The Words of the Sayre Family

Teaching Character to High School Seniors

Sally Sayre
August 22, 2008

In January 2008 I was suddenly presented with the opportunity to teach Discovering the Real Me (DTRM) in a high school class entitled “Relationships”. The students were all seniors with the exception of five students, one of whom was an exchange student from Siberia. I had two sections of “Relationships”; one class of sixteen students and another of twenty four. This was a long-term substitute position and there was an excellent textbook for the course entitled Looking Out/Looking In.

It is a college-level text on interpersonal communications. When I was formally offered the job by my principal, I had already been in the class for a full week and had already decided that DTRM, Book 12 would be a perfect complement to the course. The principal readily agreed that I could bring in character education. I found out later from the teacher who had originated the course that the need for character education was a factor in its creation. High school teachers become painfully aware of the unhealthy choices many students make with regard to relationships with peers, parents, and the opposite sex.

Having used Discovering the Real Me in the Caribbean last summer, I knew that engaging students with the material was the key to success. Therefore, I began each class with a game or icebreaker exercise -- at least in the first few weeks of class. Later on, the necessity of delivering the curriculum somewhat took precedence. If I had the opportunity to do this over, I might actually continue using icebreakers, at least a couple of times each week. It became too easy for all of us to pull back from really engaging with one another when we didn’t start class with an icebreaker. Of course, I was also amazed at the ability of the students to be involved and animated during the game and then slip back into apparent apathy once we resumed our more traditional classroom work.

What was interesting to me was to realize how serendipitous the connection was between our communications text and DTRM. Over and over, the lessons in one book would reinforce what we were learning from the other. I also had the opportunity to bring into class whatever I thought would enhance the lessons. I found that movies were good tools that helped to illustrate many of the concepts. The most successful film in this regard was “Groundhog Day”. I had been sharing the story of “The Thief and The Mask”, Chapter 4 from Book 12, with a colleague over lunch. She then mentioned the similarities to her favorite movie. In both the film and the story, the lead character tries to convince others that he is someone different from who he is -- in both cases to win the hand of the princess/heroine!

Again, both protagonists actually change to become selfless and caring. It was interesting to me that not everyone got the right answer on the test when I asked what was it that made the difference in character. Some students simply said that they changed over time, ignoring the change in behavior that worked to change their hearts. Another activity that worked well was done early on in the semester when we were exploring the ideas of self-concept and self-esteem. We used an activity of making coats of arms. I had each student create his or her own coat of arms, asking them to use pictures to illustrate what was important to them in their lives. We used these to decorate our classroom for the entire semester. We did other exercises to get the students to think about who they are and the intrinsic value that each person has. This was all a prelude to talking about being protective of ones virtue and sense of self-respect.

Book 12 is subtitled Preparing for Life in Society and deals with many practical skills that young people need to succeed in college, in work, and in creating their own families. I also drew from Book 11 to fill out the lessons on sexuality from the perspective of character and what is going to prepare one to have the healthiest, most fulfilling marriage and family. This digression took a good two weeks, but I felt particularly happy to be able to focus on these lessons and test the students’ understanding on an exam. I also asked them to do a brief research paper to find out for themselves what the stats are on STDs, divorce, pre-marital counseling, etc. This was an attempt to get the students to make up their own minds about what the wisest choices are.

To say this class was challenging is an understatement. These students were in their final semester of high school, had never had any formal lessons on character except what was presented briefly by their middle school guidance staff, and most were suffering from that lingering condition known as senioritis. Still, I can reflect on some indications of success. One boy came to me to help resolve a conflict he has had with his parents. I don’t really know how it all came out, but I felt pleased that he trusted my advice and counsel. Basically, I encouraged him to be honest with his parents and own up to his own responsibility in the breakdown of the relationship.

I had another teacher tell me that one student told her that mine was her favorite class. I also witnessed this same student break up with her boyfriend who was, from my perspective, not treating her respectfully. Another girl became so inspired by learning all the reasons to remain a virgin until marriage that she asked to borrow materials to share with a girlfriend who was struggling with this issue. I ended up giving her a packet of five lessons from Book 11. I suspect that there will also be those whose insight will come later on as they meet challenges in life and remember what we covered in class.

One other measure of success is that my principal expressed interest in having me become certified in Family and Consumer Sciences so I could continue to teach this class. He can find other qualified candidates to teach Food Science and Food Prep, but he said it’s difficult to find someone who is comfortable teaching “Relationships”. I’m not only comfortable teaching these important life lessons, but I’m eager to share a perspective with young people that is sadly absent in today’s media-influenced culture. 

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