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A moral understanding

Raising ethical children

In today's world—where so many people seem preoccupied with celebrities, appearances and material wealth at any costdeveloping ethical children is no small task. But this is exactly the quality one school is trying to instill in its students by implementing a revolutionary new program that focuses on a type of learning "character education" that cannot be achieved through textbooks or exams as a part of its academic program.

Although it has only been a few years since the Stewardship Seed program was launched at The Sterling Hall School for boys in Junior Kindergarten through Grade 8 in Toronto, Ontario, both teachers and parents are on board, standing behind its effectiveness. The program calls for students to complete values-based activities at home with their parents in addition to explicit in-school instruction. It serves to make new connections between home and school by bringing topics discussed in the classroom to the dinner table. At the same time, it brings values that parents are trying to instill in their children into the classroom.

A Moral Understanding - Raising ethical children
Peoples Christian Academy – Photograph by Mike Pochwat

The measure of success of this innovative program is the improved behaviour of the student body. One can find students writing letters to soldiers in Afghanistan, organizing book drives to raise money to buy mosquito nets for children in Africa and participating in the annual Terry Fox Run for Cancer Research. These actions display the powerful nature of this program, which focuses on how we want our boys to be in the world. Actions such as these prove the students are learning valuable life lessons about the importance of caring.

Character education and the development of morals have long since been understood to be of utmost importance in the raising of ethical children. The significant role of academic institutions in this pursuit has been clearly voiced for centuries. In 1821, Georg Hegel, a German philosopher, stated, "Education is the art of making man ethical." His declaration supports today's schools in their steady quest to develop and implement effective character education programs.

At the turn of the century, Theodore Roosevelt said, "To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." The importance of teaching children positive virtues continues to resonate within North American culture. Presently, character education seems perhaps more important than ever. James Garbarino of the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, who endorses the Stewardship Seed program, says he often begins speaking with parents by asking, "If you could choose between giving your child $1 million or good character, which would you choose?" According to Garbarino, parents always choose good character but, approached as a group, as many as 60 per cent of teens will vote for the million dollars.

"I think parents have the wisdom to see that the best preparation for life is good character, and I think they are correct in this belief. The modern world lures kids into believing in the 'materialist delusion,' namely that 'you are what you have' and 'how you look on the outside is more important than your inner qualities,'" he says. "How are kids to learn to be people of character when our materialist and celebrity culture bombards them with these messages that steer them in the wrong direction?"

The answer, Garbarino says, lies within the concerted efforts of educators who teach the lessons of character to strengthen our kids to resist the dehumanizing and degrading messages of modern mainstream culture. "In a socially toxic environment such as the one we face today in North America, we must both work to detoxify the culture and strengthen kids to resist it," he says. "Stewardship Seeds is just such a curriculum of caring that can teach the vital lessons of character."

The program's roots

The Sterling Hall School's journey toward creating its own character education program geared toward boys dates back to 2003. The goal was to help develop ethical students with strong values and character. This move was initially met with some resistance, as many Sterling Hall School teachers felt that behavioural skills were already covered adequately in assemblies and within the basic code of expectations.

At the same time, various programs within Canadian schools were beginning to teach character, guidance and health education individually. Examples include the Second Step violence prevention program, the Lions Quest Anti-Drug Program, Project Wild, Tribes, Fair Play, UNICEF and other community-awareness and anti-bullying programs. The Sterling Hall School researched them all in order to create a comprehensive program customized to its students and based upon the latest research on character education.

During the 2003-2004 academic year, a task force developed a scope and sequence from many brainstorming sessions. Many of these meetings included input from experts in the field. The task force then presented topics for each grade level to 15 interested teachers, who wrote on the first issues tackled within the program during the summer of 2004. They created workbooks for each grade that included many activities, notes, readings and websites that would become a vital part of The Sterling Hall School's curriculum.

Digging up the facts

The Stewardship Seed program is an innovative character, guidance and health education program that offers boys many opportunities to engage in activities based upon understanding others and addresses The Sterling Hall School's commitment to nurturing, as stated in the school's mission. The program gives an instructional context for learning about personal, social and healthy development. The themes of the 10 Stewardship Seeds are: citizenship; leadership; sportsmanship; heroes; friendship; courtesy; caring and sharing; integrity; teamwork and co-operation; and honesty. Students are given an effort grade and a comment on their achievement in the areas of community, health and self-awareness, which are taught by their homeroom and physical education teachers twice each week.

A Moral Understanding - Raising ethical children
Dragon Academy – Photograph by Tobi Asmoucha

In addition to in-school instruction, there are designated Stewardship Days throughout the academic year when students take home their Stewardship Seed booklets and work on a student/parent activity together. Parents can see that the values taught within the character education program complement the values in the home. Stewardship Day activities provide a forum for those parent-child interactions so vital to students' moral growth and development. Activities during Stewardship Days address those topics considered most important for students' parents to discuss with their children.

The material that students cover every year is fresh. Since 2005, teachers have come together each summer and modified and improved each workbook or Stewardship Seed. The coordinator of the program also collects new information and updates research to help in the revision process at the end of the year. As a result, The Sterling Hall School now has 10 different Stewardship Seed modules customized to meet the needs of our students through ongoing action research and by reviewing feedback from experts in the field.

It is important for us to continue our research into the efficacy of the Stewardship Seed program to ensure that our resources and programs are fulfilling their intended goals. Action research was carried out to investigate the effectiveness of Stewardship Days. The question was asked: "Do these home-based character and guidance education activities result in more frequent discussions about learning-based and social/emotional issues and thus, more parent-child interactions surrounding character education?"

Reaping the rewards

The results are in. It was established that if an issue is targeted in a Stewardship Day activity or discussed in class, parents do speak to their children about these matters more often. However, if an important subject area is not discussed in Stewardship classes or is not a part of a Stewardship Day activity, parents may not be dealing with these issues as often with their children.

We are continually faced with a variety of challenges as we strive to improve upon five years of hard work. Initially, a few homeroom teachers were hesitant to teach character education explicitly through a value-added program. In order to help those teachers, as well as others, feel more ownership of their specific grade-level program, all homeroom teachers are given an opportunity each year to revise their own program and insert activities about which they feel passionate.

As well, students are constantly faced with new problems that arise in our ever-changing society. Therefore, the Stewardship coordinator monitors behavioural issues that arise and helps teachers to write lessons each year that address these new issues. For example, cyber-bullying is becoming a more pervasive issue in our students' lives. With the technology department, the Stewardship coordinator initiated the creation of a variety of lessons geared toward several grade levels that address the responsible use of technology and teach students how to identify cyber-bullying. Students are also counselled about the potent effects of cyber-bullying.

All educators are faced with the challenge of having enough time to present the full curriculum they feel is important. Initially, Stewardship (the homeroom component) and Health (as taught by the physical education faculty) were each taught for 30 minutes over a six-day cycle. Deciding that character education is of utmost importance, we increased the instructional time of Stewardship and Health to 45 minutes each per week.

Our teachers are becoming very passionate about their unique character education program and are presenting to other educators at national and international conferences, sharing the benefits of a value-added program. Parents consistently give positive written feedback to homeroom teachers.

Spreading the word

In order to share their efforts with the academic community, The Sterling Hall School created The Sterling Institute in June 2007. The Institute co-ordinates the distribution of innovative electronic resources for teachers interested in using the curriculum templates to develop their own customized materials. Faculty members of the Institute also conduct workshops for other schools on a variety of topics for which materials have been developed. The Stewardship Seeds are among such materials that provide unique tools for professional growth. Rather than ask teachers to select resources, they become active learners by customizing and writing their own material, thus adapting teaching resources to meet the specific needs of their own student population.

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