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Raising middle schoolers’ EQ and IQ

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By Jessica Kelmon

Character education… in math?

At first blush, pre-algebra and character lessons are odd bedfellows. Traditionally, the gateways for integrating character lessons are courses like humanities and social studies, where IQ and EQ lessons are more closely linked. But Schumacker's academic alchemy is working for many reasons.

For one, he’s discovered effective ways to reach the kids. His classroom walls are lined with handmade posters. Words like “honesty,” “perseverance,” and “opportunity” are written next to words like “gossip,” “put downs,” and “swearing” — with slashes through them. These posters surround the clock where, says Schumacker, “kids’ eyes tend to go first.” Instead of the daily roll call, he starts class with a question of the day: ‘What’s one song on your iPod?’ or ‘Did anyone give you a compliment today?’

The daily question helps his students feel heard, he says, and it’s an unqualified hit: “In every single class it's one of their favorite things.” Also popular are weekly writing prompts, which are typically responses to a moral character challenge — focusing on trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, or citizenship — such as not complaining for a day or naming someone they’re grateful for. Recently, he asked the kids to write about what's helped them be successful (or not) in his class. The answers show tremendous insight on the part of the seventh graders — a group seldom credited with deep thinking. Kids who aren’t faring well academically own up to causes like laziness and not trying. Others opened up about problems at home, such as financial stress and divorce. But nearly every student who wrote about academic success credits Schumacker's revisions policy, which allows them to redo missed homework and test questions. His revisions policy is part of a performance character lesson — focusing on effort, goal setting, and perseverance — that helps kids take ownership of their learning.

Methods to avoid the madness

Schumacker uses an almost scientific trial-and-error approach to improving his craft — each time with the goal of better reaching and teaching his students — though parents aren’t always immediately on board. Tom Lickona, one of Schumacker's mentors and director of SUNY Cortland’s Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility), recalls: “He got notes from parents saying, ‘My daughter never liked math and I disagreed with your high expectations in math, but now she feels differently and knows what A work looks like.’”

Over time, Schumacker’s overcome the urge to force kids into submission. For a while he required struggling students come to class at lunchtime. “It became clear I could force them to come at lunch every day, but I can’t force them to work hard,” he says. To avoid the inevitable (and unproductive) stand-offs, he created his revisions policy to encourage students to improve their work of their own volition. Perhaps thanks to his counseling degree, he’s cultivated a safe, open environment for class meetings, where kids can give him feedback. “If something’s not working, [they] can tell me,” he says. “I won’t be mad.”

For Schumacker, success is about more than scores; it’s about instilling a passion for excellence in learning. Sally Coberly-Hough says her son Mark learned the nuts and bolts of hard work — and the value of it — in Schumacker’s class. It was laborious for both mother and son, she wrote in an email, but “it paid off!” Julie DiNapoli says her three daughters learned lasting lessons in Schumacker’s class, too. Now in high school, “they still look back at their notes from his class,” she says.

Finding inspiration

This type of leadership didn’t just happen. Schumacker might have burned out of teaching if it hadn’t been for character education. When a local elementary school invited Hal Urban, the granddaddy of moral character education, to speak, Schumacker was inspired to start immediately. The district reacted similarly, and now moral character education is taught at all of the elementary schools and both middle schools, says Nick Verhoff, Superintendent of Beavercreek City Schools (GreatSchools Rating 9).

Schumacker takes it a step further with performance character education. In 2008 he met Lickona and his colleague Matt Davidson, who taught him about class meetings, setting goals, and letting kids redo missed problems. “[It] was my ‘Aha’ moment,” Schumacker says. “Everything I do comes from them.”

It starts with kindness

Recently, a student gave Schumacker the ultimate compliment: “You definitely taught me how to be a better person.” The accolade echoes the “Caught Being Good” messages that Schumacker uses to model kindness while inspiring kids to do their best. And it’s a sign that his character lessons, which always start with kindness, are working. “It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophesy,” he says. “If you tell them they’re an amazing student, they live up to it.”

is an associate editor at GreatSchools.org.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

06/13/2012:
"My daughter was in Mr. Shumacker class this year and enjoyed the math class and told me " Mr. Shumacker made the class fun and helped us set goals we could use for life not just for the class". Thank you Mr.Shumacker keep up the great work because people like you make a difference. "
06/13/2012:
"To the person asking about "tween"- That means between being a child and a teenager. Middle schoolers are tweens at age 11, 12, and 13. "
06/12/2012:
"Wow, wish more teachers would be like him! "
06/12/2012:
"If you are interested in contacting me with questions, comments, or simply to debate the merits of character education, please feel free to contact me @ mark.schumacker@beavercreek.k12.oh.us I would love to talk to you! Thank you, Mark Schumacker 7th grade math teacher Ankeney Middle School Beavercreek, Oh 45430 "
06/11/2012:
"Nice article. Lots of information. Thanks! "
06/11/2012:
"After many years feeling unfulfilled in the pharmaceutical sales field, I am returning to school to become a middle school math teacher! I am so happy that Mr. Schumacker holds such high expectations of her students, yet they hold high expectations of him too! I intend to model this kind of behavior in the middle school math class teaching not only math but social justice and character development as well. I can't wait to make similar connections with these often misunderstood future leaders of our country! I really want to teach them how to problem solve and be a voice in their communities, so that greater problems of this world will be realized through caring and thoughtful learners. Hooray Mr. Schumacker and others like you who believe in these kiddos! "
06/11/2012:
"Thank you. "
06/11/2012:
"Wish the teachers at my kids middle school would do that here in San Antonio, TX "
06/11/2012:
"Definately positive remarks and encouragement is very powrful! As people we respond better to love and building up rather than being critical and tearing down. Everybody needs love especially kids! "
06/11/2012:
"Very good article, but I think you mean "teen" every time you write tween, right? "
06/11/2012:
"There should be more teachers like Mr. Schumacker? "
06/11/2012:
"Raising teenagers is like tying to nail jello to a tree! "
06/11/2012:
"I agree. Positives bring more positives. I am reminded often that my face is the first thing someone sees as I come down the hall and the first good morning many will hear all day. When I have a bad day I can see that my students are affected. Finding one good thing to say, can turn the class around. "
06/11/2012:
"I was surprised to see character Ed being touted as being a new and innovative teaching approach. I recall our beloved private elementary school having time set aside each week for such talks. In middle school the students started their week with writing and discussing 'attitudes and gratitudes' . This was back some twelve years ago. I don't think our schools were one in a million doing this - just dedicated teachers (with the support of caring parents) quietly going one step further to build good relationships in their classrooms. "
06/11/2012:
"I found that validating the interests and issues sacred and important to middle schoolers' lives gains a teacher a wealth of gratitude and loyalty from this age group... "
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Students pose by their goals.
One way he recognizes students
Kids make plans to meet goals.
Reinforcing positive attitudes
Weekly character challenges
Inspiring words to start class
Mr. Schumacker with his class
Character-themed mosaics...
reinforce school culture.