Shaping Student Character

5280 Fellowship Professional Project Spotlight
by Dustin Moody

Julia Mauro is an elementary school teacher at a Title 1 school in the Adams-12 school district, and a recent 5280 Fellowship alumna. We talked with her about the 5280 Fellowship professional project: identifying an area of brokenness in her field or industry, and developing a plan to address it. For her professional project, Julia created curriculum and activities focusing on character development for her second grade students.

How did you decide on your professional project and topic?

I think that a common misconception, especially in the primary grades, is that if we can just teach kids to be fair and  show them how they’re all very similar and how everybody should get along with everybody, then it will be fine and everybody’s going to have a lot of success. I feel  that the faster you can teach someone that life is not fair, the faster they are going to learn how to succeed. When we’re dealing with primary children, that’s not as simple as, “Hey, get over it, life isn’t fair,” or “Hey, let’s talk about why we want to have grit and why it’s important to have perseverance.” Because 7 year-olds don’t understand that. I wanted to start my project by highlighting differences so that we can all see that we can be very, very different and still treat everybody with kindness and celebrate those differences. 

Why was this important to you?

Character development is crucial for everybody. I didn’t have an upbringing full of wealth or stability or, quite frankly, love, and definitely not faith. I often felt lonely; I was angry, and I started to go down a road of constantly blaming [others] and not taking accountability for my behavior and reactions. But then I encountered people who inspired my character and who started to help me see that I was going to face a lot of challenges [in life]. The more I started to see those challenges as opportunities and use those to direct my trajectory, the faster and the happier I would be and the more peace I was going to have.

Our worth comes from our identity, not our vocation or material possessions. But our identity is fleeting when we are all striving for attainment through worldly goods. As a teacher, I asked myself “How can I reach children who only know value in things when I’m in a secular setting?” So I built off the idea that Students should be taught to thrive as themselves, no one else. The differences in all of us are unique and beautiful to our true selves. Everyone is loved and valued in the eyes of God, and we were created to be celebrated for our differences, even though that means that some of us are better/more natural/easily skilled in areas. We are not designed to all be the same, or have the same, or strive for the same. The postman is just as valued as the teacher, who is just as valued as the millionaire, who is just as valued as the CPA, who is just as valued as the realtor. I want my students to know that they will be faced with challenges throughout their life, but God will provide everything they need to face them because they have been designed to be exactly who they are. 

How did your project take shape?

I created a daily challenge (one task/day) aligned with our character; I ate lunch with each child (or two), and acknowledged each student for an area that they are excelling in. I asked them where they want to grow and where they see their strengths. I thought a good starting point was to have tangibles that we could practice in our classroom and naming four themes and character traits: integrity, perseverance, problem solving and kindness. We started with a kindness challenge: each day, we had a different activity or a task that every single person can do. It didn’t matter your academic level, your socioeconomic status, or frankly, even your character. This was something that everybody could do. It became this routine that the kids were super excited about. We would flip the card and they would ask, “what’s it going to be today?” So we started with “kindness”. One example was , ‘wave to everyone you see in the hall today,’ we couldn’t smile because we have our masks on, but we can wave.

What outcomes did you see?

When we were talking about integrity, we had a sorting activity, on one side we would say, “This is showing honorable behavior, and this is not showing honorable behavior.” After that activity, they started telling their classmates, “Ethan, that is not showing honorable behavior.” And when they were at recess and I wasn’t there, they would come back in and they would say, “Ms. Mauro, I just want to let you know that our class did a really good job of showing integrity and honorable behavior.”

Students understand integrity, and can now articulate what that means to them. They blew me away with how excited they were to “grow” in kindness. They used “not honorable” to describe times when they made a choice that they would change. They celebrated each other and got to know their peers in different ways. They took charge of their growth.

My students know that the outcome of anything is out of their control, but they can control their attitude and expect the worst or assume the best. My students also have the choice to judge someone for their shortcomings or celebrate them for their strengths, and regardless of anyone’s judgement, they are unconditionally loved and valued, especially in the eyes of the Lord. 

What’s next?

I think every teacher in every classroom with every age group should have some focus on character education. This project shows how easy that is. You can take this to your high school seniors, and of course you’re going to adjust it to make it more exciting for them, but it’s totally doable and it would take maybe five minutes of each class. You don’t have to be a teacher to do this; highlighting everybody’s differences is actually what is going to encourage kindness and acceptance and love, whether you’re a Christian or not.

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Dustin Moody

Dustin oversees the marketing, publications, social media, podcast, and website as the director of communications for the Denver Institute of Faith & Work. He has previously served with the University of Colorado Boulder and Wycliffe Bible Translators. He holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Colorado Denver and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Florida. Dustin also serves on the board of the Colorado chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. He and his wife, Laura, attend Storyline Fellowship in Arvada.