The Academic Virtue of Character

The first weekend after the start of school. I feel like I have just started school myself. So much activity my brain cannot hold it. And I am getting hit up for lunch money again.

An old friend of mine sent me an article on “Character in Education” posted in the NY Times. I often get articles like this sent to me although I admit that I rarely get to read them. This one is particularly difficult as it is 9 pages long. But as I was perusing this story which opens with Riverdale School, where tuition is about 38k per year for pre K. I stopped on a paragraph that eluded to something “free” schools take as their core point of departure.

“the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence.

At Riverdale School in the Bronx, they have taken to placing key words related to character building around the school.

They are referring to the KIPP Academy schools which were the focus in the film, Waiting for Superman. Basically what the article is pointing out is that students who work, show character, confront failure, have a better time of it later on. It is saying that students who ace their tests in their preparatory years, have a hard time of it later on because they are not prepared to accept failure. I am not so sure I agree totally with the spirit of this. It still smells of  the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy so popular with right wing America. But I do agree that character is important in development. How we get there is where we differ.

One thing I love about BFS (Brooklyn Free School) is that natural order is respected. I made a point of hanging out for an hour in the middle of this week. It has been a little hectic in my home office with a lot of projects heating up to a boil, and I needed a little break. So I took my pen and pad, and sat in the RUC (Rambunctious Underaged Children) room for the first hour of the school day. While I was there they had what is now intended to be a fixture for the year, the daily meeting. Given that this is the first week of school, there were about 10 new faces around, and they need time to integrate to the conditions. So the daily meeting is intended to gauge the students as to what they want to do (or not) and give them an idea as to what plans the advisors might have in store for them. The theme for the year is proposed. This year it is “Community”, a theme I have been proposing in other areas of my life. And for the first two weeks, the students are given a particular edict: do whatever you want. Do nothing if that suits you. Go somewhere and think.

My wife happened by the school later in the week, and found our son just hanging out in a stairwell by himself. She asked him why he was not in a class or working on anything and he replied “I have 2 weeks to figure it out!” Which meant that he needed the time to digest what it is he wants to use his time for.

Noah has entered the RUC’s as of last year. This would be the equivalent of middle school. He has begun to focus on his desire for skills, mostly in the visual arts. He has also requested a chance to begin doing an internship, something that he will be encouraged to do as he moves on in years. We have already set up a meeting with a local animal shelter and pet groomer. Something he asked for specifically. So after 6 years of running about, attending classes here and there, I am beginning to see a young man who is very focused, understands what he needs in order to acquire the necessary skills and is starting to form a plan in how to get there. All the years of building social relationships without teacher interference, democratic meetings where he has taken the occasional leadership role, bringing agendas to be voted on and creating project after project with his friends, have resulted in someone who is actually interested in what his place in the world is. And this is because he was given the space to do so. He hasn’t been burdeoned with homework, or tests or told what he can and cannot do. He could play when he wanted. He could draw when he wanted. And if he so chooses, he can sit and do nothing, which for a child, may really be something.

This for me is what character building is really about. And you cannot institutionalize it. It is organic.

Reading on in the article, I see that KIPP shows only 8% or less of their graduates complete college (at this writing, I believe that almost all BFS graduates have gone onto college. As the school is young, it is too soon to see how many will finish, or if they feel the need to). This shows me that Charter schools like KIPP, although with good intention, do not fair much better than the general public school population. And I think this failure is a result of embedded thinking held over from the traditional schoolhouse. That somehow you can “teach” values. What I am saying is that you cannot “teach” anything. You must become the example. And the truth is, you cannot be all things to all people. You must be who and what you are, and the ones who are attracted to you, are the ones who will follow that example.

Something I want to stress again as a blogger for Education Activism, is, that I am not a teacher. I have not studied education. I am not interested in developing curriculum. My focus has been working in the world. I always wanted to be an artist. And in so deciding to follow my needs and urges, I also had to find ways of surviving while doing my art, continuously studying on how to be better. My journey took me into many places. After art school, I held a number of odd jobs working in warehouses, stock rooms and stores, where my drawing was done at coffee breaks and lunch and evenings at home. Later, I was able to get an apprenticeship in a package design studio which led to many years of doing production in Ad agency bullpens. As I progressed to designer and art director, I began to understand the process of working with clients. People who did not have a shred of creativity in them. And this tempered me to understand how to meet the needs of others. All during this time I had experiences working in theater (learning lighting). Working with a shadow puppet theater for a year on weekends. Studying classical guitar and playing with poets on stage. And this is just a brief summary of my years and years of experience. All during this time, I traveled, raised children, lost a marriage and found a new marriage. There is no judgement as to what I went through in order to learn what I learned. But this body of experience enables me to pass something onto young people, without having to say it, or organize it in cozy little tidbits to be verbally transmitted in front of a classroom. It may be teaching by emanation. This is where I feel real character is, and from where it can be imparted.

Another thing I can deem from this article about the KIPP schools and schools like it, is they are still very much segregated by neighborhood. So even as they implement their character building program, it is limited by the lack of diversity. At BFS, there is a total integration of class, race, age, economic standing and gender. As a community, BFS has to take in the world on all levels, all at once. This is an amazing learning opportunity for the students, and in truth, it has taught me a great deal. Tolerance of how others have been guided through this life, has been a big milestone in my own learning. And yes, at 56, I am still learning.

There is one student at the school who has had some troubled beginnings. I will not go into any details(to protect the innocent), but he had some anger issues. He is definitely NOT from the middle class. And my son has seen to include this boy as if he were his younger brother. We asked Noah about it and he said “he needs a lot of love.” If this is not character building, then I do not know what is.

Noah explains some important fact related to playing Mindcraft to his friend Oren.


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