Making Character Education Real Through Distance Learning

How do you teach students character education through a device? International Education Coach Keith Deltano is here to answer that question! Below he shares practical ideas for making character education real through distance learning. His tips can be applied across grade levels, but are especially helpful for middle school and secondary educators!

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Why Does Character Education Through Distance Learning Matter?

The challenge of character education has always been how to make it relevant: how to move from theory to application.  This challenge has been magnified now that we are educating through distance learning.  COVID has made teaching character tougher.

On relevancy: move from non-relatable curriculum examples to what teens are actually facing.  Most character education curriculum is…safe. 

The theory is correct, the seven (or six, depending who published your curriculum) character traits are defined properly. 

The examples are often, to quote an eighth grader, lame.

If The Examples Are Dated, the Students Will Tune Out

For example, one curriculum on trustworthiness includes the story of a teen that stole an apple from a store. The questions that follow ask, “What should the friend that witnesses it do?  If the teen tells on the boy that stole the apple would he lose the trust of his friend?  Would he be trustworthy if he tells?” 

Great line of questioning but…an apple!? I’ve never seen a teen buy an apple.  I’ve never seen a teen buy actual food.  A bag of potato chips, maybe.  Fruit, no.

Now, as an educator, you’re thinking that the apple is just the vehicle to teach the lesson.  The real question here is where do the boundaries of trustworthiness and integrity begin and end.  And you would be right. 

It’s not about the apple, it’s about doing the right thing.  The problem is, teens don’t think that way – you lose them at the apple. 

When you use out of touch exercises and examples, you show you don’t have any knowledge of their world and you haven’t taken the time to explore it. 

They don’t trust you or your ideas when you use examples that are not relevant to what they are dealing with.

Use the Situations Students are Dealing With in Their Lives

This is how I would take the same lesson and make it relatable and actionable.  I would ask these questions:

  • “You have a close friend that is cutting, you have talked about it and she won’t stop and defends it.  What should you do?  
  • Will you be betraying her trust if you tell the guidance counselor?  Should you betray her trust? 
  • Is it your responsibility to tell?”

If you used this approach you would have them at “cutting.”  Why?  Because as soon as the word “cutting” leaves your mouth, they are going to sit up and listen. 

Now you are talking about something they are dealing with. 

And more importantly, you are describing a situation many of them have been in.  These are the same questions that were asked in the apple example, however, the kids will be more interested in working them out because the concepts have become real.

And it gets better! The ability to directly impact their lives in dramatic ways is possible because you and the class took on a relevant and uncomfortable topic. 

The answer to the above scenario is that the teen should report the cutting to a teacher or guidance counselor.  She will have betrayed her friend’s trust but she will have acted with integrity, empathy, and responsibility. She may also save a life.

I have seen it countless times!

This Moves Character Education From Theory to Application For All Students

If you challenge teens to apply character education concepts to the hard world they live in: racism, suicide, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, criminal opportunity, cyberbullying, porn addiction, and all the rest, they will respond.

Teens will intercede within their community.  They just need to be given encouragement to do so, as well as, have relevant examples on how it is done.

Though I’m discussing teen behavior and adapting lessons to it, this technique is also applicable to the elementary grades. 

Compare the situations your elementary students are actually facing with the examples and illustrations in your character education curriculum. If things don’t line up, modify your curriculum to make it more relatable.

How to Adapt Short YouTube Videos to Distance Learning Applications

We are now faced with an unprecedented situation in which we have to teach these concepts online and through distance learning. 

Once again, when working with most character education curriculum companies, your options are limited.  Many are only available in book/worksheet form and the ones that do have video content use a talking head or lecture format. 

So instead of a book with the apple example, you get a person talking to the viewer about the apple scenario and perhaps some poorly acted video of the apple theft…yawn.

Not engaging at all for students!

Your best bet to reach students is to create your own content using YouTube or Vimeo. 

Now that you are thinking about being relevant you need only search for content around the topic you want to address.  For example, find a video on cutting, send the link out with a writing assignment asking the same questions:

  • “What would you do if you had a friend that was cutting and nobody knew except you?” 
  • Are you still trustworthy if you do share the private info you have?” 

Find more the anti bullying and character education streaming curriculum through Keith’s site:

Now you have an edgy video (that you have screened, of course) and follow-up questions that are current and targeted toward the demographic you serve.

Another example: send out a link to a video about cyberbullying.  There are many heart wrenching ones out there.  Relate it to the character concepts you teach.

  • “How does cyberbullying show a lack of empathy?
  • What does hiding behind a fake account say about courage and responsibility?”

Apply the Formula to the Tough Topics You Want to Target

So here’s a recap of the formula for tackling tough topics related to character and teaching it to your students remotely:

  • Take the character concept you want to teach
  • Pick a topic that teens are impacted by
  • Find a video footage that addresses that topic
  • Write pointed and uncomfortable questions to get your students talking more

Then you will have an impactful and relevant character education lesson that can be used for distance learning!

More Character Education Teaching Resources

Implementing Keith’s tips can help you tackle any tough topic with your students.

You can find more helpful character education topics here:

With the tips and freebies from these posts, you will be empowered to infuse more character education into your classroom–whether face-to-face or through distance learning.

AUTHOR BIO: Keith Deltano is a winner of the Teaching Excellence Award for his work with at risk youth as well as the National Impact Award for his efforts at parent outreach and education.  He has served and worked with children, teens, and families as a public school teacher, parent coach, and internationally touring educational comedian. Keith is the creator of the anti bullying and character education streaming curriculum, .

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