Teaching Virtue

One co-op's path to designing a curriculum that includes character education. How do you teach respect, responsibility, and self-discipline along with academic achievement?
May 21, 2021 Updated: May 21, 2021

When our daughter turned 4, my husband and I began to think about our choices for her education. At that time, I was part of a small mother’s co-op in the San Francisco Bay Area with women who were friends and shared my values. It was a safe environment in which we were free to guide the children spiritually and teach them principles of good behavior.

The parents in our co-op started to have conversations about schools in the area, which led to an important decision. The private schools there were very expensive and the public schools had no curriculum for teaching kids how to develop good character. God had been kicked out of public schools a long time ago, so there was no spiritual presence in the classrooms.

One of our co-op parents, Dr. Mose Durst, was a professor in a local college. He became very aware of the negative results of years of secular education. Most of his students lacked a sense of vision and purpose, and consequently were careless and confused. The parents in our group believed what research shows: young children don’t naturally and automatically know how to make good choices in their social and emotional behaviors, at school, at home, and in the community. They need explicit instruction and support in order to develop into adults who can contribute to a virtuous and prosperous society.

What would it take to build our own school that emphasized the character development of its students, included core values such as respect, responsibility, and self-discipline, and provided instruction that led to outstanding academic achievement? Under the leadership of Dr. Durst, members of our co-op began building the school we envisioned. It took a great deal of commitment, sacrifice, and research to make it happen. As our core staff developed the school incrementally, adding grades each year as our children grew, we discovered many wonderful resources that helped us create a significant character education school that prospers and continues to prepare students for future success.

I’d like to share just one of these resources that became a backbone of our virtues education. It’s very simple and can be used in the home for those families who don’t have access to a school that reflects traditional family values. The Core Virtues Foundation, established by Mary Beth Klee, provides materials for schools and homeschooling families that teach principles of good behavior.

“The mission of the Core Virtues Foundation is to advance virtues-based character education for elementary school children and to marshal the resources of literature and history on behalf of that endeavor. Drawing on the American Founders’ insight that knowledge and virtue are essential to a properly functioning republic, the Core Virtues Foundation seeks to promote the intellectual, moral, and civic virtues…”

At our school, the Principled Academy, we adopted their Virtue of the Month curriculum as well as the Core Knowledge curriculum, developed by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., that provides comprehensive, content-rich learning materials in all subject areas. The Core Virtues Foundation believes that the main method of helping young children understand virtues is by telling stories. Consequently, the school day always begins with a story related to the virtue of the month, and a prayer.

What are these virtues? Each month of the school year has its own emphasis, beginning with respect and responsibility in September and ending with heroism and wisdom in June. For anyone who’s interested, their website has all the information parents need to implement this plan in the home or promote it in their child’s school.

Here’s an example of how I used this in my second-grade classroom. One of the March virtues is compassion, which is defined as being able to feel what others are feeling and trying to help them with their troubles. I read stories to my students about compassion but that was only part of the approach I used. They needed a more direct experience with the meaning of compassion, so I invited them to be pen pals for a month with a child I sponsored in the Philippines through Children International.

They learned about his life of poverty and how sponsorship helped him go to school and get health care. We talked about the difference between “needs” and “wants,” how this boy’s parents were too poor to provide him with his basic needs, such as nutritious food and shoes, which he was required to have in order to attend school. The money I sent each month provided him with needs, such as clothing, personal hygiene items, and so on. He may have wanted toys and sporting equipment, but his gifts at birthdays and other special occasions were always practical.

My students wrote letters to Mawill, asking him about life in the Philippines, and he joyfully wrote back and drew pictures of plants and animals in this tropical climate. We had class meetings to read the letters and talk about how their words and pictures may have helped him feel happy in spite of his difficult living situation. When asked how they felt about the experience, many shared how it made them feel good. The virtue of compassion was no longer just a concept for these kids.

What does it look like when the virtues learned in the classroom take root, develop and bear fruit in adult life? The knowledge and practice of these virtues are a prescription for future success in an otherwise confusing adult world. Young adults who are lucky enough to receive virtues education and lifestyle support tend to experience both outward success and inner strength and confidence, which helps improve their communities.

Poppy Richie is a freelance writer and former teacher and administrator at the Principled Academy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She co-authored a K–12 Character Education curriculum, “Discovering the Real Me” and contributed to online elementary-level science education curricula for various companies.