By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor
Last week, an inspiring group of educators from across the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Mexico, and Taiwan came together to discuss how to incorporate character lessons into a K-12 curriculum. It’s at once deceptively simple and incredibly complex.
I felt lucky to be there because even though character education is coming into focus, it’s still given short shrift – and there are so many facets to it. Character education means different things to different people. There’s “grit” and determination to succeed, empathy toward others, honesty – the list goes on and on – and these virtues can be applied in a variety of classroom settings.
But character education goes way beyond the classroom. Veteran teacher Hal Urban, who’s basically the granddaddy of character education, gave a presentation on seven daily choices that all people – kids and adults alike – make that have an impact on how we feel about ourselves, our friends and family, and the world around us. It’s a presentation based on his book Life's Greatest Lessons: 20 Things That Matter, which he originally wrote for his own kids based on 20 life skills he wanted them to learn. At first, I thought these lessons might be a little advanced for kids – one stat repeatedly thrown around at this conference is that peoples’ attitudes and actions solidify by age 8, so character lessons need to start (and apply) early – but this lifelong teacher stressed that these choices could be modified and explained to young kids, teens, and adults. As Urban shared these deceptively simple choices, I found myself revisiting my own.
Based on a chapter of his book “We live by choice, not by chance,” Urban says that other than your faith, these seven choices are the most important factors guiding you through life – and they’re made each and every day.
1) Attitude: You are free to choose your own attitude toward everything and everybody in life.
2) Kindness: Even with the most condescending person or the biggest bully, you can always choose to be kind.
3) Work: “It’s a four-letter word for many kids,” Urban says. But choosing to work hard can help kids learn to be proud of the effort they put forth.
4) Honesty: Urban calls honesty “the hardest thing to teach” – especially to teens – because they’ve already become jaded.
5) Mind: Specifically, what we choose to do with our minds. “Would you load your body with junk food? Would you put actual trash into your brain? Then why would you let your brain be exposed to [TV shows, video games, or movies] that have no value?” he asks.
6) Body: “I liken it to their first car,” he says. “If you knew you only get one car forever, would you take care of it? Of course you would… Well, you only get one [body],” he says, “kids need to learn that concept and take care of their bodies.”
7) Money: “Saving, frugality, spending wisely,” he says are all lessons that can be taught to kids at all age levels in different ways. And for adults, it may be too late – or at least much tougher to learn!
For me, #1, 6, and 7 hit home. For #1, Urban told an inspiring story about his college friend who was one of the last Americans to get polio. He was a high school senior, and he lost his full ride to Notre Dame for football when he became almost fully paralyzed – within weeks of the polio vaccine being widely distributed in the U.S. After this tragedy, the boy was understandably consumed with anger and self-pity. But he didn’t stop. He still wanted to go to college, so he applied to USF and was accepted. He earned a full scholarship. Then he politely asked – way before the ADA – for accommodation for his disability, and he got it. Urban asked if he’d always had a good attitude and the boy said no, that he chose his attitude – and by doing so, he chose to replace his two all-consuming words, anger and self-pity, with two new ones, thankfulness and opportunity. Similarly, #6 and #7 packed a powerful punch with messages that I can (and should) make smart, beneficial choices multiple times every day.
Do these seven daily choices – that you might not have realized you’re making – resonate for you?