Portland schools install innovative character education models in advance of top author’s visit

Author Paul Tough, shown here in a publicity image produced by Mary McIlvaine Photography and distributed by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is scheduled to give a talk at The Telling Room in Portland on Nov. 7.
Mary McIlvaine Photography
Author Paul Tough, shown here in a publicity image produced by Mary McIlvaine Photography and distributed by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is scheduled to give a talk at The Telling Room in Portland on Nov. 7.
Posted Oct. 30, 2012, at 4:04 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A new style of learning, championed by author Paul Tough, is being applied in Portland’s public schools and in the creative writing programs offered at The Telling Room.

The Telling Room, in connection with the schools, University of Southern Maine’s Teacher Education Department and several other education groups, will host a presentation by Tough at 7 p.m. Nov. 7, at USM’s Hannaford Hall.

In his book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, curiosity and the hidden power of character,” Tough argues for a new understanding of the way children learn, saying that characteristics such as perseverance — “grit” as he calls it — and curiosity should be developed alongside an understanding of mathematics and other traditional subjects.

Tough said that during the research for his book, he studied the way students from all socioeconomic backgrounds learn, from low-income students at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Riverdale Country School, an exclusive private school in Bronx, N.Y.

He found that when character traits are developed both at home and in the classroom, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to succeed more than if these traits were not cultivated at all.

The ideas in Tough’s book may seem like a distant problem, but Casco Bay High School, King Middle School and East End Elementary School have either shifted or begun a shift toward character learning.

David Galin, chief academics officer for Portland Public Schools, said that with the lower socioeconomic status of many students in Portland, Tough’s concepts are key in developing tenacious learners who will have success in future education.

“Certain schools are really going deep with this,” Galin said. “We have individual schools who have developed plans for student support and student learning that include a lot of work on our students’ character.”

Casco Bay High School, for example, adopted the idea of character learning before Tough’s book came out, but Derek Pierce, school principal, said the school identifies with a lot of what Tough says in his book.

“We very much agree with his approach and about the importance of recognizing skills or dispositions that kids have, perseverance and grit, as being crucial to kids’ success and something that can be taught and cultivated,” Pierce said.

Casco Bay High School students are expected to work ethically, be accountable for their actions and persevere through challenges presented to them, he said.

Pierce said that all students at Casco Bay High School receive traditional grades, but they also receive a grade for “Habits of Work,” built around concepts such as being accountable, persevering and achieving personal bests. The school has both a traditional honor roll and a “Habits of Work” honor roll.

Any student can be on the “Habits of Work” honor roll. Pierce said it is more difficult to get onto the traditional honor roll, but there is definitely a correlation between the two.

“We really started a re-emphasis of ‘Habits of Work’ in a bunch of different ways last year and we had an increase of about 15-20 percent in our academic honor rolls, so we have seen kids’ achievements improve,” he said.

He said that in addition to the increase in the number of students on the honor roll, school culture has been strengthened through the idea of getting smart to do good.

“Related to Tough’s research is a growth mindset that you are born with a fixed intelligence, but you can grow your brain with hard work and perseverance, you can literally get smarter,” he said. “We try to build our school around the idea of getting smart to do good, getting smarter for a larger purpose to do good in the community.”

He said that this idea has led to fewer discipline problems and students treating each other better — supporting each other in projects and in life.

Heather Davis, executive director of The Telling Room, a creative writing center for children ages 6-18 on Commercial Street, said that she sees a similar attitude among students who take advantage of the programs offered by the creative writing center.

“What we found when we evaluate our programs is that not only did students’ writing improve but their social and emotional well-being improved,” she said. “Character is a crucial component for student success academically and emotionally and everything we do is trying to support student success in school and as they grow up.”

Davis said students are saying in their evaluations of the program that they feel more empowered.

“We hear from students over and over that they didn’t know they could do what they have done at the Telling Room,” she said. “They become published writers, do a tour and present their work to people from other backgrounds and get to know their voice. They are treated like really professional authors and it gives them a huge boost that a lot of our students haven’t gotten anywhere else.”

Tough’s presentation in Portland is sold out, but Davis said Maine Public Broadcasting Network will rebroadcast it and it will be available on The Telling Room’s website.

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