Cultivating character: SAEL to participate in study that explores link between character and academics |

Cultivating character: SAEL to participate in study that explores link between character and academics

Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning students stack cups with string and rubber bands as part of a team-building activity.
Submitted by Sara James |

The six character traits of Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning students are displayed on a poster near the front of one of the school’s classrooms — grit, integrity, collaboration, curiosity, craftsmanship and advocacy.

But that’s not the only reminder. At the public charter school, which opened last year and currently serves about 135 students, those traits are incorporated into hands-on fieldwork and reflected upon during core classes.

“Every day, there are specific learning objectives focused on character development,” said Sara James, a history teacher at SAEL.

That focus has landed SAEL the opportunity to contribute to a growing body of research about the way non-cognitive factors — character traits such as self-discipline, confidence, focus and organization — are tied to academic success and college and career readiness in students.

“You understand that you have a lot more potential than we give ourselves credit for. It’s about not closing yourself into situations and telling yourself you can’t do something.”10th-grader Vanessa Cristdahl

SAEL is one of six expeditionary learning schools – there are currently more than 160 such schools nationwide, where project-based, interdisciplinary learning is emphasized – selected to participate in a University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research study.

The project, titled “Becoming Effective Learners,” is headed by Camille Farrington, a senior research associate at the Consortium and former public high school teacher.

Over the course of the 15-month project, SAEL will contribute data from online teacher and student surveys developed by the Consortium; the surveys aim to assess the behaviors that make students successful in the classroom and identify how those behaviors are cultivated. The school will also host periodic visits from the research team, and staff members will engage in discussions about the implications of the data collected.

The goal of the study is to help the research team understand how the survey data can assist schools in shaping programs, as well as to give the participating schools deeper insights into how to improve practices while contributing to a larger conversation among educators, policy makers and researchers about the role of non-cognitive factors in academics.

SAEL applied to take part in the project and was “excited” to be selected, said Principal Erica Crane.

“We’re a new school and we are still able to engage [in the study] because of the way teachers have owned, and because of the way our community has embraced, this way of thinking,” Crane said.

That way of thinking revolves around promoting a growth mindset in students, a concept that’s gained significant traction in education over the past several years. The idea was developed by Carol Dweck, a Stanford University professor and psychologist whose decades of research have focused on the connection between mindset and increased motivation and achievement.

In nurturing a growth mindset, educators are telling students that intelligence isn’t a fixed trait, but an ability that can be developed and improved through hard work.

That means students are praised for utilizing learning strategies or persevering through challenges, provided descriptive feedback on how to correct errors, and asked to assess and continually improve their work.

“There’s really no ‘done,’ and there’s no permanence in failure,” said SAEL math teacher Mike Mendelson.

And a big part of cultivating that mindset at SAEL rests in the school’s emphasis on character development. Those lessons are anchored in students’ daily “crew” sessions — a class period devoted to team- and character-building activities.

Students are tasked with tracking their character growth over time, and they’re held accountable by staff as well; in addition to being graded on academics, students are assessed on how they’ve mastered SAEL’s character traits, such as the ability to show organization in problem-solving, evaluate their own learning or prioritize their time.

The focus on character traits and growth mindset at SAEL has resonated with many students.

“You understand that you have a lot more potential than we give ourselves credit for,” said tenth-grader Vanessa Cristdahl. “It’s about not closing yourself into situations and telling yourself you can’t do something.”

Her classmates agreed, saying they’ve learned to advocate for themselves, communicate with each other and better identify their own strengths and weaknesses.

And they can already see how those skills will apply to life after SAEL, in college and in the workforce.

“It’s something you can take with you your whole life,” said tenth-grader Gracie Sherrill.

Participating in Farrington’s study is a chance for the school to complement that type of student feedback with additional data that will help the school assess just how well it’s implementing its programs.

“Anecdotes feel great, but how can we share that with the wider community? How can we prove this is really something?” James said.

“And what parts could we double down on?” Mendelson added.

James said the staff is continuously refining how to best model growth mindset and empower students, especially as the fledgling school aims to add more students over the next couple of years.

Being able to glean information from this type of research study will assist in that process, Crane said.

“Its great to be able to try to engage in this high level of work and research while we’re still forming our program,” Crane said. “It feels like this is informing our program as we do it.”

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email or call 530-477-4230.

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