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.

The Mindfulness Triangle

It seems like nearly everything education-related that I read or listen to as of late mentions either Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness, Stoicism or all three. First, let’s provide some definitions for these ideas and then I will talk about a couple examples.

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a structured, short-term, present-oriented psychotherapy for depression, directed toward solving current problems and modifying dysfunctional (inaccurate and/or unhelpful) thinking and behavior.
  2. Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment
  3. Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of “moral and intellectual perfection”, would not suffer such emotions.

In his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough writes that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in the context of character building and education, is “using the conscious mind to recognize negative or self-destructive thoughts or interpretations and to talk yourself into a better perspective.” For example, many of the KIPP teachers profiled in the book ask students to think about their thinking, identify either negative or positive thoughts, their behavioral triggers, the resultant actions, and then plot a repeatable course that nets better outcomes for the student.

In Invisibilia, the newest podcast from NPR, the first episode entitled, The Secret History of Thoughts, explores the three phases of psychological theory. At first thoughts had meaning and a connection to the material world, ie Freudian psychoanalysis. Then it became common theory and practice to assume that thoughts had limited meaning, automatic negative thoughts should not be simply accepted and internalized, and by challenging or contradicting your thinking you could change it, i.e. Dr. Aaron Beck’s CBT. And the podcast hosts mention that, according to the research, the latter has proven more effective than the former in facilitating mental health.

Finally, the third and newest psychological theory posits that many or most thoughts have no meaning at all, and that through mindfulness therapy a person can learn to ignore those negative, meaningless thoughts altogether, and deny them the power to affect mental health. Under this theory, meditation has become a regular part of therapy. And, in fact, there is a growing movement of educators who are using yoga, meditation and other mindfulness strategies to help their students learn and take care of the whole child. Here is a great review on the Cult of Pedagogy website about a great practical new guide to mindfulness in the classroom, Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom.

My frequent encounters with this vein of psychology did not stop there. Lary Wallace has written a great piece in Aeon Magazine online about “why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever”, using the parlance of our times. Wallace argues that Stoicism has been largely ignored in the West because it does not offer the “exotic mystique” of the great Eastern philosophies even though it is more accessible and therefore more practical for the average person. He writes, “Stoicism is, as much as anything, a philosophy of gratitude – a gratitude, moreover, rugged enough to endure anything.”

As a real-life example of just what Stoics can endure, Wallace references the 1993 King’s College London speech of US Navy Admiral James Stockdale. In the speech Admiral Stockdale recounts his five years as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. He used this time as a ‘laboratory of human behavior’ in which he ignored or denied himself any concern outside of his very small ‘sphere of choice’.

Wallace’s emphasis on Stoic gratitude and Stockdale’s reliance on concerning himself only with his own actions in order to endure horrible war-time conditions both have significant ties with the character education being taught at KIPP Academies. Self-regulation, grit, and gratitude are of paramount importance for children of poverty to succeed academically and achieve social-emotional health. And any ‘mind-hack’, as Wallace labels Stoicism, must also require mindfulness to identify thoughts and actions that are within the sphere of choice. Therefore, these three ideas about our thinking, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness and Stoicism, all have significant overlaps which can be leveraged in the classroom through intentional practice. I am energized by this possibility and will have to follow up in the future with specific teaching practices that integrate these ideas and promote positive student behaviors.