The Gesu School, an independent Catholic K-8 school in Philadelphia and member of Schools That Can, held its Annual Symposium on Transforming Inner-City Education on Friday, November 1. Since 1997, Gesu has organized this annual forum to address hot-button topics in urban education such as school vouchers, the impact of stress on children’s learning, 21st century learning and early education. This year’s topic, “The Hidden Power of Character” was timely as STC continues its work on Teaching Success with character “experts” Angela Duckworth and Walter Mischel. More photos of the symposium are included on Gesu’s Facebook page here.

Paul Tough, a New York Times Magazine contributor and the author of several books including his most recent How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, launched the conversation with an engaging and informative keynote address highlighting key points from his most recent research on the topic.

Tough’s research challenges the “cognitive hypothesis,” which posits that one’s IQ is the strongest predictor of success. He argues that one’s character strengths are more foretelling than inherent intellectual capacity. Researchers emphasize different strengths, but some of the most commonly mentioned traits include: grit, zest, curiosity, self-control, optimism, and conscientiousness.

But how does one teach optimism – especially in the face of the unspeakable challenges unfortunately all too common in underserved communities? Of course there is no one answer, but the research does bring to light some effective practices and tricks of the trade.

Positive Character Traits Lead to Success

Not unsurprisingly, it starts at home during early childhood. Children who develop secure attachments to caregivers are less likely to feel the effects of toxic stress long-term and are more likely to develop these character strengths.  However, all is certainly not lost for youngsters who don’t develop secure attachments. Another fruitful time for developing character strengths is adolescence. It is at this time that metacognition is developed, and schools can certainly have an impact on adolescents’ character, regardless of prior experiences.

Two schools in New York have experimented with this work at the adolescent level – KIPP Infinity Middle School, a charter school in Harlem serving low-income students; and Riverdale Country Day School, an elite private school. Leaders from the two schools noticed that students were successfully taking tests and getting into college, but were lacking important character traits that would help them succeed beyond the supportive walls of school, and were easily de-railed when something went wrong. To address this challenge, the leaders selected 7 essential traits to emphasize in their classrooms: optimism, zest, grit, curiosity, social intelligence, gratitude, and self-control.

Given the different contexts, each school approached the challenge differently. At KIPP, teachers completed “character report cards” along with academic report cards. Each semester, students were “assessed” on their demonstration of these traits, and scores were included with their classroom grades. At Riverdale, Head of School Dominic Randolph worried that a “character report card” would open the gates for “character tutors,” and grappled with how to teach and measure these skills, especially in an environment in which students were largely sheltered from experiences of failure. Tough addressed this “adversity gap,” noting that children in poverty have often experienced too much adversity and need protection from it. By contrast, children from affluence have often experienced very little adversity, and as a result, have not had opportunities to develop strengths like grit, persistence, and resilience.

Tough closed his talk by imparting lessons learned from success stories. We have all heard stories of individuals who have pulled themselves up out of poverty, overcome tremendous setbacks, and come out “successful” on the other end and wondered “how did he/she get from point A to point B?” If we look at the research, we can begin to understand. Primarily, the individual typically possesses some of the traits discussed above (persistence, resilience, optimism, gratitude). However, there is almost always someone who reaches out with a helping hand to get him/her back on track.

So what can we learn from this? We should encourage the development of secure attachments in early childhood. Throughout childhood and into adolescence, we can support students by helping them name essential character strengths and practice displaying them. Finally, we need to teach students how to face risks, to persist through challenges and to be resilient in the face of failure. And always, we should reach out and provide a helping hand and encourage when needed.

Tactics for Character Nourishment

Following his keynote, Tough joined Jeanne Brady, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at St Josephs University; Mark Gleason, Executive Director of the Philadelphia School Partnership Program; and Keith Leaphart, practicing doctor and Chairman of the Lenfest Foundation to discuss implications of the research on our schools and communities.

The panelists all agreed that there isn’t just one way to do this. There are different kinds of children, and schools can meet their needs in different ways. However, successful districts, schools, and programs do share some common ingredients including:

  • Comprehensive early learning experiences that emphasize character traits
  • Collaboration amongst community groups and along the pre K-16 learning continuum
  • Provide and value multiple means of assessing student learning
  • Don’t trust “silver bullet” solutions
  • Show students that failure matters, but it happens; Help them navigate it
  • Instill in students a belief that they can succeed and help them experience it
  • Help kids see how their success in school relates to success beyond school
  • Provide mentorships and apprenticeships
  • Involve families

In addition to a discussion, attendees were serenaded by the school choir and entertained by Christian, a 7th grade Gesu student. Christian introduced Mr. J. Gordon Cooney, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, who then introduced the school’s mission and core beliefs.

“Gesu strives, without selective admissions, to provide a quality, innovative education for their neighbor children to empower them to break the cycle of poverty and violence.” They do this by embodying the beliefs that all children can learn, have the right to aspire, should be given the tools to achieve those aspirations, should give back to their community, and should be treated as a whole person. Gesu teaches children to navigate their worlds with grace, non-violence and the hope for a better future.