Character Readings for the Classroom

This week, while on vacation, I ran across two small pieces to spur reflection and action in building character strengths for teachers and students.

The first came in my inbox via the weekly Brain Pickings newsletter, which I highly recommend subscribing to and following on Twitter. Maria Popova shared some of the highlights on habit from Mary Oliver’s book Long Life. But she began the piece by quoting William James, who is credited with saying:

 “Habit and character are essentially the same thing.”

Below are the collected sections that Ms. Popova quoted in her post on Mary Oliver and her thoughts on habit. I found them incredibly eloquent and to be a great impetus for reflection among teachers when talking about character, practice, mastery, growth mindset and self-regulation.

In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role… Most people take action by habit in small things more often than in important things, for it’s the simple matters that get done readily, while the more somber and interesting, taking more effort and being more complex, often must wait for another day. Thus, we could improve ourselves quite well by habit, by its judicious assistance, but it’s more likely that habits rule us….

The bird in the forest or the fox on the hill has no such opportunity to forgo the important for the trivial. Habit, for these, is also the garment they wear, and indeed the very structure of their body life. It’s now or never for all their vitalities – bonding, nest building, raising a family, migrating or putting on the deeper coat of winter – all is done on time and with devoted care, even if events contain also playfulness, grace, and humor, those inseparable spirits of vitality. Neither does the tree hold back its leaves but lets them flow open or glide away when the time is right. Neither does water make its own decision about freezing or not; that moment rests with the rule of temperatures…..

What some might call the restrictions of the daily office they find to be an opportunity to foster the inner life. The hours are appointed and named… Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers… And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.

The other source of character building inspiration I came across this week, was the famous poem by William Ernest Henley entitled InvictusIn my readings and reflections on Stoicism, cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and character building, I have again and again found references to this poem. This week I read it over a few times, began to memorize it and stashed it away to use as a class motto in the future. Here it is for your enjoyment:

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.
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