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Marie Nitke/FOCUS Heart of the Lakes Elementary School counselor Julie Vomacka leads Mrs. Hart's first grade class in a Character Counts lesson on trustworthiness.

Curriculum with Character

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Kids are learning that 'Character Counts' at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School in Perham.

With twice-monthly lessons in responsibility, trustworthiness, respect, fairness, caring and citizenship, students at all grade levels are being taught how to recognize strong values and build good character.

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It's all part of the Character Counts curriculum, which the school adopted five years ago.

School counselor Julie Vomacka, who leads the lessons, believes they're making a positive impact on student behavior - such as helping to bring down the number of bullying incidents at the school.

When used in collaboration with the school's disciplinary plan, Vomacka said, the Character Counts curriculum "develops character traits that will hopefully reduce teasing, bullying, and other such behaviors."

She added that students who do behave in hurtful ways at least have a common language in which to talk about it. Character Counts provides that language; familiar words and ideas that the whole school - students and teachers alike - can use to talk about behavior. Research shows that this kind of consistency, and consistent expectations, are good for kids, said Vomacka.

At HOTL, mistakes are seen as learning opportunities, and students write their own 'fix-it' plans, pledging to correct their negative behaviors in the future. This being the case, it's important that the kids have a way of understanding and expressing their own behaviors.

This year's fourth graders will be the first to move up to the middle school having had Character Counts lessons in every grade.

The lessons are designed to be fun and age-appropriate, with a different animal representing each character trait.

Respect, for example, is represented by a lion. Each animal wears a colored ribbon, which shows something about its character. Because the lion always follows the 'golden rule,' he wears a yellow ribbon.

The kids love the different animals, said Vomacka, and are always curious about what the color of their ribbons stand for.

"The kids are so receptive to it," she said. "They want to learn about it. They really 'grab' it."

In a lesson in Mrs. Hart's first grade class last Friday, students met Shinrai the Camel, who represents trustworthiness.

They learned that Shinrai's name is derived from the Japanese word for 'trust.' Shinrai's qualities embody the meaning of trustworthiness, and as such she wears a 'true blue' ribbon around her neck. She is reliable and loyal, steadfast and has the courage to do the right thing. She keeps her promises and is always on time.

After the initial discussion on Shinrai, students were asked to name the people they trust most (friends and family were the popular answers), and to talk about why they trust these people (one answer was, "because they don't lie to me").

Then, Vomacka led the class in reading a book on CD. The book had a refrain that the kids were asked to read aloud together: "Integrity, integrity. Tell the truth, that's the key. Integrity, integrity. Be the best you can be."

This same refrain showed up again later in a song that accompanied the lesson; by then, the kids had it memorized and all sang along without even being asked.

Next, the class worked on a packet of activities related to trustworthiness. For example, on one worksheet, students circled pictures of people making good choices, and put an X through pictures of people making bad choices.

Later, they had to draw pictures of themselves being trustworthy. One student drew himself making his bed after his mom asked him to; another drew herself feeding her pets.

There was little time for the students to get bored or disengaged with the lesson - the whole thing took just 30 minutes. The class will get another lesson on trustworthiness in two weeks, then will move on to another character trait.

These same students will be reintroduced to Shinrai the Camel and all the other Character Counts characters in second, third and fourth grades. But each year, they'll be given new, slightly more advanced lessons. This mix of familiarity and new material in the lessons, Vomacka said, has all the benefits of repetition while keeping kids interested.

"It's amazing how the kids, they get it," said Vomacka. "This is a great age to introduce this stuff. You start teaching this when the kids are young, and it becomes a part of who they are."

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