• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Program teaches students to care about others, persevere


SIMMONS ELEMENTARY School first-graders Aaliyah Fisher and Kalel Hawkinson and kindergartner Leland Markwell recently explained what empathy, responsibility and kindness mean to them. Students are awarded mastery cards whenever they demonstrate an understanding of a positive character trait or value they've learned in school. (Photo by Bob Vlach)

Students at Simmons Elementary School are learning why "character counts" in their classrooms, lunchroom, library, hallways or wherever they interact with others. The Character in Action program, which supports a culture of shared values, grew out of a plan to build high levels of vocabulary within students during the instructional day. Now, empathy, sincerity and perseverance are more than just words to students. Fourth-grader Aaron Hickey wrote, "Whenever you feel like you reach your limit, it's only the beginning. Then it's time to dig deep," to inspire your peers to work harder, do their best and never give up. Fourth-grader Alejandro Devers, who has an interest in serving in the armed forces, said "They show empathy by never leaving a man behind." Alejandro, Aaron and other students are awarded mastery cards whenever they demonstrate their understanding of a positive character trait or value they've learned during the week. "One of our missions is to build a student-friendly culture - a positive environment for the school," said Administrative Dean Damon Stefanic. He said students already know how to express emotions like anger, fear and joy so "we are teaching empathy and perseverance and sincerity because these are (learned behaviors) that actually need to be taught and modeled before a child can internalize how to use that in a proper interaction between themselves and an adult or child in a social setting." A short, five-minute PowerPoint presentation at the start of each week begins the students' understanding of a new word and the positive learned behavior or character trait it defines, "but the reason (why) the program has been so successful is because the teachers have integrated (these learned behaviors) into daily instruction throughout the week," said Stefanic. Watching teachers successfully incorporate positive character traits into everything students do in the classroom pleases guidance counselor Tom Sheldon "because we're seeing it is having an effect on our school. It's going throughout the entire school. It's spreading," he said. Because teachers regularly refer back to vocabulary words that define positive character traits and learned behaviors in class, students have "multiple opportunities to learn this (positive behavior) and use it in practical and realistic situations," Stefanic said. To illustrate the success of the Character in Action program, Simmons Elementary points to a drop in the number of students being sent to the office for behavioral issues. "Not just that, we've also seen less peer conflicts because we're teaching the students effective ways to reduce stress and also ... have those personal interactions without having" conflicts, Stefanic added. And students are producing and participating in videos to demonstrate positive character traits so their peers can actually see what it means to be sincere, said Sheldon, a teacher at Southside Elementary for 12 years before coming to Simmons this year. Sheldon approached Stefanic with this idea that has blossomed into a program supported by teachers, who understood the need to bring character education into the classroom. "We felt that this needed to be a priority so we can instill these (positive characteristics) and values in our students, and help them to resolve conflict and to build their own understanding...," Stefanic said. He said students will interact with their peers in positive ways if they have a deep understanding of what it means to persevere and show empathy toward another person. "It's not a part of who they are until they take action and it becomes who they are, Sheldon said. "Empathy ... has to become a part of who you are. You can't read it in a book and think you got it." Because there'll be more opportunities to build positive character traits within students at Simmons in the months and years to come, Sheldon said, "This is just the beginning." "It's a very intentional vocabulary lesson to not just teach values and character, but also to broaden their understanding of words" - with a deeper meaning than the definition in a dictionary, Stefanic said.

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