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Acting Out

One Virtue at a Time
Published: 06/19/2020

Which activity is more likely to help students remember to respect adults: hearing their teacher lecture to them about being respectful, or watching her dance to Aretha Franklin's Respect?

If you're like Lynette Roehrig, you'd say the latter. Roehrig, a reading specialist at Paw Paw Later Elementary School in Paw Paw, Michigan, has danced to Respect and given other memorable performances with her colleagues. It's all part of their school's virtues program, which uses in-class activities and schoolwide assemblies to make talking about good behavior fun.

Virtue of the Month

Each month, the school spotlights one virtue, selected in advance by a school committee. No hard and fast rules, but they tend to look for good fits. "For September, when school is just starting, it might be Responsibility. For February, it might be Friendliness. We try to tie it in with something going on that month," Roehrig says.

In the first week of the month, all the students gather in the auditorium for a 15-minute presentation focusing on the given virtue. Staff members perform skits or sing and dance. "We try to make them fun," Roehrig says. "And we try to show what a virtue looks like. We might show what the virtue doesn't look like first. The kids love to see adults misbehave. Then, we demonstrate the virtue in the right way."

Throughout the month, classes examine the virtue more deeply. Teachers ask the students to talk about what that virtue means to them. Students make posters and other displays to communicate the virtue through art. Staff members place a banner in each hallway and one at the entrance to the school proclaiming "The Virtue of the Month is ____." When the month is over, the banner is posted in the cafeteria, so at year's end you can see all the virtues covered during the year.

Virtue Vouchers

Throughout the school, staff members recognize students who demonstrate a virtue by giving out "Virtue Vouchers." These small banners, commemorating a good deed, say things like "John exhibited the virtue of Kindness by playing with someone who was feeling lonely." Adults can earn vouchers too. One teacher forgot to take her keys outside during a fire drill and was locked out of the building. She wrote a voucher for Helpfulness for the teacher who unlocked the door for her. "Virtue vouchers are also a good way to reward students who have a tendency to misbehave," says Roehrig. "For example, a teacher can ask a student to help pick up all the balls on the playground and then reward him or her with a voucher for Helpfulness."

Each morning, the principal announces the latest good deed and the student's (or adult's) name over the PA system. At the end of the month, teachers hang all their virtue vouchers on the cafeteria walls for everyone to see. "It's a nice way to recognize people in a positive way," Roehrig says.

Reinforcing Positive Behavior

Roehrig believes the vouchers are especially effective in giving students real-life examples of the behaviors that they should follow. She says virtue vouchers are a welcome supplement to old-fashioned monitoring and punishing. "Sometimes it's the bad behavior that's getting recognized all the time," she says. "Instead of always focusing on what somebody's doing wrong, I think it's really good to let them know when they are doing something right."

Origins of the Program

Ideas for the school's virtues program originated with The Virtues Project, a program devised to encourage civility in young people. A teacher at Paw Paw discovered the program and told other teachers and the principal about it. The principal invited the project's consulting psychologist to come help them start a program of their own, and "we've been having a virtue of the month ever since," says Roehrig.

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