Values vs. Virtues

We all want to be good. We think things like honesty and kindness are important. Then why are some of us dishonest and unkind?

In my fourth-grade classroom this year, we are working to understand the difference between valuing something and actually doing it. A value is something we intellectually hold as important, but a virtue is a very different thing. It is a habit, cultivated and grown, practiced and mastered. For example, I might think making goals in soccer is an important thing to do to win a game. But if I have not practiced kicking the ball in high stakes game-like situations, then I will not be able to do the thing I think is valuable.

Polyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter

Optimism is a virtue that can be a challenging virtue for fourth graders, because they are just beginning to understand their own thoughts and feelings. When challenging events arise throughout the school day, the initial response may be negative. It is at this point that my students are working on perspective. Pollyanna Whittier, the main character in the book Pollyanna, is leading us through the transition from grumpiness to optimism. She herself has suffered through several tragedies and made a concrete decision to be glad as often as she can. Each page of her book shows us how she practices optimism and models it for those around her. Sometimes it comes easily to her and sometimes she struggles. Yet, her goal of being glad is always accomplished. Why? Because she spends every day practicing. Her mastery of this virtue is so contagious that others around her start practicing it too. It spreads like wild-fire throughout her town and eventually she converts even the coldest of hearts to the warmth of her “glad game”.

My students and I have been changed by her example as well. We value optimism but we are working to have it become one of our virtues too. We read Pollyanna at the end of the school day, which is perfect because it is often then that our energy is lagging. We have decided this is a perfect opportunity to put in a modest effort to be grateful at the end of school for a well-spent day, for friendships, and for engaging literature books like Pollyanna. Little actions like this will help us practice optimism and eventually attain mastery like our dear friend, Pollyanna.