When fifth-grade teacher Sharon Craig agreed to help pilot a new curriculum called The Character Formation Project at Lick Creek Elementary School in Buncombe, Illinois, she didn’t know what to expect. She had never formally taught anything related to character before. But because she had experience launching other new educational strategies, her principal asked her to take it on.
By the end of the school year, her students—previously prone to bickering and even meanness—were noticeably kinder to one another.
“I’ll never forget the day I had a student come in to me and say, ‘We were out on the playground, and one boy was being bullied, and I told that other boy he didn’t need to talk to him like that,’” Craig recalls. “She was so excited to tell me she had stuck up for someone in our classroom. It was a turning point, and I thought, ‘I really do think this is working.’”
The Character Formation Project is a resource designed to help teachers shape student character beyond the classroom and the current school year. The program uses the stories of influential people like George Washington Carver, Helen Keller, and Tecumseh to engage students’ imaginations. As the children hear and discuss the stories, they consider the exemplars’ struggles and virtues—virtues like justice, respect, responsibility, integrity, self-sacrifice, diligence, and courage. They reflect on the “greater purpose” that drove the choices of the people they learn about, and they commit themselves to emulating the person’s virtues. Lessons are short and easily accessible via the organization’s website.
The program is currently being tested in a handful of schools in rural Illinois. Craig believes that the secret to the program’s success in her classroom is twofold: its realness and its interactive nature.
“The readings, videos, and samples were very history-based, about real people they could actually relate with,” Craig says. “They really liked that it wasn’t about fake characters. And their biggest takeaway was having that time to actually have a discussion and talk about our feelings and the way things work in our own homes. They liked the way they were able to take things away from our lesson and use them in real life.”
The program’s real-life applications also stood out to Cheryl Hinkle, who teaches in Murphysboro, Illinois, at COPE Alternative School, which serves expulsion-eligible students. “There was one kid,” she says, “who had the attitude that everything was always someone else’s fault—‘It’s the principal’s fault, it’s the other kid’s fault.’ After using this program, the other kids started to say to him, ‘You have to own up to your mistakes.’”
Hinkle’s students, who spend most of their days on computers, loved the opportunity to interact with each other on more-personal topics. They especially enjoyed reflecting, she says, on the courage it took for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in baseball.
Jeremy Pierce is the principal of the school where Hinkle teaches. “I have been looking for more than 20 years for a curriculum like this,” he says. “I have always lived and worked in rural school districts. With the way the economics are around here, often both parents are working—sometimes even multiple jobs—and there is not a lot of family time. We have an influx of students who are not learning things they used to learn at home. They tend to be self-centered, technology driven, and don’t know how to deal with peers. Thanks to their exposure to character traits through these activities and lessons, they’re starting to get along. This is really needed.”
Nathan Emrick, a world history teacher at Cobden High School, envisions The Character Formation Project’s having a broad impact on his school community and being used across all grade levels in future years. “It will take a few years to see fruit, but for 12 years, to get character training on the same consistent virtues—there’s no way it can’t work a little bit for most kids,” he says. “We could adapt our school mission statement and vision around the virtues. All discipline could go back to the virtues. There’s the potential to be very consistent from top to bottom.”
This sort of consistency has been described by scholars James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson as a “thicker” student moral ecology—a presumably stronger environment for shaping a child’s character. The project’s emphasis on someone’s “greater purpose” also recalls Hunter and Olson’s discussion of “moral discipline” and “moral attachment” in service to “a greater good.” The continuities between Hunter and Olson’s thinking and the project itself are not a coincidence, given that Olson, president of the Advanced Studies in Culture Foundation (the publisher of CultureFeed), served as an early advisor to the project.
Inevitably, goals like building a consistent school environment and helping students explore a “greater purpose” will involve different things in different schools. The Character Formation Project itself comes in three formats: Civic Character Formation (“suitable for all learning environments”), Christian Character Formation, and Homeschool Character Formation. But if the results of the project in rural Illinois prove measurable and enduring, and if they can be replicated elsewhere, the Character Formation Project may help provide common ground for students’ personal character development in America’s diverse schools.