The Common Core State Standards aren't an enemy. They're a smart way of saying to the public, "This is where education is going. This is what your child needs to know and be able to do as a future worker, citizen, and leader." To that end, the Common Core standards are helping to advance what we already know to be solid, holistic learning for our schools. This includes providing teachers the breathing room to get creative about focusing on integrity at every turn.
Our seventh annual Ethical Literacy Conference was smaller than usual, yet we came away from it with bigger ideas and a stronger sense of success than in past conferences. Our ability to maintain flexibility and respond to educators' needs was key to this opportunity and underscored the importance of balancing "structure" with "free flow" in the learning process.
"Tone at the Top" is a key research finding from our Schools of Integrity research project, so we know the vital part leadership plays in the process of building school cultures. Having worked frequently with great school principals who are deliberate and responsible about that role, there are specific qualities we now look for in leadership at our participating Ethical Literacy schools.
I am a principal. I knew I wanted to become a principal soon after I began my teaching career almost 20 years ago, and I count myself as among the fortunate few who can honestly say they are making a living doing what they always dreamed of doing. Seven years ago, when I began this phase of my career, a colleague, herself a retired principal, asked me if I understood the difference between being the principal of the school and every other position in the building. I am sure that I gave her some academic response, to which she simply stated, "Always remember, the lives of every student in the building are in your hands." While I imagine she was including the literal safety of my kids in her comment, I am certain that what she really meant was that my success or failure as a leader would have life-changing implications for the quality of the futures my students would live.
The current debate about school safety, as tragic as recent events may be, risks derailing the positive direction we need to go in as a nation if we want to uphold the broadest purpose of education: What kind of people are we preparing to lead society into the future? The very sad incident in Newtown was the result of one individual's mental impairment and a variety of factors—including his access to weapons—that happened to come together in a perfect storm at an elementary school. But if our response is to arm our schools, I'm afraid that by that logic we must also arm our cinemas and arm our supermarket parking lots. The list will go on and on. In other words, the Newtown issue is not so much about school shootings as it is about a shooting that took place at a school, like many others that have taken place in many other environments.
Both the whole child approach and the Common Core State Standards "compel school instructional staff to develop and deliver effective, engaging instruction reflective of individual student needs and strengths." That's what we all want for our students, and we should expect nothing less. But the standards are undergirded by an "ethical core," and all educators should keep in mind that our ultimate purpose in teaching—indeed in creating schools in the first place—remains preparing the next generation to contribute to and improve our society. The Common Core State Standards are one dimension of reaching the goal of healthy students ready to be competent, thoughtful, and informed citizens.
Teachers should be evaluated on the atmosphere they create in their classrooms and the degree of trust they have established with their students. Several findings from the Schools of Integrity and other research literature support examining both classroom culture and teacher-student relationships.
At the Institute for Global Ethics, we call it Ethical Fitness: an approach and process to help young people and adults internalize ethical values and frameworks for critical thinking about ethics. Like physical fitness, we believe Ethical Fitness comes about through discovery and constructing knowledge. We discourage a didactic approach to ethics because it risks reducing a deeply meaningful topic to one that is dry, passive, and boring. It's also ineffective.
The subject of ethics is a great opportunity to explore learning without the burden of standardized tests because (so far) the topic is considered a difficult one to measure in discrete bubbles on an answer sheet. So, this dimension of our schools and curriculum is relatively safe from the assessment wag-or-dog controversy other subjects present. Take advantage of this opportunity! In any class, in any subject, teachers can feel free to explore their students' values-based reasoning skills without worrying about "covering the material." The more teachers do so, the more they will find that such exploration deepens understanding and contributes to content, rather than slowing things down or feeling like an indulgent add-on.
Even a topic as conceptual as ethics can become a kinesthetic experience to help students get out of their seats and get the brain-blood flowing. Your students will thank you for thinking of ways to make learning fun and active, such as frequently using patterns of small- and large-group activity and asking students to scribe on flip charts, whiteboards, or smartboards (try to never be the only one standing!).
Signal to your students that you want to meet their needs and encourage their authentic input by asking them to come up with a more physical or active way to carry out an activity they've done before. This provides review and deepening understanding of concepts while innovating and building knowledge ... and having fun.