Character Strengths, Well-being in education

Three ways to develop character strengths and promote educational well-being

In these blogs and the videos that accompany them I am sharing with you what I have learned from 12 years of working in schools supporting the well-being of teachers and students.

The blogs and videos are meant either as a stand alone training resource or as a supplement to my published resources and my story videos.

In an earlier film, I talked about how I have put stories and storytelling at the heart of my well-being work in schools – precisely because a good story well told promotes the well-being of both teachers and students, An introduction to my well-being in education videos.

Now I want to talk about another theme, that of paying attention to character strengths and virtues.

I first came across the idea of character strengths in the work of Martin Seligman and the VIA or Values in Action character strengths and virtues. You can find more about this approach at the VIA Institute .

Of course the association of character strengths with education is much older and dates back to Aristotle. Aristotle linked happiness with the use of character strengths and virtues. And he said that children learn about qualities like courage and honesty in three ways

  1. seeing them used by role models
  2. thinking and reasoning about them
  3. using them for themselves

So we learn what courage is by being brave.

In my work, I’ve tried to draw on those three ways of learning.

Firstly, I’ve encouraged teachers to tell stories that show characters or historical figures using – or failing to use – qualities like love or friendship or enthusiasm. I might tell a story like Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom or Where is the Moon or the Three Little Pigs and then ask, what strengths did you see in that story? Where? I might also ask, were there character strengths that SHOULD have been used but weren’t?

In this way, children and teachers engage in a thoughtful – and educational activity – and at the same time begin to build up a picture of what the strengths look like in action and to listen for, look for the strengths, to spot them both in stories and then in other people and finally in themselves. Using character strengths for yourself, seeing them in others, thinking about them, builds positive relationships in the classroom and creates an atmosphere that enhances learning and supports well-being.

To develop Aristotle’s idea that we learn about character strengths and virtues through reason, I have used Philosophy for Children or P4C and taken either a story or a single word like creativity or courage as a stimulus for discussion. If you don’t know about philosophy for children there are resources and training available and the more I use it the more powerful a teaching tool I think it is. Again, a philosophy session is a very educational activity – we’re not trying to be therapists, we are encouraging intellectual rigour, depth of thinking and discussion. At the same time you as a class are building your understanding of what a particular character strength means in this group and in this community, now. It’s not what the ‘experts’ say about courage that really matters – it’s what it means in your school, your family, now that is important.

Finally, the third way of learning about character strengths that I have used in education is to create a concept of Strengths Builders – ideas and classroom exercises that deliberately set out to let you use and therefore build a particular strength. So, for example, if you want to focus on building the strength of curiosity for yourself or your class, you might set a challenge trying a single new food you have never tasted in the week ahead, or of watching a television programme or film you haven’t seen before – or of reading and even learning by heart a poem by a poet you have never read. You set out deliberately to pay attention to – and build – a particular strength. Then, if everyone in the class has done this activity – you can share and reflect on your experiences.

The shared experience – and the way that you are all paying attention to the same thing – curiosity – is part of what builds community. I will say more about community building in a future video.

If you want lots of ideas for building character strengths you can find them in my Character Strengths Ideas Box Character Strengths Ideas Box or in Character Strengths for Circle Time.

 

character strengths activity box tts

You can find a high school programme that contains strengths builders for all the VIA Strengths here Strengths Gym – a high school programme of strengths builders and stories for 11 to 14 years

Equally, you can think up your own.

Have fun.

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Storytelling, Well-being in education

Stories and storytelling for teacher and student well-being

Educational well-being – practical ideas for supporting teacher and student well-being

1. Stories and storytelling for teacher and student well-being

This is the first in a series of blogs and videos which are intended to share with you the fruits of 12 years of working to support teacher and student well-being in education – through a focus on character strengths and virtues, stories and storytelling and the creation and celebration of rhythm and traditions in the classroom.

I will be telling my stories and sharing ideas and suggestions. If you enjoy these resources, please let me know!

The first of a number of films will follow shortly 🙂

Why become a storyteller?

Storytelling is an ancient and highly effective teaching technique and ANYONE can learn to tell stories. The world’s greatest teachers all told stories to convey their essential messages. Storytelling engages the whole selfthe emotional as well as the rational self – even the physical self (a good story gives us ‘goose bumps’ or makes us shiver), so stories are far more memorable than a series of statements or a list of facts. Telling stories allows us to make an emotional connection with our audience because storytelling is mind to mind, face to face and heart to heart.

Psychologist Dan McAdams says ‘We are all tellers of tales…each of us comes to know who he or she is by creating a heroic story of the self’, (McAdams, 1993, p. 11). Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, says that ‘the telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues’ and that without stories, children are ‘unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words’ (MacIntyre, 1981, p. 216). Bettelheim regarded fairy tales as essential to children’s healthy emotional development, (Bettelheim, 1976).

Storytelling allows a teacher to be playful, to model creativity for their pupils, to nurture them and introduce them to the stories of their own culture and those of others. It is an opportunity for a teacher to show their pupils something of their authentic self.

Storytelling is perhaps our oldest art form and has been used in all societies to pass on values and wisdom to the next generation. Children never forget a teacher who tells them stories. The stories you tell children are the most lasting gift you will ever give as a teacher.

Storytelling stimulates the imagination more than the reading of books or the watching of films – because it leaves more for the child to fill in. Stories that are told are remembered better than those that are read aloud. This is probably due to a combination of their greater emotional impact and the fact that oral stories tend to be shorter and use strategies to engage memory – rhyme, rhythm and repetition.

Storytelling helps children become comfortable with silence and stillness.

Telling stories increases your own ability to hold children’s attention and enhances your creativity.

Finally, storytelling is immensely enjoyable – for the storyteller!

How to get going as a storyteller

First, tell stories you love. Your enthusiasm and pleasure in the story is mostly what children will remember. The fact that you tell it with passion is much more important than how fluent or skilful you are.

So, start either with a favourite story of your own or choose one from my published resources. The ones in my books are already written very simply, and are designed to be told aloud. Read them through a few times then put the book down and practice in a room, all by yourself. Practice IS important.

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In particular, make sure you know the first and last line by heart. This is important. Then, learn by heart any memorable phrases that are repeated through the story. There are usually a few of these.

Then, let the children know you have never told this story, or even told any story before. This gets them on your side. Then, have a go. And remember, Rule 1 of storytelling: Enjoy it.

Don’t worry if you miss bits out, slip up on words, get stuck and have to start again. Storytelling is a skill, you get better with practice.

If you want to tell a particular story that is not available in the TTS resources, find a few versions in books or on the internet and read them all through. Then put them all away and write your own version as simply as possible.

Rule 2 of storytelling: Keep it Simple.

A good template for creating a good story to tell aloud is The Three Little Pigs. Simple structure, memorable phrases with alliteration, lots of repetition. Most people could tell this story with no practice at all. It is a really good example of a memorable, oral story. All the stories I write to be told aloud are really The Three Little Pigs in disguise!

Rule 3 of storytelling:  If you can see it in your imagination, your listeners will see it in theirs.

When you tell the story, make sure you are seeing it in your mind’s eye. Picture it as clearly as you can.

Rule 4 of storytelling:  Tell the Same Story As Often as Possible.

Tell the story again as soon as possible, either to your class or to another class. In the Waldorf education system in Scandinavia children hear the same story told every evening, by firelight, throughout the week. This allows them to get to know the story really well and for the teacher to get to know it too, so that it really enters their repertoire. And children enjoy repetition – look at how often they watch a favourite DVD or play a favourite game. Novelty is good – so is repetition and familiarity.

When to tell stories

Storytelling has an obvious association with literacy and with speaking and listening. However, you can tell stories in any subject discipline. I knew a maths advisor once who used The Three Billy Goats Gruff to great effect to help teach measurement. She took the class outside to take little steps across the ‘bridge’, counting how many were needed to get across; then they took bigger steps and counted how many of those were needed and so on. She used Coronation Street, Brookside and East Enders to teach place value to high school students, too.

So, don’t feel limited to literacy lessons to tell stories. And don’t forget that older students like stories, too.

My retelling of a traditional Lincolnshire story, Where is the Moon?