Every day at school, teachers and administrators remind students to behave properly and follow the rules. However, instead of simply telling students how to behave, schools should focus on modeling the right behavior and helping students see that negative behaviors not only break school rules, but they could have an impact on themselves and others in the future. When students begin to see their negative behavior in light of how it effects others and how it could effect them in the future, they are more likely to think twice before breaking another rule. Unfortunately, the school schedule does not often include much time for lessons in character education. That’s where classes like social studies come into play. Social studies content allows for character exploration as a reasonable tangent, making it the social studies teacher’s responsibility to incorporate it when possible.
If you’re looking for new ways to incorporate character into the social studies classroom, consider some of the following options:
Teaching about the Holocaust
One unit that is a perfect complement to this discussion is the Holocaust as there are many lesson plans available to assist you in making your point. The Anti-Defamation League has put together a lesson using the pyramid of hate to illustrate how simple stereotyping and bullying can lead to harassment and violence. The lesson asks students to examine personal experiences with violence, anger, and prejudice, and later, analyze the experiences of Holocaust survivors to see how prejudices can lead to greater hate.
To express the notion that allowing hate to spewed without taking a stand is just as wrong as spewing hate yourself, you can discuss the quote by Martin Niemöller that says:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”
To further this notion, use “The Hangman” by Maurice Ogden, or if your students are visual learners, there is a psychedelic cartoon version is available on YouTube. Books such as The Diary of a Young Girl and The Kite Runner can also be good to use while teaching about the Holocaust.
Teaching about Colonization and Imperialism
The European colonization of Africa was another moment of historical greed and brutality that can be used as a character lesson for students. Independence leader Jomo Kenyatta penned a fable that exposes the European nations as animal bullies who pretend to help the technologically weak Africans, while stealing their land and resources. The moral is not to take advantage of those weaker than you or it may come back to haunt you later. There is sexual imagery and advanced concepts, so this may not be suitable for all student populations.
The concept of imperialism, Social Darwinism, and the “White man’s Burden”, has a connection to bullying. There are many resources available to educate students about the effects of bullying and places to get help. The film “Bully” follows five students who face torment every day. Anderson Cooper followed up on the movie with a town hall meeting on the matter. The tragic consequences of online bullying, which students often consider harmless because it is not physical or face to face, is briefly examined in the PBS Frontline episode “Growing Up Online.”
Sometimes we get caught up in making better students and forget we also have to mold better people. Character education is a worthy venture, even when high stakes test preparation dominates much of our class time. We must teach kids to be kind, have integrity, and bring goodness and love into the world.
Do you know any great character lessons to incorporate in the social studies classroom? If so, we’d love for you to share them in the comments.
About the Author
William Campione began his career in the New York City public school system before moving to a diverse suburban New York public school district. He teaches high school Social Studies. In his fourteen years in the classroom William has filled a variety of roles, including working with a co-teacher, in a consultant teacher model, and in a self contained classroom. He has taught all four high school grades, dealing with the stress of an impending New York State Regents Exam with freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, and the year-long battle with Senior-itis while teaching twelfth graders.