Using Class Meetings to Foster Character

Originally written as a letter to parents on September 2, 2011

As I mentioned at Meet the Teacher Night, the advisory program has taken on new significance this year, particularly as we introduce the Olweus Character Development Program.  In addition to regular advisory meetings, each week two advisories pair up to hold a Class Meeting. Let me tell you a little more about Class Meetings and why we have chosen to make them a part of the fabric of the TVS Middle School.

The purpose of class meetings is to build community and create a safe and productive place to address issues of character, including topics related to bullying, social exclusion, and developing positive peer relationships.  By establishing a forum for these conversations, we can be proactive in helping students solve problems and develop strategies for building stronger habits of character.

Advisors serve as facilitators, introducing the theme for the week, making sure everyone’s voice is heard, reinforcing the ground rules, and gently steering the conversation toward finding positive solutions.

“Ground rules” are essential to the success of class meetings.  We did not impose a common set of rules; instead, every group has spent the last week developing their own conversation guidelines; this helps students take ownership for the success of these meetings.   I recently reviewed the “rules” submitted by each advisory and was delighted to see that while the lists were distinct in many ways (reflecting the personality of the groups) — at the heart of each was a reflection of the Golden Rule.  Here is a sampling of what I saw:

  • We listen respectfully when someone is talking.
  • Only speak when you have the Talking Ball.
  • When someone is talking, don’t interrupt.
  • Agree to disagree.
  • We can disagree without being disagreeable – no put-downs…
  • You have the RIGHT to be heard.
  • Use respectful body language…
  • Look at the person talking.
  • Listen to what others say.
  • Be nice.

Class meetings follow a simple pattern. They begin with an opening activity to introduce the day’s theme and to get students thinking about the topic.  This may include role-playing or a group activity. Meetings follow with discussion questions to help students process the activity and apply its underlying theme to their lives at school and beyond. It’s a chance to “dig deeper.” Finally, a short wrap-up summarizes key concepts.

The specific topics and activities for class meetings will vary slightly at each grade-level to match the developmental needs of our students. However, the general topics remain constant:

  • Building a positive classroom climate
  • Communicating effectively
  • Preventing bullying and promoting respect and acceptance
  • Developing strong peer relationships
  • Serving the community

I once heard an educator say, “Character education isn’t something else we add to our plates.  It is the plate.” Schools teach character – it is inevitable. Students spend hours within these walls, observing how students treat students, how adults treat students, and how adults treat each other.  What a school must decide, then, is whether it will actively teach students lessons in respect, responsibility and integrity.  At Trinity Valley Middle School, we embrace our role as character educators, in partnership with our parents.  As Aristotle noted, “It makes no small difference whether we form [good] habits from our very youth . . . rather, it makes all the difference.”

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