Heather Wolpert-Gawron

What do Jeff Wilhelm and Ashton Kutcher Have in Common? : Teaching for Character

By on December 23, 2013

Earlier this December, I attended the UCI Writing Project annual conference.  Every year, this conference douses a teacher in strategies to teach writing and literacy, and every year I come away with valuable methods and implementation goals.  This year, the keynote was given by Jeff Wilhelm.  I’ve heard him speak in the past, but this time was particularly vibrant and stirring.

He spoke of our need to teach towards the “personal growth of our students.”  After all, teachers must transform their clientele.  He spoke about school becoming an “imagination rehearsal for being a human” beyond our walls.

His definition of wisdom focused on our ability to recognize our interconnectedness.  And he encouraged us to teach, not just for understanding and use, but also for social action and service.    This launched into the importance of Project Based Learning that focused on deeper knowledge of our place in our society and how to teach towards this goal.  We needed to teach not only Essential questions but also Existential ones, ones that teach HOW to exist in the world.  For knowledge is not a line, but a network, and we all have potential to have a place in that network.

Our job as teachers is to recognize each student’s possibility, he urged, not to damage that kernel of confidence, and to help all students “see themselves as a person of potential that can be actualized through effort.”

What he’s saying is that we, as teachers, must teach beyond the Common Core content.  We must also teach to develop character.  But not to worry, we can have our cake and eat it too.  We can teach to both.  The best way to do this, according to Wilhelm, is to focus our standards-based lessons on service and our contribution to the world.

This is the rationale behind much of Project Based Learning.  This is the rationale behind role-playing in the classroom and bringing in authentic audiences to note students’ hard work.  This is the rationale behind designing lessons that mimic the world around us and asking students to function in a higher level way within that world.

But as with anything in the classroom, you have to scaffold towards a culminating event.  Sure, you can jump into a character-based Project Based Learning unit, but it never hurts to zoom in a bit and focus on specific character traits that you are looking to encourage.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a little activity I did with my students earlier this year that used as its springboard Ashton Kutcher’s acceptance speech he gave at the Teen Choice Awards.  I’m sure you’ve seen it.  It flew around the internet for awhile, and rightfully so.  Ashton Kutcher goes into 3 lessons he’s learned on his life journey, not as Ashton, but long before, when he was known by his real name, Chris.  He learned that:

1. Opportunity looks a lot like Hard Work;

2. Smart is the new Sexy; and

3. One needs to make life; not  just live it.

Based on his speech, I asked my students to do a little blog entry in Google Drive.  Here was the assignment and, in the spirit of sharing, here are also a few responses from the students in my 4th period class.

Prompt: Ashton Kutcher gives us 3 discoveries that he’s learned on how to be successful.  What can you add of your own to his list?  Think about adding 3-5 more pieces of advice for another student.

Here are some of their responses:


Vincent: Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not capable of achieving a goal.


Janice: There isn’t always one right way .



1. Always Wonder,

2. Be Willing to Explore,

3. Be Open to Evolving


Kenneth: Adapt and be willing to change.



1) Don’t judge,

2) Be humble,

3) Never give up


Trust Yourself

Know that you are never alone



Be flexible

Be open to new and different ideas

Don’t be prejudiced

Listen to what others have to say


Janet: Learn from your mistakes


Audrey: Speak up for yourself


Bianca: Don’t hold back


Ashley: Appreciate


Martha: Don’t forget to connect with the world


Victoria: Initiate



Don’t Let Fears Overrule the Life You Live

Don’t Settle on the Mediocrity



Everything in life revolves around courage

Take risks.  It’s what will lead you to success

Make good decisions that are not selfish

Listen to your heart, not someone else’s criticism


From the mouths of babes.  If all students even followed a small percentage of their advice, think of their level of achievement.  From here, it’s easy for students to create their own mottos, their own slogans, their own life themes.  For recognizing that everyone has their own message and their own theme helps us all to become more connected to our network and more willing to take the risks necessary to succeed.


(Interested in learning more about teaching writing, regardless of the subject you teach?  Find your local chapter of the National Writing Project and begin transforming how you teach students to communicate your content.)

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