Focus on Character Education

As September arrives and students hear plenty of advice on how to approach the academic year ahead, it’s helpful to know that we are also modeling one of the central pieces of advice we give to students: steady, continual improvement is a better goal than trying to achieve perfection (or even close to it) the first time. As a group of middle school educators, we know from plenty of first-hand experience that to be a good learner, you can’t dwell on what went wrong and instead you have to always ask yourself, “how can I get a little bit better at this?”

We believe we are focused on personalized, character-based education, but we know there is more work to do. As a Middle School we joined a research collaborative last year to investigate how we teach core character traits, which align with the Academy’s mission and with oft-cited 21st century skills. The research tool allows us to assess our student body’s overall profile according to six targeted skills of creativity, ethics, teamwork, curiosity, resilience, and time management. (Scroll down for a chart with more information about these skills.)

Here’s how the MSA (Mission Skills Assessment) works. After our students take a standardized online assessment, we receive the data that helps us look at how our student body is displaying these traits in comparison with other similar independent, college-preparatory schools around the country. We review the results as a faculty, look for patterns, reflect on what we notice, and then use these observations to shape our instructional plans for the following year.

Last year’s results, the first for this year-to-year process, showed that our students are above average in all six characteristics, even in comparison to this elite benchmarking group. It was especially interesting to see that our students’ greatest strength, which was an outlier at the top end of the benchmarking group, was time management. While it was a bit remarkable to think that time management would be a strength for any middle school student body, it was actually not too surprising for us, knowing that we have spent so much time teaching students how to know their strategies, such as using a planner, and reflecting on study habits in preparation for student conferences.

Always looking to improve, we continued to discuss the other characteristics on which we thought we could focus more attention. As the year goes on, I think you will see these characteristics across our Middle School. Intrinsic motivation and resilience will shine through the performance ensembles and design-project courses that engage students in high interest, sustained projects like creating a web radio channel, starting a school store, or hosting a community fundraiser.

Collaboration receives special attention, of course, through many facets of daily life in Middle School. We start with small classes that engage students in collaborative problem solving, peer editing, and persuasive speaking and writing. The new advisory program from Developmental Designs also helps us teach and practice core collaboration skills, including communicating directly, establishing group expectations, reviewing results along the way, and even the most ambitious skills, such as motivating and inspiring teammates to try their hardest.

This year we will again use the MSA to measure these same skills and we will see how the new programs, instructional focus areas, and initiatives are influencing our collective ability to teach to our school’s mission. So we are not just talking to students about setting long-term, ambitious goals and then working for gradual, continuous improvement, we are doing it, too.

MSA capture