Race for Sainthood

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Using virtue campaigns in the classroom: from our April 2010 issue.

By John D. McNichol

I walked into my first full-time classroom brimming with confidence. I had worked as a substitute for over a year, and most of my jobs had been at Catholic middle schools. I found I enjoyed teaching at this level, quickly developing a reputation as a good classroom manager who could connect with many of the more challenging students.

That all changed when I walked into my combined seventh/eighth-grade classroom for my first day as a full-time Catholic-school teacher.

I had taken over for a teacher who had left suddenly in mid-October, and was blindsided by my new pupils’ behavior. Teaching with enthusiasm and using a story or an “I message” had always gained my students’ respect and trust. By contrast, this new group’s responses ranged from cool disdain to open, cynical defiance.

As many teachers experience, my first year was a struggle for emotional survival. Discipline was a major issue in my classroom, and when the last day of school arrived I was the most relieved teacher in the building.

Still, happy as I was at summer’s arrival, what would I do once summer was over? The year hadn’t been a total failure, but it had been a genuine trial. Many of my more troublesome students were seventh-graders who would be returning to my class as eighth-graders. How, I wondered, could I keep last year from repeating myself? There were the more traditional, ogre-like methods. But I didn’t like them as a student, and didn’t enjoy using them as a teacher.

I was fortunate in that all the teachers from our school had the opportunity that summer to attend a Catholic education conference in Dallas. There I had the opportunity not only to hear from speakers in a lecture setting, but also from other teachers who had been practicing their craft many more years than I.

At the lunch and dinner meets, one idea was expressed more often than any other: If you want to change bad habits and behaviors, particularly among boys, have the children compete in areas of personal and classroom virtue.

Our modern educational culture often takes a dim view of in-class competition, preferring to leave it to the realm of gym class. Teachers are often justifiably concerned that having a winner/loser focus will hurt children’s self-esteem, frustrating some students to the point of sapping their desire to try.

But, it should be remembered, not all competition is bad. Many children who would not be motivated by a cooperative exercise will find a competitive exercise very engaging. Indeed, if life has taught a child to fear competition, a team-based virtue campaign could be just the thing to restore their confidence.

Step One: Make Teams

Virtue campaigns ideally should last a month. To begin a virtue campaign, randomly divide the class into two groups. Pulling colored poker chips out of a bag is an ideal method. Depending on your classroom culture, it may be a better idea for you to set up your teams in advance, splitting up cliques and friends.

Step Two: The Game Board

Post at the front of the classroom a game board, drawn on a standard piece of poster board, divided into twenty or thirty spaces. The board should also ideally have a theme that a significant segment of the children would enjoy. Each child should have a distinctive icon on the board that matches the board’s theme.

Rotate the theme each month to accommodate different interest groups in your room. In September, sports-oriented students might enjoy a football-themed board, with each student having a clip art icon of a football player moving a space for every virtuous act he or she performs down the field into the end zone. In October, comic-book movie fans might prefer a board modeled after the New York City skyline, with icons modeled after the Marvel or DC stable of superheroes, flying or swinging one space to the finish line for every good thing you or others catch them doing.

Step Three: House Rules

Write the four cardinal virtues (patience, temperance, justice, fortitude) and their definitions on your overhead or whiteboard. Brainstorm with your class on how they can as individuals develop these virtues in their lives. Alternatively, you could have the students write in their notebooks five bad habits that they ought to break, and which cardinal virtues could be used to do so. Not completing homework could be countered by using temperance on TV time, for example; fighting with siblings could be negated by the proper application of patience.

Step Four: Play the Game!

Every morning, or at the start of religion class, go around the room and complete a “virtue check,” moving a child’s icon forward one space if they applied the virtues they listed in their books or on the overhead. This process can be particularly entertaining if you have siblings in the same class, who won’t hesitate to expose and exaggeration of virtue! It also helps to occasionally call home to confirm that the room was cleaned or clothes picked up with as much cheerfulness as described in class. Students may also “move up” if you or someone else notes their virtuous behavior, and a student may gain double the spaces forward if their acts were so virtuous that they are noted by a member of the opposite team.

If students demonstrate unacceptable behavior, do not hesitate to move their icons back a space. If the student argues about the consequence with you during class, warn them and then move them back more spaces if they continue to press the issue. You’ll find your classroom much easier to manage when a child’s team pressures them to behave so they don’t lose points!

Step Five: Finishing It All

The first team whose players all cross the finish line wins the campaign for that month. Rewards are best identified by you or students at the start of the campaign, and need not be extravagant. Mine usually range from homework passes to a one-dollar ice-cream cone to a few minutes of extra recess.

“Won’t they hate each other?”

Some might be uncomfortable with the idea of competing for virtue. “Doesn’t competition,” this line of concern goes, “lead to conflict, jealousy, and resentment?”

In my experience, such an occurrence is very rare. In fact, the three times I have brought a virtue campaign into my classroom, the opposite has happened: Just as the last students were about to cross the line, the students have spontaneously cooperated to have the entire class cross the finish line on the same day, so that the entire class won the prize! This, what began as a competition became instead a unifying force in my room, in addition to bringing order to a class fragmented by cliques and bullying. The positive feedback I received from parents after I introduced the campaign was also very gratifying.

A virtue campaign isn’t a cure-all for every classroom management malady. But in many cases, it can use a child’s natural desire to compete and be part of a team effectively. It can bring out the best your children can be, freeing you to be an even better teacher and model of virtue to your students.

John D. McNichol teaches seventh-grade and middle-school math and social studies at St. John the Apostle Catholic School in Oregon City, OR.


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