The Agenda

Paul Tough on Character

Paul Tough’s article on the meaning of character and its role in education is really excellent. Part of it covers the efforts of the innovative KIPP schools to introduce the language of character into the classroom, to serve as a guide to students. The following passage struck me as a powerful indication of the potential of this approach:


Though the seven character strengths aren’t included in every lesson at KIPP, they do make it into most conversations about discipline. One day last winter, I was speaking with Sayuri Stabrowski, a 30-year-old seventh-and-eighth-grade reading teacher at KIPP Infinity, and she mentioned that she caught a girl chewing gum in her class earlier that day. “She denied it,” Stabrowski told me. “She said, ‘No, I’m not, I’m chewing my tongue.’ ” Stabrowski rolled her eyes as she told me the story. “I said, ‘O.K. fine.’ Then later in the class, I saw her chewing again, and I said: ‘You’re chewing gum! I see you.’ She said, ‘No, I’m not, see?’ and she moved the gum over in her mouth in this really obvious way, and we all saw what she was doing. Now, a couple of years ago, I probably would have blown my top and screamed. But this time, I was able to say: ‘Gosh, not only were you chewing gum, which is kind of minor, but you lied to me twice. That’s a real disappointment. What does that say about your character?’ And she was just devastated.”

Stabrowski was worried that the girl, who often struggled with her behavior, might have a mini-meltdown — a “baby attack,” in KIPP jargon — in the middle of the class, but in fact, the girl spit out her gum and sat through the rest of the class and then afterward came up to her teacher with tears in her eyes. “We had a long conversation,” Stabrowski told me. “She said: ‘I’m trying so hard to just grow up. But nothing ever changes!’ And I said: ‘Do you know what does change? You didn’t have a baby attack in front of the other kids, and two weeks ago, you would have.’ ”

For some reason I found this very moving. It is easy for any of us to feel powerless in the face of trying circumstances, and this is particularly true of adolescents. Yet this student is being taught, in a fairly unsentimental, straightforward way, that she has the capacity for self-control, and that she has an obligation, to her fellow students, her teacher, and to herself, to exercise it. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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