Mary Beth Klee was teaching history to undergrads when the idea came to her—an idea born of a lack of promising options for her eldest son, who was slated to start kindergarten. She envisioned an independent school heavy on content, not just skills; the recent trend toward a skills-focused approach was evident in her college students, and it concerned her.
But there was more: Klee was committed to founding a school with a strong emphasis on character education.
“As a historian, I look at the things that have gone wrong in history, and I know one of the things we should focus on is raising good people,” Klee said. “The question is not whether schools are forming character, but what kind of character they are forming. We are always sending messages; it’s just a question of what messages we are sending.”
In 1991, with these priorities in mind, Klee founded Crossroads Academy, an independent day school in Lyme, New Hampshire. She was drawn to the approach of E. D. Hirsch, who advocates cultural literacy via the use of a Core Knowledge Sequence. Crossroads Academy adopted this history- and geography-rich curriculum, but Klee regretted its lack of a character component. In 1993, she received a grant from the Challenge Foundation to develop a character education program to be used in tandem with the Core Knowledge Sequence. With that, the Core Virtues program was born.
Like the Core Knowledge Sequence, the Core Virtues program was created for students in elementary school. It focuses on a different virtue every month. These virtues each relate to the four cardinal virtues of Western civilization as defined by Aristotle: justice, temperance, courage, and prudence. According to the Core Virtues website, these virtues are “common ground, broadly embraced virtues—not controversial social or political agendas.” They include such traits as diligence, gratitude, and compassion.
In this free program, available in its entirety online, virtues are expounded in the context of children’s literature—specifically, picture books. The books, over 800 volumes in all, have been carefully chosen based on the virtues they help illuminate, and they are categorized by grade level. First thing every day, teachers spend 15 to 20 minutes at a “Morning Gathering” with students. And on the first day of each month, teachers use this time to introduce a virtue, discussing it with their students. After that, the time is spent reading and reflecting on high-quality stories that illuminate the given virtue.
The idea of using stories to shape the character of children is not new. In a book explaining her approach, Klee writes,
In the Republic, Socrates urges us to choose our stories well. We are told to choose for our students those poems and stories which “will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze that brings health from salubrious places.” We should do this, because stories and poems that “bring rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul, bring graciousness to it, and make the strongest impression.” Plato notes that with the proper sort of nurture, one bred on such stories will “praise beautiful things, rejoice in them, receive them into his soul, be nurtured by them, and become both good and beautiful in character.” Conversely, the Ancients urged us to shun childhood works that are “vicious, mean, unrestrained, or graceless,” for those “bred among images of evil as in an evil meadow, culling and grazing much every day from many sources, and little by little, collect all unawares a great evil in their own soul.”
The reflection time that follows the reading of a story may vary day to day. Students may discuss the story or compare their own experiences. Teachers are encouraged not to moralize but to guide, clarify, and enjoy their students’ reflections, believing in “the power of literature to do its work.”
Klee estimates that the program is used in about 150 schools of all kinds, from charter to independent to traditional public schools. The program is nonsectarian, and the only things for sale are posters of the virtues, including their definitions, and a resource guide for teachers who prefer the online content in a bound form.
“We aren’t trying to make money,” Klee said. “We are trying to make it possible for people to do this easily. This is an initiative a lot of people have found helpful and has born a lot of fruit. It doesn’t require hours and hours of teachers or professional development.”
Klee is aware that her simple program lacks the bells and whistles of others in the character education marketplace. But she believes it to be a powerful tool.
“We want students to know the good, love the good, and do the good,” Klee said. “Teaching them to love the good is the chief task of the Core Virtues program. You do this through the imagination and appealing to hearts, by making the good something they want to aspire to. We are not saying this Core Virtues approach is the only way you can develop character. But this is an energizing, catalytic way to keep the spotlight on character and virtue in a school setting. The key thing here is helping children fall in love with the good.”
Klee also emphasizes the value of practicing virtue. A focus on generosity in December may become a springboard for school projects like singing at a nursing home or helping at a food pantry.
“We don’t constrain ourselves to the literature,” she said. “Literature becomes the inspiration.”