Arizona Teacher Talks About How CHARACTER COUNTS! Works

Best Practices in Character Education: Q & A With Teacher James Sye

In his latest blog post, CHARACTER COUNTS! Director Jeff McMurdy spotlights a few exemplary educators who are doing great things with CHARACTER COUNTS!. James Sye, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at La Paloma Academy in Tucson, Arizona, was one of them. We asked him to share his perspective and a few pointers on how he makes CHARACTER COUNTS! work in his classroom.

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James Sye

What is your most important goal with your students? How does character education or pro-social learning factor into it?

As a 7th-grade language arts teacher, I have several goals. Over the course of the year, my primary goal is to get my students to read like detectives and to write like investigative reporters. In terms of including character education, I feel it’s my responsibility to teach my students life skills that revolve around being productive citizens as well as people of high character. CC! is a great tool to model good behavior.

In your blog, you’ve written about CHARACTER COUNTS! and the Six Pillars of Character. How have people responded to these posts? 

I’ve received nothing but positive feedback.

How do you integrate each Pillar into your classroom? Are there particular activities or lessons that have worked well for you?

Our school has implemented a system where we (teachers) are responsible for focusing on a specific character trait of the month. We begin by selecting a student from our homeroom who best exhibits the character Pillar (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring or good citizenship) to have a lunch that may include face painting, balloons and food to be determined by the CC! coordinator. The lunch honors and celebrates the students for making the right choices and setting a good example for other students. The academic portion that I implement in my classroom usually consists of a lesson with various objectives. I reach those objectives usually through view-and-responds based on the specified character trait of the month. We also do a wall display in collaborative groups about the monthly trait. Students love this because it gives them a chance to bounce ideas off one another. It also gives them a chance to display their artistic side for the whole school to see.

Here’s a sample Monthly Report that I use to help guide me through the character activities for the month.

This is the format that I use:

  • Bell work that relates to the character trait of the month to jump-start the conversation
  • State the objective for the lesson
  • Lesson activities that include but are not limited to discussion, view-and-responds, discussion, collaborative groups for wall display

How have students responded to your use of the Six Pillars in the classroom? Have you noticed improvements in work/study habits, homework, tests and overall student behavior?

I have had success in the sense that students have begun to think about their actions. They are still in the process of growing and learning how to make the right choices. CC! helps provide a good learning tool that models good behavior. Students’ responses vary from character to character, and our classroom discussion helps students find their voice. I typically pose questions to the students, asking them about how the character specifically relates to them. Students love to talk about themselves as well as share their personal experiences if the right environment is provided. As I mentioned before, CC! is a good model for behavior. Whenever I see students making incorrect choices in regards to behavior, I have a reference point to bring the students back to when speaking with them.

Do you think lessons on social-emotional learning help the students academically?

Lessons that revolve around social-emotional elements are very important in terms of developing well rounded students. Creating an atmosphere that makes students feel safe is important in regards to academics, and it’s important to the overall feeling that students have about their school. School isn’t all about academics; it’s about preparing students for life. I think every school is a work in progress, and our school is no different. Every day is a new challenge, and I feel our school is up to the many challenges that we face on a daily basis.

What can you share about your own experience with CHARACTER COUNTS! that would help a school or individual teacher that is just getting started with the program?

My advice would be to have a plan on how you want to implement the specific character each month. I would also advise a teacher to let students have the most input about the character trait. Start the students off by posing the question of how the character relates to them on a daily basis, but let them go once the discussion picks up. I teach 7th-graders, so using current events or viral videos relating to the specified character trait of the month to prompt discussions helps out tremendously. I’ve jotted down a few of my experiences here in my blog.

What character education initiatives have worked well at your school (La Paloma Academy)? I understand you have a huge banner at the school. Do you think it is reinforcing lessons learned in class?

We have CC! as well as bully prevention initiatives that have been implemented at La Paloma. I think they are working well, but nothing is 100-percent effective. I think that applies to every school in America. As long as we continue to meet those challenges head on, we will continue to grow towards 100-percent effectiveness in the near future. Along with the character display posters that every teacher has their students make, we have very colorful beams with each character trait displayed. We also have street signs displaying the Pillars around the school. I think it helps reinforce what we are trying to do at the school. It gives both students and teachers a reminder of what values they are supposed to be displaying. I think it’s always good to use visual displays to help remind students about their previous lessons learned in class. I don’t think it ever hurts to have too many reminders.

When you are not teaching, what do you like to do?

When I’m not teaching, I like to relax with my family. I have a beautiful wife and a 10-month-old baby girl. My baby girl tends to keep me pretty busy, as you can imagine.

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