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27 Jan, Friday
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Montreal Families

Teaching kids to be better people

Two students in Grade 1 stand sheepishly in front of the classroom at St. Paul Elementary School in Beaconsfield. They are getting ready to role play a scene and glance over at animator Linda Choinière for guidance.

She says: “Ben, you see your friends in the playground and run towards them but bump into Hailey by accident. You apologize and ask if she was okay but she says that her elbow hurts.”

Then Choinière asks all the students what they could do to show they care. Hands quickly spring up. “Ask if you can get her a band-aid,” says one student. Others chime in, “Tell her you will go get a teacher to help” or “Ask if she wants me to get her an ice pack.”

The role play and subsequent discussion is part of a program called the Virtues Project, which was created by two Canadians in 1991. The project encourages people to think about and develop a wide range of virtues, from courage and consideration to tolerance and trust. The aim is to create a more just, compassionate society. The Virtues Project was honoured in 1994 by the United Nations during the International Year of the Family. Today, more than 95 countries are part of the Virtues Project, as well as several schools in the Lester B. Pearson School Board.

As the school’s Community and Spiritual Care Animator, Choinière’s role is to help young people think about and explore so-called “big questions” like what is the meaning of life, why we behave in certain ways and what it means to make ethical choices. She finds the Virtues Project, which she started using in 2003, an excellent way to do that. Each month, she chooses a virtue that students discuss in their classes. She also designs scripts like the ones she used with the first graders, but which can be acted out during assemblies or read over the school’s P.A. system.

The project is also being used by spiritual animator Jason Cordery at Greendale Elementary School in Pierrefonds.  Like Choinière, he chooses a virtue of the month and introduces it during the school’s monthly assembly.  Cordery also has students help him create a board, where he posts a definition of the virtue and reflective quotations. And he  creates special projects for teachers to use in the classroom. For example, to reinforce the virtue of thankfulness, Cordery suggested students draw a picture on one side of a card and then write about something they were grateful for. “They could write to their parents, a friend, a religious deity, or even Mother Nature,” he says.

Both animators have created reward systems to reinforce virtuous behaviour at school. At St. Paul’s, students who have put a particular virtue into practice, by being especially kind to others for example, receive a certificate during a monthly “Good News” assembly. At Greendale, Cordery uses a collective approach – students receive a coupon when a staff member sees them demonstrating a particular virtue. The coupon goes into a bin, and if there are enough coupons at the end of the month, the school population is rewarded with an extra recess period, for example. “It helps them realize a community goal,” Cordery says.

Choinière says the project helps students grapple with a very abstract topic, i.e. what is a virtue, in tangible ways. For example, in kindergarten or Grade 1, the students learn about honesty, respect, and love – to name a few – and how to express them. They may be asked to think about how to show courtesy at home and the animator may give the example of asking before taking a sibling’s toy.

The project helps children learn, from a young age, what makes life valuable and it gives them the tools to make good decisions. As one 6-year-old said, “It’s nice to be nice.”

For more information, go to www.virtuesproject.com. Families can download a poster that lists several virtues and discover activities for using the program with children.

In this province, a non-profit organization called Virtues Connection Quebec (Carrefour des vertus du Québec) also offers information, resources, support and ideas on The Virtues Project, including some materials in French. To contact the group, email vertusnexus@gmail.com.

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