering academic and social paths that their children are treading now. Yes, they want their children to pass their classes--but too few of them set up the appropriate standards and attitudes in their homes that will foster their children's academic success (say, checking on test grades and homework completion, or dealing authoritatively with their children's tardiness or cutting). And programs that suggest a critical view of parents' existing value systems--such as one of Brooks' suggestions, where families would be effectively "mentored" by a successful baby boomer--can be readily perceived as condescending, classist, and self-righteous.

Brooks has written before about the class tensions that can hinder even the most well-meaning efforts to close socio-economic gaps. Within schools themselves, kids are perhaps more malleable, and less susceptible to the feelings of being condescended to that are engendered by some of social mobility programs. Schools can help with "character education" by establishing consistent systems of rewards and consequences, celebrating student achievements, meaningfully disciplining poor behavior, avoiding social promotion (which reinforces a message that students do not have to work--yet, too often, teachers are hamstrung into all manner of grade inflation), and giving students access to clear and desirable opportunities down the line (internships, scholarship programs, special trips, etc.) A lot of schools are already doing these things, certainly, and school professionals have to work on the factors they can best control.

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