Planting trees for CC!

Citrus High students prepare the soil for planting.

An old Greek proverb says, “A society grows great when old people plant trees in whose shade they know they’ll never sit.”

Six students from Citrus High School in Porterville, California aren’t old, but they’re engaging in similarly selfless behavior: before the school year began, they went to work on a new “Pillars of Character” garden for the students at Los Robles Elementary School.

After they’ve prepared the soil, the teens will come back to help the kids plant six cypress trees, each representing a pillar of character. Then they’ll plant color-coordinated flowers around each tree. The garden will serve as a reminder and backdrop for CHARACTER COUNTS! assemblies.

* For more on this story from Esther Avila at The Porterville Recorder, click here.

* For more information on how to start a garden project at your school, check out

* And, for more on why starting a school garden is a great idea, click here.

Photo by Reneh Agha, The Porterville Recorder

Should stealing always be punished?

In our book review this month, a hungry homeless kid steals his classmates’ lunch and he goes without punishment. Is this appropriate?
  • Yes, stealing is always wrong and should always be punished.
  • Yes, without punishment no lessons are learned.
  • No, sometimes it depends on the situation.
  • No, sometimes trustworthiness isn’t the most important value.
Created on Aug 16, 2010

The Lunch Thief

Is stealing always wrong? Open with this inquiry and allow for discussion before reading The Lunch Thief, written by Anne C. Bromley and beautifully illustrated by Robert Casilla, aloud.

The Lunch ThiefHere’s a simple synopsis: Rafael is a pitcher for his school team, and his second favorite thing to do is eat. Today he’s really hungry because someone stole his lunch; so hungry, in fact, that he could “eat the crumbs the seagulls left behind.” Rafael saw Kevin, the new kid, sneak his lunch bag from underneath his desk and tuck it in his backpack. He wants to confront the thief but doesn’t want to pick a fight. Inspired by his mother’s advice to use his mouth instead of his fists, Rafael bides his time until other lunches disappear as well. Rafael finds out that Kevin is  from a nearby town that was ravaged by recent wildfires. When Rafael sees Kevin carrying a bundle of laundry into a motel room, he realizes Kevin’s family might be one of the families who lost their homes. The next day, Rafael invites Kevin to share his lunch, subtly stopping the stealing and replacing it with friendship and a good meal.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this tasty treasure. Ask students again if stealing is always wrong. Find out if they think Kevin wants to be a lunch thief. What might they do in Kevin’s situation? Would they do anything differently if they were Rafael? Why did Kevin offer Rafael a quarter for his lunch in the end? Will Rafael take the quarter? Why or why not? Use the story not only for a discussion about sensitivity, friendship, and conflict resolution, but also as a chance to learn more about hunger and/or homelessness in your area. Help your students brainstorm ways to help combat the issue, then find a homeless shelter where they can make a donation or serve a meal. For more discussion points and service-learning ideas about this book and others, visit the Tilbury House Publishers’ website.

Barbara Gruener is a school counselor at Westwood Elementary in Friendswood, TX, a winner of the 2009 CEP National School of Character Award.

For more information on Westwood’s program, visit its website.

Caring will make you happy

Photo by Totte Jonsson

With the new school year nearly upon us, now might be a good time for a feel-good story:

The Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

We Americans might be starting to get the message. In a recent New York Times article, Stephanie Rosenbloom reports on the changing nature of the American marketplace. Last June consumers saved 6.4 percent of their after-tax income. Before the recession that number was between 1 and 2 percent.

This partially explains why the American economy isn’t bouncing back from recession, but it also means American values are shifting. We’re learning that conspicuous consumption doesn’t fulfill us like we’ve been told it would. We’re not as concerned with keeping up with the Joneses as we used to be, maybe because we’ve seen how that game ends. (Large tombstone; small, noticeably dry-eyed funeral party.)

What we’re spending our money on, instead of stuff, is experience. As Rosenbloom reports, “According to retailers and analysts, consumers have gravitated more toward experiences than possessions over the last couple of years, opting to use their extra cash for nights at home with family, watching movies and playing games – or for ‘staycations’ in the backyard.”

This is a positive development. Researchers have concluded that spending money on experience makes us happier than spending it on stuff. “‘It’s better to go on a vacation than buy a new couch’ is basically the idea,” says Elizabeth W. Dunn, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Along the same lines, Thomas DeLeire, who studies consumption at the University of Wisconsin, has found that money spent on leisure (“vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles”) is the only spending that’s positively related to happiness. “Leisure,” Rosenbloom notes, is really just the way in which we bond with others. When we strengthen those bonds, we feel happier.

These findings match the anecdotal evidence recorded by Roko Belic, the filmmaker behind the forthcoming documentary Happy. He traveled around the world finding out what makes people happy, and he now  lives in a trailer park in Malibu so he can surf whenever he wants. He told Rosenbloom the trailer park is “the first real community that I’ve lived in in my life… It definitely has made me happier… The things we are trained to think make us happy, like having a new car every couple of years and buying the latest fashions, don’t make us happy.”

Belic also told Rosenbloom what he learned in making his documentary: “the one single trait that’s common among every single person who is happy is strong relationships.”

So, brave character educators, keep building those relationships. Keep teaching your students how important the people in their lives are.

And don’t forget to reward yourselves. (But maybe go for a nice dinner with family or friends, or take a camping trip. The joy will last longer than that of a new TV.)

Best of luck in the 2010-2011 school year,


Rustling the cyberbullies

photo by Dave Di Biase

In the beginning, there was one.

Then the one became two, and the first one said to the second,
“Give me your lunch money…”

 Bullying is as old as the world. While our recent technological advances – and opposable thumbs – allow us to connect with great ease and speed over great distances, they also make us easier prey for those who would tease, slander, and harass us.

The problem with cyberbullying for school administrators and teachers is that it most often occurs while students are not at school. As a recent New York Times article by Jan Hoffman details, schools are unsure how much control they can exert over students’ cell phones and computers.

According to Hoffman, out of the 44 states with anti-bullying laws, fewer than half address cyberbullying, and current case law is unclear. A Beverly Hills man sued his school district for suspending his eighth-grade daughter. She’d created and posted aYouTube video of her friends saying terrible things about another girl. The man won the suit because the Federal judge found that the video had not caused the school “substantial” disruption. The court declared, “When a student’s speech interferes substantially with the school’s educational mission, a school can impose discipline.”

In two separate cases in which students libeled their principals online, one court sided with the school and another sided with the students. Both cases have been re-argued in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and are awaiting a decision.

There might be a legal way for schools to discipline students for off-campus violations. Parry Aftab, privacy lawyer and founder of Stop Cyberbullying, suggests schools add to their acceptable use policies a provision “reserving the right to discipline the student for actions taken off-campus if they are intended to have an effect on a student or they adversely affect the safety and well-being of a student while in school. This makes it a contractual, not a constitutional, issue.”

We at CHARACTER COUNTS! believe the best defense against bullying is a good offense. You can be proactive in improving the environment of your school and preventing bullying behavior in school and online.

For a schoolwide effort, the first step is to establish a committee to develop and implement the policy. This committee can identify the current state of the school by taking anonymous surveys of students and teachers. These surveys should include questions about how students feel about being at school and how much bullying they witness or experience (both in school and online), as well as questions about what changes they would like to see. How could the climate of the school be improved? What sorts of behaviors do students and teachers want to see more of?

Once the committee has collected and analyzed the data, it should present its findings to the students, staff, and parents. Everyone involved with the school is a stakeholder, so input from students, staff, and parents should be included in the policy-making. Once the committee has identified the most serious problems the school faces, it can develop a plan and timeline for implementation.

What should an anti-bullying program do? Provide professional development to staff on how to deal with bullying effectively and consistently. Have students design posters and banners with anti-bullying messages. Encourage teachers to use CC! lesson plans under the Respect and Caring Pillars. Educate parents about bullying behaviors and conflict resolution. Continue to measure student and faculty opinion with respect to the state of the school. (Is the climate improving?)

To specifically address cyberbullying, teachers can teach and model cyber-empathy. Explain to students that the Golden Rule applies equally online as it does in the world. Tell them not to text angry. Remind them that real people with real feelings are looking at screens invisibly tied to the screens they’re looking at. What seems like a joke to the sender might be taken as a threat or rebuke by the recipient. Before sending a message, students should put themselves in the recipient’s place and ask, “How would I take this message if I got it?” Of course, messages intended as threats or rebukes simply shouldn’t be sent because they violate the Pillars of Respect and Caring. One question students might ask themselves is, “If this person were standing directly in front of me, would I say this?”

In some cases, the answer will still be “Yes,” though the message is clearly bullying. These students need to spend more time with the Six Pillars!

… After extensive character education, the first apologized to the second, admitting that yes, he was lashing out due to his own fears and insecurities, but that he would find other, healthier means of coping, and would she mind terribly accepting his friend request? The second thought about it for a minute, but she accepted, and for the rest of their days they LOL’d, occasionally even ROTFL-ing.

The empathy deficit

At the annual meeting for the Association for Psychological Science last month, researchers from the University of Michigan presented their findings that college students today are less empathetic than college students 30 years ago. The steepest decline in empathy occurred in the last nine years.

Why might people be less empathetic than they used to be?

Researcher Sara Konrath told LiveScience, “Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research… is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”

Ed O’Brien, another researcher involved in the study, thinks the increase in social media is a factor. On Scientific American’s 60-Second Psych podcast, he said, “It’s harder for today’s college student to empathize with others because so much of their social lives is done through a computer and not through real life interaction.” For example, it’s easier to ignore the problems of a Facebook “friend” than those of a friend who’s standing right in front of you, crying. O’Brien believes the increase in the competitiveness and busyness of our society also might be factors.

In the study, researchers reviewed 72 studies of 14,000 college students from 1979-2009, but LiveScience managing editor Jeanna Bryner points to a Michigan State study of 477,000 high-school seniors, also over 30 years. The authors of this study concluded that students are no more self-centered than their parents were, though “they are less fearful than other generations of social problems such as race relations, hunger, poverty and energy shortage.”

Whether or not we accept Konrath and O’Brien’s conclusions, we can all agree that the world could use more compassion. So how can we raise our empathy levels?

O’Brien suggests spending more time away from our computers, interacting with people in the real world.

We suggest visiting our free Lesson Plan Bank and checking out classroom activities for students of all ages, listed under the Caring pillar.