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Bringing character education (and penguins) alive in the classroom

Education Division adjunct Catherine Lundquist, Ph.D., brings character education alive in the classroom

If you walk into Dr. Cathy Lundquist’s undergraduate courses Early Childhood Education Curriculum or Methodology you might bump into a penguin—a waddling one that will make you waddle and sing a penguin song.

Under that costume, is none other than Lundquist herself, a veteran elementary school teacher who is passionate about character education and teaching the next generation of students how to make the classroom come alive. “I try to bring my kindergarten classroom to the Caldwell classroom.” The backdrop to the penguin story is a learning center—“pretty trendy now,” says Lundquist. The undergrads get to observe a live lesson plan with social studies in one corner, science in another, language arts in another. “For each letter of penguin, they write an acrostic poem,” she says. “In the math corner they count the number of rocks and the eggs the penguin lays. In the phonics corner—‘alphabet central’—we go on and on about the letter ‘p’; my penguin costume is a word wall,” she explains. The goal is to connect all the core content areas back to the one piece of literature.

Kindergartners get excited that their teacher is dressed up as a penguin. They close their eyes and listen to the sound of the water and to the penguins gathering. At the end everyone in the classroom joins the penguin in diving into the “water”—the blue tablecloth, where the children are spying for seals.

This is just one of six thematic units that Lundquist programs to motivate her kindergarten students at the national Blue Ribbon school, Cedar Hill Elementary in Montville, New Jersey, where she has been teaching for over three decades. Engaging students, no matter their age, has been her passion. “Everyone needs to know that they are noticed and appreciated and respected. That’s the common thread from kindergarten all the way through the university,” she says.

“I need to be so prepared for kindergarten. There isn’t a moment that I’m not doing for them.” As for graduate students, “They have amazing questions. I can see that they are advocates for children.” The undergrads “don’t blink. They just listen.” Since many undergrads have not been in the classroom yet, they want to hear everything, she says.

Lundquist has long had a passion for character education, and that is evident when she teaches courses at the university such as Reading Challenges, Methods, Reading Assessments or the writing course. “I don’t think teachers can teach unless those (character ed) characteristics are in place.” They are benign values that no parent or administration will disagree with—joyfulness, honesty, compassion, empathy and caring, she says.

At Cedar Hill Lundquist has incorporated character education into the classroom with four touchstones: respect for self, others, community and property. She’s the liaison between fifth-graders and administration for character education. The students create their own service projects, including sponsorship of a brother in Ghana. They pay for his schooling, room and board. Because of its work in character ed, Cedar Hill has been named a National School of Character.

Lundquist has a master’s in special education; she did her thesis on character education, and she holds a Ph.D. from Fordham in language, learning and literacy.

She has been asked to share her experiences with other professionals. Last fall Lundquist was a panelist at the National Character Education Forum in Washington, D.C. She was the keynote speaker at the Caldwell University Education Division’s early childhood conference in the spring. Her message centers on the importance of instilling self-efficacy in students. “Whether you have met with success or not, if you have the motivation to try something,
the perseverance, the resiliency to keep coming back, those are character-ed traits,” she explains.

Lundquist believes that if teachers can get students to embrace self-efficacy early on, the children will gain a stick-to-it-tiveness that serves them as they learn to read and as adults throughout life. This also helps create a classroom atmosphere. “It is very difficult to have your classroom gel” at the elementary school level, but there are opportunities throughout the day “to salt and pepper your classroom” with character education. This approach underpins performance “academically, socially and emotionally—teaching to the whole child,” she says.

After seeing generations of children pass through her classroom, Lundquist knows a good teacher has to continually develop professionally, apply experience and look to the times. “Society changes; children don’t. Parenting changes. Their love of their child doesn’t. The way they go about displaying it and executing it, so to speak, is different, so we have to understand that.” This is especially true in a society “that is sometimes very challenging and empathy and compassion are not at the top of the list,” she says.

These are lessons she hopes the Caldwell undergraduate and graduate students she teaches will bring to their classrooms. “My hope is that they create a safe, loving, warm environment for every student and that their desire is to make a difference, even if it is just for one.”

—CL