Fifty Shades of Gray

Did the title get your attention?

Not to worry –this blog is different than the popular movie. Note that the word “gray.” It is not “Grey” as in the movie title. March, in many places, is a “gray” overcast month where one wishes for an early Spring. To brighten up the month of March, consider these “gems” for the teaching and learning of character strengths and traits.


  • Gallup Students Poll
    • “Sixty-three percent of students in America are engaged…highly involved with and enthusiastic about school.” (p72)
  • The Engagement Slide
    • “Student engagement peaks during elementary school, decreases through middle school and early high school, plateaus a little, and then increases through the rest of high school….”(p.72)
  • Students polled suggest 4 ways to keep them engaged (p.73)
    1. “Elementary schools prepare them for the rigors of the work in secondary schools.
    2. Teachers get to know them
    3. Adults praise and recognize them for good schoolwork
    4. All schools commit to building the strengths of each student.”
  • “Teachers who are engaged in their work tend to have students who are engaged in learning.” (p.73)

Shane J. Lopez, “Giving Students a Voice.” Kappan, October 2011, pp.72-73


Emotions have many variations: joy, contentment, serenity, frustration, sadness, sorrow, guilt, etc. If you break them down into their simplest elements, there are only two important categories; one sends positive messages and the other sends negative messages.

If you are mindful (conscious) of your emotions, you realize that they are affected by your thoughts, your self-talk, and by reactions prompted by your senses. (For example, HEARING a compliment prompts a good feeling; HEARING criticism prompts a negative one. SEEING someone smile at you prompts a nice feeling; SEEING a sad scene in a film prompts tears.)

It is normal for negative emotions to emerge in difficult situations. A negative emotional reaction to another person’s comments indicates that the other person is prompting (directing) your emotions. In such cases, redirect your thinking so positive emotions will be forthcoming.

In any situation where you feel bad, change your thinking because the emotion always follows cognition.

PROMOTING RESPONSIBILITY & LEARNING– Volume 15 Number 2, February 2015


Empathy  “Empathy Formula” (E = EC²)

The first the first stage of becoming empathetic is “cognitive empathy,” or the act of knowing how another person feels. The second is “emotional empathy,” or the capacity to physically feel the emotions of another. As with cognitive empathy, however, emotional empathy can have troublesome consequences if applied in isolation. The third and final part of the formula — “compassionate empathy”, which is what occurs when we combine the previous two in the name of acting upon what we think and feel.

What would happen if schools were more mindful of this Empathy Formula? Instead of offering disconnected but well-intentioned efforts to help children think, feel or act, would adults start to help children think, feel and act? Would communities be increasingly populated with people who were neither narcissistic nor emotionally empty? And would the most pressing problems of our day — from energy to education to enlivening our civic life — be analyzed, internalized, and diffused by a new generation of changemakers?  

Sam Chaltain, “The Empathy Formula,” Huffington Post, 12-18-2012

Moral & Performance Character

This question was posed to Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”

Can you explain how they’re different and why that difference is important?

This is a distinction that was made in a paper by the Character Education Partnership. I found it valuable when I was reporting on the character-education collaboration between the KIPP schools in New York City and the Riverdale Country School, which I wrote about in 2011 in the New York Times Magazine, and which I write about in more depth in “How Children Succeed.”

Briefly, “moral character” refers to traits related to values and ethics: honesty, piety, chastity, generosity. “Performance character” refers to traits related to personal effectiveness: self-control, persistence, grit, optimism. These traits are very similar to what economists like James Heckman refer to as non-cognitive skills.

I think both categories are valuable, but I think they they’re clearly very different. And one big problem with the word character is that it has these two meanings. Which means that when any two people have a conversation about “character education,” they are often talking about two very different things.

When educators who care about character are able to be more specific about which character traits they’re trying to develop in their students, that benefits everyone.

Larry Feriazzo, September 3, 2012, Education Week: Teacher.

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