Nurturing the virtues

The Baltimore Sun

Standing in a locker room at Baltimore County's Kenwood High School, the teenage girl kept her cool when one of her peers passed by and hit her with a book bag.

"Under normal circumstances, that would have been a major fight in our building," said teacher Nancy Hanlin, recounting the incident.

Instead, Hanlin said, the girl told her classmate that she would have hit back "if I wasn't working on my virtues."

The fight that wasn't illustrates the changes that school officials say they are seeing at Kenwood, where a new character education initiative called the Virtues Project has begun altering the way teachers, administrators and students communicate with one another. The "virtues" are 52 good character traits, such as truthfulness, patience, responsibility and self-discipline.

"Our kids are so used to all of us telling them what they did wrong," said Hanlin, who, along with physical education and sports science chair Tammy Jackson, suggested trying the project.

"Instead of looking at the behavior, we're actually looking at the kids."

Teachers use the virtues to acknowledge, guide and correct students, said Dara Feldman, director of education initiatives for the project and a former Montgomery County teacher who used its principles in her classroom.

Teachers might take a moment to thank someone for his honesty in returning a missing item or suggest a teen consider what traits she needs to call on to deal with a crisis, according to Jackson and Assistant Principal Allison Seymour.

The State Department of Education encourages, but does not mandate, character education. Such initiatives vary throughout the state, and even within districts.

"We want students to become good students, but we also want them to become good citizens," said Paula McCoach, an education specialist in the state agency's youth development branch. "Character education ... has influences on the climate of the building and the school itself."

Kenwood appears to be the first Baltimore County school to adopt the Virtues Project. Feldman has also trained educators in Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties and in Baltimore City, she said, but Kenwood has taken "a holistic, excellent approach."

The school draws students from the Essex and Middle River areas, which have many struggling families, said Paul D. Martin, the principal. Students come from "a tough environment," Hanlin said. "They just want to survive in their neighborhood. They bring that into our building."

Still, fighting at Kenwood has declined over the past several years, Martin said, and the project has helped even more.

"The virtues that are on that paper, all of us possess," Jackson said, referring to the list of character traits. "It just takes someone to verbalize that."

Among the educators' tools is a set of cards, each featuring a different virtue and providing a description of that trait. A virtue is spotlighted every month.

"Basically, what it's all about is teaching social skills," said Tom Zirpoli, an education professor at McDaniel College who has written books about behavior and classroom management and parenting.

Character education programs "teach kids, and they teach teachers, to focus on ethical behaviors - honesty, caring about other people ... judging right from wrong," Zirpoli said. Family involvement is key, he said, and such programs should be integrated throughout the curriculum.

Yet implementation can be difficult at the high-school level, with so many other demands, such as tests and graduation requirements, said Lisa Boarman, coordinator of school counseling and related services for Howard County schools. There, dozens of schools use a framework highlighting 40 traits that are integral to success, she said.

In Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, and other areas, many schools follow a model called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. Its goal is to promote safe and supportive schools and change behavior, said Virginia L. Dolan, an Anne Arundel schools facilitator on the state PBIS leadership team.

While schools in Baltimore County can choose their programs, the district is trying to "bring a more consistent character development program in our buildings," to ensure that everyone is "speaking the same language," said Glenda Myrick, coordinator of the office of safe and drug-free schools.

The Virtues Project has become the approved training course to help county educators begin or enhance character education in their buildings, Myrick said. Hanlin and Jackson taught a fall session, and there are plans to hold another this spring, Myrick said.

At Kenwood, PBIS didn't seem to work well for students, said Hanlin, who said she has seen "a gamut" of character education initiatives in her nearly 35 years of teaching. She and Jackson learned of the Virtues Project about a year ago from Feldman and brought the idea back to Seymour and Martin.

Last year, they began with about eight students who weren't "the easy kids," as Martin described them. "If you can tackle some of the kids that are going to be something of a challenge ... then that automatically gives this program more oomph," he said.

The teachers regularly met with those students, having them select virtue cards and identify the traits they already possessed and the ones that needed work.

One student, for whom swearing and shouting were the norm, began attending class regularly and improving her grades. A student who screamed at Hanlin one day came back within the hour to apologize for disrespecting her.

Now the school has a Virtues Group of about 30 students who serve as ambassadors of sorts for the project. In November, a Virtue Day introduced it to the freshmen taking International Baccalaureate classes.

During one group meeting, students shared "virtues statements" they had recently made to people.

"I told my little sister that I appreciate her helpfulness," said Vanessa Lazo, a junior. "She looked at me funny at first. And she said, 'You're welcome.' "

Junior Jackie Kemmer, one of the students Jackson began working with last year, said she resisted learning about the "weird" Virtues Project. But she found herself driven to try developing the traits on the cards she picked, she said: "The challenge just makes you want to try more."

Lazo said the group is the first school activity she has participated in, even recruiting a friend to join. "You learn things you can use not only in school but outside of school," she said.

She is working on patience, she said, particularly with her little sisters. But she knows her strengths, including caring, consideration and thankfulness.

"I feel like it's going to spread in a positive way," said senior Annette Karanja, adding that she felt the student group would have a multiplier effect.

"We're planting seeds," Hanlin said. "You just hope that it goes and it grows."


* Started in 1991 with the goal of doing something about violence among young people and in families

* Founded by Linda Kavelin-Popov, a psychotherapist; her husband, Dr. Dan Popov, a pediatric psychologist; and her brother, John Kavelin, an art director with Disney

* The virtues were developed by searching texts throughout the world and identifying universally shared principles

* The project has been used in various businesses, organizations and schools throughout the nation and in more than 90 countries

Sources: Dara Feldman,,

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