A Class of Character

A Class of Character:

“This is Who We Are”

Jenna Smith, 3rd-Grade Teacher


I have now been a teacher for 1 year and 126 days.   During college you have these lofty notions of what it’s going to be like: “The kids will love ME because I’ve been working so hard and I want to be a teacher so much. They’ll all sit, listen, and work hard.”


Even student teaching only partially knocks you out of naive land, because your cooperating teacher is backing you up, helping students who are most in need of extra attention. Then one day you finally land your dream job, they give you your very own key, they give you your own room, and they leave you alone with 26 children.


At that second, Hilltop’s character education program— so thoughtfully implemented before I was ever given my own room—became the key to my ability to create an environment where my students can be successful learners. Our character program Plata Card works for me because it provides a framework in which learners of all ages continually engage in searching for solutions. It gives me language with which I can involve all of my students in a conversation about how to be better people.

In my 3rd-grade classroom I rely on seven strategies to help build character.


1. Establishing Expectations Together

At the start of the year the students and I work together to create the climate in which we

want to work, learn, and grow.  Our first task is to draft a pledge, with me providing sentence starters and the students adding what’s important until we have the words we will live by during our entire year together. 


The pledge works for several reasons. First, it’s their pledge. Since they were partners in writing it, they have a reason to become partners in following it. Second, it gives them a power they can use to solve simple conflicts.


Sometimes I watch my students from across the room pointing and saying, “Don’t laugh at my mistakes— remember, we agreed.” Or, “That’s not the truth.     You need to tell the truth—we agreed.” Finally, it becomes a tool I can use to remind us what it looks like to be a 3rd-grader in our room. I begin some mornings by asking, “What will playing fairly look like for us today?”

Or, I end the day by asking them to reflect, “Who saw honesty today?”


2. Class Meetings

The backbone of our program is our weekly class meeting. Class meetings have one major rule: “People are never a problem. Actions and choices are problems.”     In our room hangs a Problem Board that says, “Please write down your name and the problem you need help

solving.” Each time a student has a problem that extends beyond a single person they can write the problem down. Then, every Wednesday morning we sit down together and help each other solve our problems.


One reason the class meeting strategy works is that, just as with the pledge, the students have an immediate investment in what’s going on in our classroom.    They are responsible for finding reasonable solutions or consequences without placing blame. The class meeting

also enables us to be proactive as a class in finding solutions to things that may distract students from learning or from being comfortable at school.




3. Talk It Out

We needed a place in our classroom where we could talk out problems with one person, without making that person feel embarrassed in front of the whole class. We created the “Talk It Out” space. The space was named after steps for conflict resolution given to all classrooms

by our school counselor, Linda Babin. A clipboard in the Talk It Out space says, “Please write down your name and the person you would like to talk it out with.” The procedures at the station are:


1. Stop. Cool off.

2. Talk and listen.

3. Find out what you both need.

4. Think of ways to solve the problem.

5. Choose the idea you both like.


When kids come to Talk It Out, they begin by making an “I-Statement.” For example, “I don’t like it when you call me names. It makes me feel sad. Will you please stop?” The other person responds with an I-Statement if necessary, and they discuss their different points of view.

The Talk-It-Out works because both kids leave feeling that their voice was heard by the other person. I find it amazing to watch 3rd-graders engaged in this process of discussing, empathizing, and problem-solving.


4. Monthly Character Expectations and Goal Setting

Part of being able to solve conflicts is having the tools and the language to solve them or to stop them before they start. One method by which we help students to continually gain new language and strategies is our monthly “character expectations.” Each month has a

character expectation the whole school focuses on.    The first Monday of the month I gather my students on the carpet and read a story to introduce our new character expectation.


In March it is courage, and the book Courage explains the many different forms this character quality can take. We use the book to begin to answer the questions that will guide our month: What is courage? What does courage look like? When do you need courage the most? Who can show courage?

The next day the students gather on the carpet again.   I start with a quote about courage by Winston Churchill: “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all others.” This is a deep idea, so I read it again slowly before asking kids to think about what it means. “I think he means,” one student says, “that it’s the best one because you need it for all the other things.” We discuss what that means for us. “When do third-graders need courage the most?” “You need it when you have to try new vegetables.” Then we discuss what we’re working on getting better at. “It’s hard to control my temper when

someone makes a bad call at wall ball.” Finally, we move to our seats to write personal courage goals, based on what each individual needs to work on. For example.   “By the end of March, I will be courageous by trying at least one new thing before asking a grown-up to help.”


5. Curriculum Integration

Character education is recognizing the character issues that are embedded in all we do. For example, during our classroom’s writer’s workshop, my students write stories about topics of their choice. Many of my boys, especially, love and watch a lot of violent cartoons, and

this is reflected in their fiction writing. I have concerns about boys being limited in their literacy development by schools not accepting what boys find interesting, but I also have concerns about how much violence I can comfortably allow in my classroom, even in fiction form.


So when one of my students came to me really wanting to publish a well-written story about two boys who got into a violent sword fight, I tried to get him to think about what we could do to reach a compromise. I asked, “Do you think solving problems through violence is a good idea?” He responded, “No, but it makes a good story.” We talked about what other people might think when they read the story, and what he thought they could learn from his main character. While violence was still in his final draft, he changed the ending from a bloody,

senseless death to a teaching lesson about how the main character could have used words instead.

6. Reflection Time

Reflection time, in its various forms, is the key to learning from our experiences. As much as possible, I try to make character education focus on students making choices about what is right, and less about me telling them what is right. Levels Scores is a schoolwide strategy that we use on a regular basis to help kids do this. The levels are:


4 “Respectful. Responsible. Helps Others.”

3 “Respectful. Responsible.”

2 “Works or Listens When Reminded.”

1 “Not Working or Listening.”

0 “Bothering Others.”

Sometimes I ask the kids to give themselves a private levels score. The students decide what level they think they’re working at and put those fingers to their leg. Sometimes I ask them to share their reasons for their self-rating. Sometimes I’ll ask, “What level is our class working at today?” or “What level did you feel we were at during math?”


My students are generally honest and accurate about their scores for each area. This self-reflection provides a sense of autonomy and develops their ability to think for themselves. Instead of a grown-up pointing a finger and saying, “You really need to work on cooperation,”

they’re being asked, “How do you think you’re doing on cooperating?”  As I guide my students through self reflection, I believe I am laying the groundwork for independent self-reflection in the future.


7. The Quiet Space

This year I have a special needs student who has been diagnosed as having Sensory Integration DisorderPractically, this means he gets very emotional when overstimulated.

He has difficulty controlling his frustration and is easily upset by minor, unexpected changes. He is also an endearing storyteller, with an amazing retention of facts. When I found out I was going to have this student in my class, I spent many days that summer reading books about children with special needs and pondering what I could do that would enable him to fit into our classroom.


Then it occurred to me that my most important job was not to figure out how to make him “fit into” the classroom; I needed to figure out how to make the classroom fit him, so that with security and comfort in place, he could learn how to be successful in my room and outside

of it.    Based on that, the easiest classroom adaptation I made for him was based on my understanding of Sensory Integration Disorder and the principles of “silence and stillness” that we practice as a whole school. Silence and stillness doesn’t look identical in all rooms, but it’s

based on the idea that we all need quiet time in order to slow down and let our brains do their best work. For 10 minutes each afternoon right after recess, Room 16 kids “rest their brains.” I knew that one of this child’s behaviors is that he gets overwhelmed when overstimulated. I

concluded he might need more than a 10-minute scheduled brain rest each day, so I created a space for him in our classroom where he could go to calm down.


We call it “The Quiet Space.” It is a bean bag, nestled in a cozy nook between two bookshelves and a wall.   Peeking in on different days, you might find a pile of books or a writing notebook. Other days there is a stuffed animal waiting to be snuggled. Some days you might find nothing but a child, sitting quietly, remembering to breathe or knowing it is okay to cry when you need to without being embarrassed in front of your friends.


At the beginning of the year when my special 3rdgrader would show signs of frustration, I would ask him to please take a time in the quiet space. By now he will go independently, calm down, and return to the class when he is ready. Just as it has become a primary resource for him, it has also became an occasional resource for other kids who are having a bad day or need a moment of quiet in the often chaotic world of 8- and 9-year-olds.


When We Are No Longer Watching

The last line of our class pledge says, “This is who we are, even when no one is watching.” I know a big part of why our character education program works is because grown-ups are watching and guiding. But that last line of the pledge is there because it’s what we all

are working towards. It’s there because in our classroom, and all around our school, we’re working on teaching kids reading, writing, mathematics, and character skills that will be authentic and long-lasting—that will follow them into a time when we truly are no longer watching.



Jenna Smith (SmithjE@edmonds.wednet.edu)

teaches at Hilltop Elementary in Lynnwood, WA.


Our Class Pledge

In Room 16 we believe you should treat others how you want to be treated.

We show respect by playing fairly, not bragging, helping each other, understanding each

others’ mistakes, listening, being honest, and using a kind tone of voice.

We are good friends to one another because we share, play together, and learn together.

This is who we are, even when no one is watching.






Article is taken from the website of

the Center for the 4th & 5th R’s,   Cortland, State University of New York

Vol 11 Issue 1.   Fall 2004