LO sees mixed responses to new CharacterStrong curriculum

Sophia Wang, Editor-In-Chief

This school year, the district started the process of introducing an external social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum to LOHS. LOSD is optimistic in the potential of CharacterStrong, the new curriculum, to improve student social-emotional health, increase attendance rates and decrease drop-out rates. However, students and teachers have mixed opinions on the execution and effectiveness of CharacterStrong lessons.

In November 2021, LOHS English, Health and social studies teachers were assigned monthly, 30-minute CharacterStrong lessons to teach throughout first and second semesters, respectively. The pre-made lessons consist of a short opening icebreaker, often in the form of a “fun” question, interactive slideshows supporting different SEL concepts and a reflective closing activity. On the CharacterStrong website, the High School SEL Curriculum comes with a first year price tag of $3999, with annual renewal rates of $699.

The district first saw the need for additional SEL support following the results of a 2019 Youth Truth survey for all high school students. School board members pointed out concerns on data around student suicidal ideation, self harm, alcohol use and stress levels. According to LOSD Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction LaKeyshua Washington, a different voluntary survey of Lake Oswego students and families showed that 83 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “LOSD needs to support students’ social/emotional needs by adopting a district wide curriculum.” Let’s take a look into the classroom: do teachers feel that CharacterStrong is effective in reaching its lofty goals?

In the last months of semester one, English teachers had a range of responses to the added teaching requirement, but many agreed that CharacterStrong lessons attempt to cover valuable ideas and messages. On top of the additional material, English teacher Andrea Dunn also observed that SEL “fits naturally within our [English] curriculum, which is built on an examination of literature and its exploration of the human condition.”

Because SEL often occurs naturally within existing curriculum, English teachers Adam Dennis and Max Lanocha also acknowledged that the external lessons can feel forced and inauthentic at times. The convenience of extra resources and instruction material can come at the cost of teachers’ independence in instruction, as it’s harder for them to tailor the pre-packaged lessons to the needs of individual classes. “I don’t feel I have the time to rework these assigned lessons to make them ‘my own’ when I’m still busy designing actual lesson plans, grading and everything else I have to take care of to make my classroom run smoothly each week,” said Lanocha.

Teachers’ concerns around the “canned” nature of lessons have been mirrored in the lack of genuine student engagement to the prescribed lessons. Dennis, who teaches juniors, saw that many students have been “going through the motions,” as opposed to a minority that show “a significant level of commitment and investment.” 

With a younger audience of underclassmen, Lanocha even experienced vocal opposition and negative complaints upon introducing new CharacterStrong lessons. He continued, “Without meaningful engagement or any attempt to take the activities seriously, it feels like not just a waste of class time, but antithetical to the goals of the program.” 

Despite the challenges, Dennis said lessons can still “have seeds of useful and helpful things. But I think the way the lessons were designed and presented and everything was set up, I don’t think that they were effective for student growth.”

While teachers may not agree with the district’s execution of CharacterStrong curriculum, they have a shared commitment to students’ social-emotional health. Dennis emphasized the importance of embedding SEL into our cultural norms, from student-teacher communication to educational decision making and curriculum design.

CharacterStrong is still a new addition to the LOHS learning environment, and Washington stated that student and teacher feedback will be evaluated at the end of the school year to make future improvements.

Lanocha concluded, “I think for certain teachers and classes in certain environments, [the CharacterStrong curriculum] could be invaluable. However, I don’t think LOHS–and in particular the English department–requires materials from this outside company to help us develop powerful, meaningful connections and safe, productive classroom communities.”