All In

by Guest Blogger
November 21st, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

A lot has been made this year of the value of marshmallow tests, grit, and character in building a quality education. Every time I open my laptop, someone has forwarded an article or tagged me in a post about about the value of character in schools. When I closed the lid on my laptop this weekend, and finally got around to catching up on my NPR podcast listening, there it was again. Paul Tough, talking about his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character with Ira Glass on This American Life.” Tom Ashbrook, talking about the fact that schools are adding workouts, not for fitness, but for “Attention, Grit, and Emotional Control.” I had to retreat to a Freakonomics podcast about how to maximize my kids’ (read: my) Halloween candy haul (research for next year).

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not tired of the discussion; I think this focus on character in education is a fantastic turn of events. I’m thrilled. As more and more people come around to the value of character education, I sound less and less like the preachy schoolmarm on a weekend pass from the Big Woods.

For the past five years, I have been teaching at Crossroads Academy, a school that combines the Core Knowledge curriculum with a core virtues curriculum. I have to admit, I was not totally sure what I’d gotten myself into when I signed the contract for my first year. I figured I’d smile and nod, support the character education teachers in their efforts, and reap the benefits of teaching kids who attend a weekly character education class. It’s not as if this is my first brush with Aristotle’s Golden Mean, on the contrary – I’m one of the A-man’s biggest fans – and I can hold my own in a conversation about prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.

But about six months into that first year, I noticed all that “character stuff” was leaking out of character education class and saturating every other subject. It was my students’ fault; they opened the floodgates. They talked about Atticus’ sense of justice in English class, Achilles’ lack of temperance in Latin class, Ghandi’s incredible fortitude in history class. This weekend, I was helping my third grade son study for his history test, and he told me that “the conspirators killed Caesar because he was not a good steward of Rome.”

Today, Core Knowledge drives my content, but character education and the core virtues drive my teaching, and my relationships with my students.

Well, most of the time. Like anyone who has been teaching the same classes for a while, I am apt to get lulled into a routine, particularly in November. The clocks have just changed, that certain slant of light has descended on New Hampshire, and it’s tempting to coast while I put my energy into writing report cards and recovering from the middle-school super-virus my students gave me last week. After all, it would be easy; my class materials have all those helpful notes and Post-Its in the margins, accumulated over years of discussion, the teacher’s manual of my Latin textbook sings its siren call…but drat. Just when I have checked out until after the holidays, my students foil my plans.

This week, I was hacking away at the huge pile of grading I have to get through before I can actually being to write grade reports, and I was getting sleepy. In my defense, Latin translations are a huge time suck because my students like to take full and creative advantage of Latin’s  relatively flexible word order. Nouns and verbs are never where I expect them to be, and the grading is slow going. Halfway through what felt like the bajillionth Latin test, I came across an incorrect answer, with an arrow pointing to a note in the margin:

Dear Mrs. Lahey. I know the answer to #4 is incorrect, but I accidentally saw the answer on your answer key, and I did not want to cheat. But I know the answer is “vobis” because “you” is plural, not singular.”

Needless to say, I gave her the two points, and promptly checked back in.

I am not naive enough to believe that character education alone can save America’s educational crisis, but I do know that this week’s headlines are full of bright, well-educated people who have sold virtue to purchase wealth. If character education manages to score some column inches on the front page between Jill Kelley and Lance Armstrong, and authors such as PaulTough and Diane Ravitch are brave enough to champion the cause of character in education, I’m all in.

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.