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Charater ed is 'kickin' at MES

Staff writer

“You’ve got to be carefully taught to hate and fear,” go the lyrics to a song from the musical “South Pacific.”

At Marion Elementary School, staff are carefully teaching the opposite by emphasizing positive traits and behaviors that demonstrate good character.

Respect, caring, responsibility, fairness, citizenship, and trustworthiness are the focus of “Kickin’ Up Character,” a Western-themed approach that rewards positive behaviors that are taught and modeled in character education curricular activities.

The program starts in classrooms, where good behavior is actively taught through lessons and activities that engage students, according to MES counselor Kris Burkholder.

“What does respect really look like, what does it really sound like?” Burkholder said, citing one example. “At every level we do lessons and activities about a character trait.”

A favorite activity among many of the students is reading books that illustrate a character trait and talking about them.

“I like ‘I Wish I Were a Butterfly,” sixth-grader Samantha Richmond said.

Richmond described how the book tells the story of a discouraged cricket who is helped by a friendly spider to learn to sing again. She pointed out the book helps students to know how to help someone who is feeling left out.

Jade Lammon, another sixth-grader, described how Burkholder uses movies to spark discussion.

“We talk about what’s wrong in the movie, and why people are disrespecting other kids,” Lammon said. “It helps you to figure out what to do, how to intervene and stop this.”

Burkholder emphasized the curriculum focuses on teaching positive behaviors, rather than giving children lists of things they shouldn’t do.

“I want them to know what these traits are, not what they aren’t,” Burkholder said.

The activities are led by Burkholder, who visits each classroom twice a month.

The curriculum has been developed in-house by Burkholder, who has pulled together portions from several sources.

“We take things from different programs that are research-based,” Burkholder said, citing Steps to Respect and the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program as two examples.

Teachers reinforce character traits by intervening in situations where positive traits are being shown, or where there is an opportunity to change negative behaviors.

“Our teachers are really good at using those teachable moments,” Burkholder said.

Sixth-grade teacher Laura Baldwin noted teachers like the program’s focus on positive behaviors.

“So often teachers are redirecting behaviors,” Baldwin said. “This gives us an opportunity and causes us to focus on looking for the good in people.”

Instruction is backed up by a recognition system that acknowledges and rewards both children and staff who demonstrate good character.

Staff members who observe a student doing something good can acknowledge it immediately by presenting a coupon to the student that describes the reason for the reward.

“Any staff member can give a student a ‘Kickin’ Up’ coupon,” Burkholder said.

Students take their coupons to Burkholder’s office, where they receive a sticker to wear and have their names included for consideration for recognition at a monthly assembly.

“I give them a sticker that says ‘Ask me how I’m kicking up character at MES,’” Burkholder said.

The selection process for assembly awards has been changed this year to highlight students who display particularly noteworthy character traits.

“This year we have a committee of staff members who review the coupons and pull out ones who are going above and beyond,” Burkholder said.

Once a month an all-school character education recognition assembly is held. Students receive a variety of rewards, including free movie rentals, free ice cream cones and candy bars, and free swims, all of which are donated by local business partners.

“Carlsons’ Grocery, the Big Scoop, Ampride, and the USD 408 Sports and Aquatic Center are the ones who participate in the program,” Burkholder said.

Jack Schneider, also in sixth grade, believes the reward system makes a difference.

“Since everyone wants a reward, it makes everyone want to do better,” Schneider said.

Some students who show exemplary acts of good behavior are designated “Character Sheriffs.” Staff members can also be nominated for character awards by students.

Burkholder said the difference in the school as a result of the character education program is significant.

“We did a survey last year about the climate of our school. The overwhelming response from our students was that Marion Elementary is a caring and safe place they want to be,” Burkholder said.

Several students agree with Burkholder.

“Everybody talks with each other and gets along with each other,” Richmond said.

Sixth-grader Austin Neufeld moved to Marion from another school district this year, and said the positive environment at MES is a good change from his old school.

“That school really needs character ed,” he said.

Neufeld described how the character education program has given him confidence and taught him how to handle difficult situations, such as bullying, without waiting for a teacher.

“You tell the bully to stop and help the victim get up and walk away, and then you tell a teacher,” Neufeld said.

Lammon said she considered herself shy when she was going to a school in another district, and that the MES character education program has helped her to become more outgoing.

“I’m not as shy, and I include people more, and I have a lot of friends,” Lammon said.

Lammon and fellow sixth-grader Megan Bailey are working with MES principal Justin Wasmuth to create a club with an anti-bullying emphasis.

“We will explain what bullying is, and what we should do about it,” Bailey said.

“We’re talking to the principal about when to have meetings, and what we want to get out there,” Lammon added.

Burkholder summarized some of the benefits of the program.

“The kids are more inclusive of each other. We see kids standing up for what’s right. Kids are being more tolerant of differences in others,” Burkholder said.

Baldwin notices changes as well.

“They’re starting to recognize it makes them feel good to do something for somebody else,” Baldwin said. “I see kids playing with kids to be inclusive that they might not ordinarily play with, with the purpose of just being a friend.”

The program has even caught the attention of at least one spectator who attended a Marion Middle School volleyball game in late September.

Burkholder said a container of water was spilled when it was hit by a volleyball. Three MES fourth-grade girls immediately volunteered to clean up the spill.

“A community member called and wanted to know if she could award them a coupon,” Burkholder said.

Last modified Oct. 6, 2011

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