Disciples of Christ: Catholic schools teach young people how to live virtuously

Seventh grader Amber Kelley of St. Joseph School in Redding wants to be more than “just nice” to her fellow students, family and friends. “I’m striving to become a better person and closer to God, and to understand how someone who follows God lives out goodness each day,” she says.

For Amber and several thousand other students in the 36 elementary schools in the Diocese of Sacramento, “Disciple of Christ -- Education in Virtue,” an interactive program and curriculum structured on the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas regarding the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit, might just be the ticket. The much-used and highly successful program from the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, is being implemented in all schools over the next two years.

In the school setting, the call to discipleship is extended not only to students, but to administration, faculty, staff and parents. It is the fruit of a personal encounter with Christ, which affects a person’s intellectual, spiritual, physical and social life.

Amber and all students are learning about and living out the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, as well as many related virtues. Their road map is to break each virtue down into “know it, guard it, pray it and live it.”

“By studying the virtues, I definitely try to examine my actions and what I can do better in the future,” says Amber, who has been at St. Joseph School since second grade. “We become familiar with honesty, gratitude, kindness, patience, perseverance and self-control. Mrs. Palmer teaches us that we need to grow closer to God and how we do that by being the best person we can be, and doing simple tasks that can make such a big difference in our lives.”

Claudine Palmer, a junior high teacher, discusses the virtue of the week – its meaning, what it looks like and how students can use it in their daily lives. They also read about a saint’s life or an element from Scripture associated with the virtues to bring further meaning to the discussion.

Class expectations provided by Education in Virtue are incorporated as classroom rules, using the academic vocabulary of the virtues program. Students write reflections, develop skits and engage in goal-setting to help them process how a life of virtue can shape their lives. When a behavioral issue is at hand, “students are expected to think about how they can integrate the virtue” when reflecting on their decision making, instead of just being disciplined, so they can “do better next time,” Claudine notes.

Bill Koppes, an alum of St. Joseph School who is in his fifth year as principal, says the school, with 170 students in transitional kindergarten through eighth grade and 18 faculty members, has embraced the virtues program wholeheartedly.

“It’s an exceptional opportunity to enhance the core of our school mission to inspire our students to discover through Christ, their great potential to shape a better world,” says Bill, whose educational background spans 15 years in private and public education. Education in Virtue “is very clear, concrete and actionable in its application to shape student and staff behavior,” he notes. “It’s richly rooted in Catholic teaching, while still being philosophically secular enough to implement in any scenario. Simply put, we see more and more ‘ah ha’ moments when discussing behavior. Magnanimity and humility rightly understood, for example, promote great conversation with kids.”

Care has been taken to integrate the virtues program into all elements of school life. Morning prayer includes consideration of the virtue of the week, posters about the virtues form a display for student recognition of virtues they are “caught” practicing, and parents are routinely sent recognition emails about the virtues demonstrated by their child. Father Fredhilito Gucor, pastor, recognizes students at Mass who have stood out in practicing a particular virtue and he shapes his weekly student Mass homilies in light of the virtue of the week.

The virtues are a natural form of explicit instruction in behavior, Bill notes, and that just saying “being nice” does not compute for kids. “During these precious developmental stages, they are often being more honest that we realize when they say they don’t know what they did wrong, or why it was wrong.  They can’t articulate their concerns because we have not taught them the language and we often do not know this vocabulary as adults.”

Bill sees the virtues program helping to form students’ faith lives beyond elementary school. “The deposit of faith is a deep well that a young person is better equipped to dive deep into if they are more grounded in their knowledge of virtue,” he says. “The Education in Virtue program provides an opportunity to better equip our children to see more than reflections of who we should be and grow into an adult faith.”

Principal Laura MacDonald of Our Lady of Grace School in West Sacramento says the school has implemented and embedded the virtues program in a variety of ways. She’s in her 20th year in education and her third year as principal of Our Lady of Grace, after serving previously as principal for three years at the former Holy Cross Academy in West Sacramento.

She began implementing Education in Virtue at Holy Cross with students and parents, then brought it to Our Lady of Grace, which has some 325 students and 30 faculty and staff.

She praises the program for being a practical way for faculty and staff “to model virtuous behavior and to help us explicitly teach children to be the best versions of who they are.”

“What I like is it fits in to whatever else we are doing in the school, but we are being more explicit in how we are doing it,” she says. “Each month we examine a new virtue. So far this year we have looked at foresight, self-control and at Thanksgiving, gratitude and honesty.”

The weekly school bulletin includes the virtue, and students and teachers pray to God to help them achieve it successfully during an all-school assembly. “We discuss the definition, what the virtue looks like, what it is and isn’t.” The virtue is also introduced with school leadership groups, campus ministry and the student council, “helping them to recognize their virtue strengths, and how they can use that strength for the betterment of our school and the betterment of others. It’s a way to focus on the gifts that God gives us and how to use them to their full potential,” Laura says.

Students “realize they aren’t perfect and they will make mistakes, but it’s about what are we going to do with that mistake, move forward, and not have the same outcome next time,” she adds. “With older students they answer questions about their behavior, reflect on it, and see where they went wrong. Looking at the virtues and deciding which to focus on next time helps in working toward a different outcome.”

Alana Yuzon, an eighth grader who is on the student council at Our Lady of Grace School, says the virtues program “helps us look at situations in the positive, rather than the negative. Instead of being mean, you can use the virtue of kindness to help control a situation or turn it around for the better.”

She practices the virtues at home, “especially patience, when I try to use it to help my brother and not get mad. I also use responsibility to make good choices around the house and to do my homework and chores.” Although some of the related virtue words were new to her, such as magnanimity, perseverance, affability and circumspection, Alana says “I now try to see how I can live out all these in my actions in my life.”

Learning the virtues “has helped make our school better and the feelings among students are more harmonious,” she concludes. “And for new kids to our school, it gives them a warm feeling and a nice atmosphere.”

Trudy Connolly, second grade teacher since 2011 at Our Lady of Grace School, says her behavior plan with 38 students in her classroom, utilizing the virtues, is now “pray, think and act.” Students “connect what they did to a virtue, write down what they did, and how a particular virtue would help them make a better decision next time. Then they write a prayer, asking God and the Holy Spirit to help them build that virtue. I sign this and sometimes their parents sign it. It means something significant to the students.”

Trudy says many of the virtues were new to students. “Magnanimity was one of our first ones. Once they understand it is doing things for others or for God, it was brought down to simpler terms. Even foresight, once understood, helped them plan and be able to use the word.”

She adds that parents have reacted positively, use the words of the virtues at home with their children. “It’s a reminder to all of us about how we can live a virtuous life – kind, generous and patient with each other – as we never know where people are coming from or what kind of day they’ve had. It’s teaching that our world needs faith, hope and charity.”


About “Disciple of Christ – Education in Virtue” at www.EducationinVirtue.com.

About Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Sacramento at www.scd.org/schools.

In photo above, teacher Claudine Palmer and sixth graders of St. Joseph School in Redding display artwork for the "Disciple of Christ -- Education in Virtue" interactive program and curriculum. Amy Jensen photo


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