We often speak of our three pillars at The Lincoln Academy: rigorous academics, career exploration and character development. TLA is a school located in the heart of Beloit, a community challenged in the area of academic achievement, yet at the same time experiencing economic development growth that continues to strengthen and diversify the local business community. Given this dynamic, conversations about TLA seem to naturally pivot to academics or career exploration activities. As we head toward our 2nd Annual Service Learning Day on May 4th, it seems like an opportune time to highlight character development - the third, equally important pillar.
Creating a Sense of Community
Building a school culture with a focus on character and based in joy and a sense of community is central to daily activities at TLA. To be able to feel connected and accountable to expectations, it is critically important scholars both feel trust and respect as individuals as well as build trust and respect with/for others in the school community. Ideally, this allows scholars to be themselves within established expectations and hold themselves accountable to these expectations. Will they make mistakes? Yes. We all do. Our goal, however, is to create a school culture where it is safe to do so while experiencing and working through the repercussions and accountability that can come with making a mistake.
Layering in Character Education
How do we create this school culture? We layer character education into all aspects of the school. Each school year begins with teachers, parents and scholars reviewing and signing the Commitment to Success, which includes, among other things, fully committing to character virtues like honesty, responsibility, cooperation and respect.
We also plan, coordinate and explicitly teach a unique character virtue each month through both direct instruction in the academic curriculum and daily opportunities like the recitation of the TLA Proclamation at morning assembly, homeroom activities, sports team activities and special assemblies. Opportunities and experiences, such as collaborative projects and fundraisers to benefit the community, the service learning hour requirements for both middle and high school graduation (10 hours for middle school and 30 hours for high school) and the school-wide Service Learning Day, allow for further discussion of virtues in context. We consistently focus on citizenship and service.
Finally, TLA uses a Restorative Practices approach to building a positive school community. Restorative practices is a philosophy, not a program. Circles are a strategy used by TLA to support a positive environment. Circles are used with respect to character development in the following ways:
Community Building Circles – for the purpose of teaching empathy and self-reflection; developing a sense of belonging through sharing stories and active listening. Examples: morning check-in, classroom issue, values and moral dilemma issue circles.
Repairing Harm Circles – bring together everyone affected by wrongdoing or conflict to discuss the situation or incident and repair the harm.
These interventions can produce meaningful improvement in scholar behavior. When there are regular opportunities for everyone in a school to express emotion and exchange feedback, it builds positive relationships and a strong sense of community. We find this applies even when there are different perspectives, as the activity is still based in many of our core virtues – respect, empathy, responsibility, honesty, cooperation, courage, perseverance, gratitude and sometimes, even creativity.
Preparing Scholars for the Future
Similar to our academic and career exploration pillars, through character education our goal is to support scholars in learning about and developing key tools that will prepare them for a successful future. A daily focus on making positive choices now firmly establishes the skill set they will need as they grow into adulthood and enter/navigate the workforce.
As part of our ongoing work with local partners who engage with TLA scholars through career panels, speaking at special assemblies, job shadows and more, we encourage partners to discuss and share with scholars the importance of character in both their life and career. Interactions where partners share challenges they faced, tough decisions they had to make or some of the most meaningful aspects of their career that relate to character are frequently the ones that resonate with most scholars. We are so grateful for the generosity of our partners in sharing real life examples of character in action, as it provides another layer of opportunity for scholars to learn, grow and integrate their understanding related to the impacts character can have in our lives.
Citizenship & Service
Our goal is to prepare scholars to lead a happy, choice-filled life by the time they leave TLA. In addition to being well-prepared for meaningful future academic and career success, we believe it is equally important scholars are well-prepared to navigate making daily choices in adulthood and being an engaged member of their community.
Our scholars have undertaken a lot of hard work this year related to character. We look forward to our upcoming Service Learning Day and the opportunity it provides scholars of all ages to experience what citizenship and service looks and feels like right here in Beloit. Even now, scholars can and do make a positive difference in their community through the choices they make and the actions they take.
Dr. Kristi Cole is Chief Education Officer at The Lincoln Academy, a K4-12 independent, 2x charter school in Beloit, Wisconsin.