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Seventh-grade boys, including Julian Frerichs, do an activity requiring nonverbal communication.

Cast of Characters:


The Role of Character Education at Breck

by Jill Field, photos by Sara Rubinstein

It’s not one of the original “3 Rs” of a traditional curriculum, but educators are increasingly aware of the importance of character education—and Breck has long led the way. Lower School students have a monthly theme related to their C.A.R.E. (Character Always, Respect Every day) curriculum. Middle School students learn how to “Be a Mustang.” And Upper School students experience weekly service along with religious studies classes. When all is said and done, Breck aims to produce graduates who have been instilled with “a deep sense of social responsibility”—fulfilling Breck’s mission and creating lifelong habits they will take out into the wider world. So what, exactly, is character education? Doing research no Breck teacher would accept, we actually began with Wikipedia, which had this to say: “Character education is an umbrella term loosely used to describe the teaching of children in a manner that will help them develop variously as moral, civic, good, mannered, behaved, non-bullying, healthy, critical, successful, traditional, compliant and/or socially acceptable beings.” The cynical nature of that definition illustrates some popular misconceptions about character education: that it’s some kind of politically correct concept with no real tether to real life. “Breck’s strength, today and in the future, is that our graduates are both academically accomplished and grounded with the highest standards of integrity, character and citizenship,” says Head of School Edward Kim. “The face of education can change with time, but the notion that students and teachers must flourish to positively influence their school, community and country will remain steadfast in that journey.” Says Upper School Director Melissa Soderberg, “Cognitive scientists are increasingly finding that the environment the human brain is bathed in fundamentally shapes it. The actual neurons in our brains are affected by the quality of the interactions we have with other people. The case for a community-based, intellectually challenging education steeped in character development couldn’t be stronger.” Acknowledging that making real progress is hard work, she adds, “Shared excellence, not one-upsmanship, anchors us in our school’s mission and in the most transformative aspects of a Breck education.”

Lower School: Teaching Students to C.A.R.E. When the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education (CSEE) looked for schools to highlight in their recently published book, Making Our Pact: Lower School Programs for Character Development, they chose just six schools from across the nation. One of them, and the only school in the Midwest, was Breck.

C.A.R.E. Themes 2004-2012 Respect Responsibility Friendship Dependability Honesty Courage Citizenship Cooperation Gratitude Patience Kindness Perseverance Optimism Generosity Attitude Compassion Acceptance Stewardship Curiosity Appreciation Humility Teamwork Flexibility Personal Best Creativity Self-Control Loyalty Determination Forgiveness Understanding Courtesy Joyfulness Trust Resourcefulness Peacefulness




Breck’s C.A.R.E. curriculum is special, says Lower School Counselor Lisa Lokke, because it gives young children

National Recognition

“words to explain their own feelings and what they need

A few months ago, the Center for Spiritual and Ethical

from each other. And with a common language, children

Education (CSEE), an organization that commits to nur-

can share what they’ve learned in class, at home, and with

turing “ethically rigorous and spiritually grounded citi-

their friends.”

zens for tomorrow’s world,” published a book highlighting six schools’ character development programs. Breck

The program has five goals: • Promote the development of strong character in students. • Bring the community together around common character traits. • Develop consistency with respect to the teaching of 22

is one of the six—and the only one in the Midwest. (The other schools are Isidore Newman (Louisiana), Brentwood (California), Collegiate (Virginia), Peck (New Jersey), and Greensboro Day School (North Carolina).)

character education skills.

The book is titled Making

• Provide common language throughout the community.

Our Pact: Lower School

• Empower students

Lower School

Programs for Character

with tools to become


responsible citizens.

In his introduction,

teachers were

Each month, the Low-

CSEE’s Executive Direc-

looking for

er School community

tor, David Streight,

ways to address

invites students to

writes, “Though the pro-

participate in lessons

grams outlined in this

the social and

and/or activities that

booklet are diverse, they

promote the develop-

emotional part

share a deep commonal-

ment of important

ity that, we hope, others

of a Breck education.

character traits.

will work to emulate.

Respect, responsibil-

This commonality entails a set of community norms

ity and friendship are

that all ascribe to: norms informing a school culture

themes used every

that is perpetuated as much by student-to-student

year, along with

transfer as it is by adult-to-student teaching. A moral

other themes such as honesty, courage, perseverance, joyful-

school culture is not viable until it has buy-in and par-

ness and dependability.

ticipation from both adults and students. The results

The program came from the grassroots, Lokke explains, as

are worth the effort.”

Lower School teachers were looking for ways to address the

The section on C.A.R.E., written by Lower School Direc-

social and emotional part of a Breck education. After investi-

tor Peg Bailey and Lower School Counselor Lisa Lokke,

gating some “canned” programs, the division came together

describes the program’s genesis and implementation

to design a program that is distinctively Breck.

along with methods Breck uses to assess progress.

A key factor is that C.A.R.E. can be adapted to different grade

Continues Streight in his introduction, “Though we

levels, teacher strengths and student learning styles. “We

do not hold the schools here up as perfection, nor do

own it,” Lokke points out, “but we all own it in our own way.”

they, we do look at them as deserving notice, precisely

Third-grade teacher Lisa Hunninghake loves the fact that the themes are division-wide. “Specialists, classroom teachers, administration are all on board and integrate the theme into their conversations, teachings, feedback, discipline and everything else,” she observes. “And I have really seen students become more comfortable and capable in their discussions. Their experience in prior grades clearly starts the foundation of knowledge, and the program builds upon itself every year.”

because they have taken intentional steps: they have thought through and focused on goals that are supported and endorsed by the community; they have visions shared by all constituents (faculty, students, trustees, parents); they have managed to weave their visions deeply into the fabric of the school; and they are on-going, dynamic programs constantly open to fine-tuning.”

For example, preschool and kindergarten focus on introducing themes through read-aloud books, circle time discussions, songs and art projects. First and second graders add their own thoughts and writings to C.A.R.E. bulletin boards and journal about their understandings. Third and fourth graders integrate the themes into their core curricular research projects and their everyday lives through work such as researching historical figures who demonstrate strong character traits and demonstrating good character while mentoring younger children. It’s a subject of great interest to Lower School parents—and prospective parents as well. Says parent Amy Paster, “The strong emphasis on social and emotional development is one of the main reasons we chose Breck for our family. It’s a huge world out there, and I want to be sure our children are

confident and happy and that they know how to give back.” Paster, who volunteers as a tour ambassador for the Admissions office, observes that families looking at Breck see it as something unique. “People are always impressed when I talk about the way the C.A.R.E. units are woven into the curriculum,” she explains. “The teachers do it so beautifully. And they always send home information so that the family can extend the discussion when our children aren’t at school. It’s such a great bridge between school and home.” For her part, Paster, the parent of four Breck students, says that it has been wonderful to watch her children grow in their understanding of the themes as they grow. “You can absolutely see the progression,” she remarks. “Sometimes I wonder if people know just how amazing it really is.”

Middle School: Learning How to Be a Mustang Breck’s Middle School has also developed its own distinctive program, which is symbolized by the school mascot. Now in its third year, the Be a Mustang curriculum grew out of a bullying prevention program run by Olweus, which is widely used across the country. Katy Pearson, Middle School counselor, says that adapting the Olweus program was one of her first important tasks when she came to Breck five years ago. “Olweus was fine— it’s tried and true,” she explains. “But we wanted something that celebrated the positive aspects of our community and not one that just focuses on minimizing bullying.” The result is a program coordinated by Pearson along with a committee of Middle School

we wanted


something that

parents, along

teachers and

celebrated the

with a student

positive aspects of

helps plan events

committee that

drama and other forms of entertainment. There have been student and faculty speakers at Middle

our community

such as “Mix-it-up

and not one that

students are

just focuses on

encouraged to talk to people they

It’s all done in a developmentally appropriate way, observes


typically don’t,

Middle School Chaplain Alexis Kent. “Be a Mustang is a fairly


do special

structured program, with a significant educational compo-

activities and

nent,” she says. “So, as is often the case with Middle School

enjoy music,

students, there’s a natural resistance to anything that seems

lunches,” where

School chapels, including a recent one where junior Allison Cole reflected on the way she treated people when she was in Middle School.




What Does It Mean to “Be a Mustang”? A Mustang is… Respectful




…and knows when to stand up

too planned and too adult. We work hard to make sure what

the school as a community to spend time defining what

we’re presenting is a structure or scaffolding that they can

it means to treat each other respectfully. “There’s a lot of

take and define for themselves. Because the goal isn’t our

attention on bullying in middle school-aged kids,” Pearson

progress; it’s theirs!”

explains. “And while I would never say it’s a big problem at

Some of the most visible elements of the program are the Be a Mustang t-shirts designed by Thomas Dickstein ’16 (see below) and the mural of community expectations signed by every Middle School student and displayed in the Middle School cafeteria. Both Pearson and Kent point out that it’s important for

About Those T-Shirts The Middle School’s Be a Mustang t-shirts, new this school

Breck, I know how important it is for students to understand the importance of concepts such as feeling safe, recognizing aggressive and passive aggressive behaviors, setting personal boundaries and taking ownership over their own actions. Those are such critical skills.” And both agree that students need the skills in the face of cyber-bullying, so pervasive in modern online culture. “We want to give kids the language to say, ‘You know, what you’re doing isn’t working for me’ to each other—or coming to an adult for help.”

year, began as a contest last school year. And the winning

As with the Lower School’s C.A.R.E. program, Be a Mustang

design, by Thomas Dickstein ’16, is now a common sight

has connections in the core curriculum as well. Themes are

around Breck. Ironically, however, Thomas himself never

interwoven into English class discussions over books, for

got to wear one, as he moved on to Upper School.

example. When fifth graders read the book Wonder, by R. J.

Still, he reflects on the experience with pride. “The Be a Mustang program was designed to make students stand

Palacio, they naturally end up talking about the way they— and not just the book’s characters—live together.

up to things they felt were wrong, especially those that

Another academic program influenced by the Be a Mustang

bring harm to others. When I designed the Be a Mustang

program is the eighth grade World Savvy project. By en-

shirt, it was both to have fun designing it and also to

couraging students to think “beyond your borders,” World

help support a cause that I feel strongly about,” Thomas

Savvy requires a concentration on the wider community and

says. As for seeing the shirts in the hallways, he explains,

beyond their personal concerns.

is “not only a true honor for me, but it also shows me the fact that I’ve done something that has the chance to

Says Pearson, “I’m very thankful to work at a school that is

make a difference, no matter how small, in other people’s

so intentional and open to looking at what we do and always

lives. I hope it inspires others to do the same.”

thinking about ways we could do it better. Change can be hard, for both students and adults.”

Upper School: Building Character Through Service In the Upper School, weekly community service is probably

to gain perspective on their own lives by learning about

the most important aspect of character education, says

others. And between weekly service, May Program service,

Chaplain John Bellaimey. He likes to quote former Upper

and required service to the school, graduating seniors have

School Director Kevin Michael for his observation, “Chapel is

performed at least 200 hours during their time in Upper

theory, and service is practice.”

School—not counting anything they do with their family or

Since its inception in 1997, the Wednesday Service Program has sought to give Upper School students the opportunity

church community. Melissa Soderberg says it strikes her as funny when people

outside Breck speculate about the value of the time the school devotes to service. “The truth,” she points out, “is that we’re asking the whole school to do something that requires huge mental discipline—to step away from other academic activities and spend an hour each week working on an entirely different level and then come back to Breck and re-immerse ourselves. That’s not easy!” “We’re trying to develop the habit of turning students’ attention away from themselves, understanding our interdependence and putting other people first—even for a little while,” observes

We’re trying to

Community Service

develop the habit

rique Schmidt. “It’s

of turning

students learn that

students’ attention away

so important that service isn’t just noblesse oblige.” This year, one

from themselves,

advisory is get-


experience and a

ting a heightened


very special op-


drama instructor

portunity. After

and putting

Tom Hegg pursued

other people

ing discipline

first—even for a little while.


Manager Frede-

study in an emergcalled “Performance and Social

third-grade students at Lyndale Elementary School in Minneapolis. Essentially, they’re using theater games to help the children find their own voices in an extremely powerful way.

Change” during his

So far, Hegg says, the program has exceeded his expecta-

Breck sabbatical,

tions. “It’s amazing. They’re not all theater kids in my advi-

he was determined

sory, but no one’s hiding behind his or her hair. And they’re

to establish such a program at Breck. As a result, his advi-

dealing with so many issues as they work to reach young

sory learned techniques from professionals at the Children’s

children from a vast array of circumstances.”

Theatre Company which they’re applying in their work with

Breck Service Curriculum Philosophy The purpose of service learning is to:

An effective service learning program should:

· Reduce self-centeredness

· Include face-to-face meetings with people in need at off-campus sites

· Develop the ability to see the world from someone else’s viewpoint · Experience spiritual and ethical values in action · Encourage students to recognize the interdependence of all people · Develop a social conscience that inspires action

· Be linked to the classroom, putting need in context before the project and reflecting on what was learned afterward · Build ongoing, personal relationships · Be suited to the developmental stages of the students



One of his advisees, junior Hadley Slocum, describes the experience as “very eye-opening,” After learning the harrowing personal story of one of the children, an immigrant 26

Coming Soon: The Melrose Family Center for Servant Leadership

from Somalia, she says, “It’s made me a lot slower to jump to

With the renovated Upper School facility, Breck will

conclusions about people because you just don’t know what

debut the Melrose Family Center for Servant Leadership,

they’ve been through.”

which will combine Upper School service and multicul-

Another, senior Amy Yin, an international student from Beijing, observes that she’s already seen profound changes in the students at Lyndale. “It’s hard not to feel bad for them sometimes,” she says, “but we feel really good knowing that we’re helping them find their own voice.”

tural education in new and exciting ways. While plans are still being formulated for the center, Upper School Director Melissa Soderberg says it will focus on “formalizing some of the more subjective pieces of our students’ daily lives by articulating qualities of servant leaders and introducing our students to service and business leaders

The group decided to expand the experience by partnering

who wrestle with the challenging ethical questions that

with a third-grade class from Breck. That has been eye-open-

face every leader.”

ing as well. Says Hadley, “The students in Ms. Schafer’s room are such fun and so attentive, but their life experiences are so different from the kids at Lyndale. Sometimes I really feel thrown off-guard by what I’ve already learned.”

Frederique Schmidt echoes the sentiment. “What’s so appealing about the servant leadership concept is that it’s a way to approach a situation and work toward a common goal. And everyone can get involved. You don’t have to

Upper School students also visit questions of character

be a president or a team captain or a senior to make an

through the religious studies curriculum and regular cha-

active effort to do what’s best for everyone,” she observes.

pels. Through their study of world religions, ethics, bioethics,

“And that’s very much what we want to teach. If you’re

and courses such as Religious Imagery in Film taught by Rob

upset about something—big or small—you should use

Johnson ’90, they explore themes of redemption, forgiveness

your dissatisfaction to do something about it.”

and compassion as well as an appreciation for others.

Soderberg adds that she expects the center, which is be-

Still, Bellaimey says, “We have to realize that most of the

ing made possible by a generous donation from the Mel-

character development that happens in our students comes

rose family, to act as a cross between a resource center, a

from their families. As Mr. Salas used to say, we want our

college student activities center and our hub for service

Jewish kids to be the best Jews they can be, our Muslim kids

learning in a way that will give Breck students “the tools

the best Muslims, our Episcopalians the best Episcopalians,

for success and the ambition to do good work in the

and so on. We want them to find their own paths, to be sure,

world. And that’s what character education is all about.”

and to be responsible for others, but their parents are by far the most influential guides.” He adds that partnering with parents as they give their adolescent children increasing amounts of responsibility is a very important part of the work Breck does. “Our Honor Code says that we prize ‘scholarship, trust and friendship,’ and so we do our best to embody those virtues” Bellaimey points out. “It’s pretty wonderful when the kids do, too.”

Character Education - Spring 2013  
Character Education - Spring 2013  

Character education article from the spring 2013 issue of Today at Breck.