Character Begins Here
As a progressive, independent school, Mounds Park Academy has a strong moral mission. Respect, integrity, and global responsibility are as central to the mission of the school as intellectual ambition and effective communication. Rooted in the idea that the human character is malleable and children are exceptionally capable of positively impacting the world, character has been taught as one part of the whole child since 1982.
Varied, creative, and always evolving, how each teacher approaches character education is as unique as their own DNA. Teacher autonomy applies to all disciplines at MPA and is highly valued by teachers and administrators alike. It relies on mutual trust and is based on the idea that teachers are professionals who know their students best.
So, in 2011, when the desire for a more formal character education during the early, foundational years rose to the surface, did the school's leadership purchase a curriculum and mandate it? No. Did the school's leadership design what they felt was best for children and urge teachers to implement it? No. In true MPA fashion, leadership turned to our in-house experts—teachers.
CHAMP IS BORN
"Character education was being woven in, but in very informal ways," says Renee Wright, Lower School director and former teacher. "The idea was that we wanted something that would bring the division together to focus on shared goals."
School released in 2011 and a summer committee composed solely of teachers was formed: Dan Haase, then a third grade teacher; Anne Scalia, second grade teacher; Deedee Stacy, fourth grade teacher; Renee Wright then a third grade teacher; and Nancy Lage, librarian. They met at Stacy's home to design a cohesive program with a strong academic foundation.
The basis of CHAMP (Character Happens At Mounds Park) emerged that summer and the key components hold true today: a partnership between home and school is essential; character education is embedded into the full curricular and extracurricular experience; adults intentionally model the character we expect; strong character and positive behavioral choices should be practiced; and ongoing evaluation and evolution are needed to ensure the program's viability.
Led by Stacy, they created the acronym and the song—both of which are still used today. Seven traits of the program were identified—friendship, compassion, respect, self-control, responsibility, cooperation, integrity—with inclusiveness being added last year and courage being added this year. Two grades now team up to design and lead monthly Lower School assemblies around one or more of these traits.
"The idea that we had—having monthly gatherings and expecting students to present those assemblies—gives students a lot of ownership and creates tremendous engagement," says Wright. This student-led model was not being used broadly by other schools at the time, especially at the elementary school level. She adds, "The kids have been a big part of delivering the messages and we are delighted to celebrate and recognize that!"
With few limits or parameters, the model was creative, unique, and engaging. "Because it was an organic program that we created to meet the needs of our school, teachers really engaged with it and bought into the whole idea. If you walk into a classroom today, you can hear someone refer to "CHAMP behavior." They are using it in their classrooms and it is being reinforced every single day," reflects Wright. The program they designed was so successful, so embraced, and so appreciated that it has stood the test of time, impacted hundreds, if not thousands of lives, and continues to grow and evolve today.
As a music teacher for young children, I strive to model CHAMP characteristics in all of my interactions with the children, hoping that my best self inspires each student to be their best.
Lower School Music Teacher
CHAMP IS EMBEDDED
Guided by the idea that character education should be integrated into every aspect of the curriculum, the CHAMP program created a common and shared language that is embedded into every interaction and subject area. This means that the term CHAMP—or, more likely, one of the character traits it espouses—is just as likely to be heard in a gym class or math class as it is to be heard in a technology class or music class.
Ms. Espeland, a music teacher at MPA for 27 years, shares what that might look like in her classroom. "An integral part of the Lower School music education experience is learning to work in a group. Students sing, dance, and play instruments together as a musical ensemble. Think of the high level of cooperation and self-control required to be in motion as everyone around you is in motion, too! Playing in ensemble requires that everyone is synchronized on the same steady beat as they play their part. Never a race, music provides both the framework for and challenge of working together."
In first through fourth grades, Ms. Kitch, PreK-12 technology integration specialist and new at MPA this school year, teaches digital citizenship based on Common Sense Media's curriculum with the goal of fostering respectful and engaged online citizens. "We talk about our responsibilities and the impact of words that are shared online versus words that are spoken face to face. We discuss the incredible importance of exhibiting CHAMP behavior both in person and behind a screen." Online safety, rules for interactions, evaluating fact vs. fiction, and crediting others' work are all topics that our students discuss and practice in increasingly complex ways throughout Lower School and beyond.
CHAMP IS EVOLVING
Each summer, a new volunteer CHAMP committee meets to re-energize the program. They select a theme for the school year and other elements to keep it fresh and interesting for students.
This year, courage was added as a trait. Each student identifies a courage goal each trimester and they recognize each other for demonstrating courage on the courage tree. "This might seem like a little thing to us, but it's a really big thing to the students," says Wright. Come spring, students will work in the Peace Garden, adding stump seats engraved with the traits to engage in kinesthetic learning.
When asked what aspect of CHAMP makes Wright most proud she shares, "When I go into classrooms to talk about challenging topics, the comments that the students make come directly from CHAMP in heartfelt and genuine ways. They aren't thinking about CHAMP in that moment, but what they are saying, and how they are describing their thoughts and feelings, come from what we're teaching through the program. The students articulate it in their own words and directly from their hearts."
Birthdays For Everyone
Another way CHAMP is embedded into the students' curriculum is through service and service-learning projects. The most notable and long-standing is the Birthday Box project, which provides celebration kits to children at a local homeless residence, Emma's Place.
Pre-dating CHAMP, Mary Beggin, second grade teacher, brought this program to MPA when she came in 1998. It has changed and evolved over the years, but now second and first graders partner to organize it. "Students came up with the idea of bringing in coins they earn at home each day for one week: pennies on Monday, nickels on Tuesday, dimes on Wednesday, quarters on Thursday and dollar bills on Friday. The first and second grade teachers then use this money to purchase items for birthday boxes. Last year, Emma's Place served 60 children ranging in ages from 0 to 18 years, and we provided a box for each one. This year they have 80 children and our generous children donated enough money to make a box for each," explains Beggin.
Deeply embedded into the math curriculum, the change collected provides ample opportunities to identify and sort coins, estimate values, calculate values, and add it all together.
"At this age they start realizing that it gives them joy to do things for others. We do it in big and small ways in second grade, from holding the door for others to writing weekly compliments to friends. It is amazing to see this grow over the course of the year and it increasingly becomes part of the fabric of who they are," says Scalia.