Most children rise to meet a new day with hope in their hearts and an openness to the road they are about to walk. Our task is to nurture that hope by providing them with inspiring guideposts for the road ahead.
In the Core Virtues program, literature is the tool and the Morning Gathering the vehicle. We employ the Morning Gathering as the opportunity to speak to the best in each of us. Many teachers across the country recognize the critical importance of morning rituals, and already begin the day with a “meeting” or “circle.” Our gathering serves the same purpose. It is a time for opening rituals, some sharing at all grades, but it is also the time to add the directional focus of virtue to students’ lives.
The Basic Structure
How do we do that? With 15 to 30 minutes of clear focus and a good story. Morning Gatherings highlight a different virtue each month, one that the entire school shares, and sometimes a more particular theme or grade level goal specific to each individual grade level. The grade level theme is generally an extension or subdivision of the general school theme.
Teachers begin the month by introducing the new virtue, for example, compassion. They might ask the students what they already understand or know about compassion. They share ideas. Students at a 5th grade level may say: helping others, being generous, understanding someone else’s problem. One 5th grader asked: “if I save money and get my sister something terrific for her birthday, am I being compassionate?” It was an excellent question, because it helped specify and reflect on the vocabulary of virtue.
The teacher chose to read the first story and then asked, “now what do you think we mean by compassion?” At that point the class was well positioned to be more specific. Giving a special present to one’s sister, the student decided, may be generous, thoughtful, and self-sacrificing, but it is not necessarily “compassionate.” Compassion involves sensing the sorrows and needs of others and acting to end their distress. The teacher then posts the definition where all can see it and reflect upon it. The definitions provide summary reflections in words that make sense for each age group.
The Power of Stories
The Morning Gathering during the rest of the month is not spent laboriously analyzing virtue, but in telling inspiring stories. The world’s greatest teachers have long recognized the power of a good story. Heroes, heroines, and evil-doers, insurmountable obstacles, and shining opportunities rivet the child and adult alike. A good story lifts the heart and fires the imagination. It provides for a moment-and possibly forever after—an image of human excellence. For approximately 15 to 30 minutes each morning, we come together, read a powerful story, and let our hearts be lifted and our spirit challenged. Teacher and students come together in a unique way. Indeed,neuroscientists have documented that when people are told a story, the group exhibits "synchronized brain activity." The participants tune literally to the same wavelength.
The stories may inspire rich class discussions or prompt fruitful sharing and comparing of experiences. But it is important to stress that the Morning Gathering should not be spent sermonizing on “the moral of the story.” A good story does its own work. It moves its audience for all the right reasons. To teachers our advice is: guide, clarify, and enjoy your students’ reflections. Share your own reflections and be unabashedly positive about the virtue under study. But trust the text. For a child, nothing ruins a good story quite like a grown-up who feels compelled to spell out “the moral.”
A word on the frequency of Morning Gatherings: for the sake of continuity, predictability, and routine, we hold Morning Gathering (with a good story) every day. However, for purposes of the Core Virtues program, it is sufficient to have stories related to moral development themes three times per week.
The Power of Pictures—Moral Beauty
As for what you choose to read in Morning Gathering: from Kindergarten through 6th grade we are of the opinion that one picture book may be worth a thousand others. The Core Virtues program is intended to complement the ambitious Core Knowledge program. Core Virtues was developed at Crossroads Academy, an ambitious private school with high academic standards. In literature class at Crossroads, the 6th graders read selections from original texts of Beowulf and El Cid. They read and dramatize Shakespeare. Nonetheless, we have found that well chosen picture books in the Morning Gathering move and delight even our oldest students. The work of Demi, Leonard Everett Fisher, Diane Stanley, Margaret Hodges, and Diane Wolkstein is appealing to students at the older grade levels as well. Our older students’ receptivity to substantive picture books is, we believe, a tribute to the unprecedented flourishing of art in the contemporary American publishing industry. It is also a tribute to the ongoing human aspiration to beauty—which is the visual representation of our loftiest ideals, principles, and beliefs.
Text nudges the heart and intellect. Beauty lifts the spirit. The gift of beautiful art and great writing is today nowhere more present than in children’s publishing. The extraordinary work of Thomas Locker, Margaret Early, Jacob Lawrence, Jeanne M. Lee, or Ludmila Zeman and others can now be bought at relatively modest prices. This is truly a time to be celebrated. One used to frequent museums to see works of this quality. Now we go to our libraries. Depending on the child’s social and economic background, these books may be one of the few important windows a child has on a life that aspires to wholeness.
The Core Virtues program assumes that beauty will always grace a sound moral environment. The beautiful is not always moral, but the moral is always beautiful. Our object in the Morning Gathering, and in school in general, is to help students fall in love with virtue. To that end, we use every means we have. The picture book is a fine tool. In fact, 85 percent of the texts listed in our Resource Guide are picture books. We assume that every day children will also read their chapter book novels, but our oldest students ought not be deprived of the visual wonder and timeless texts of one of our nation’s greatest marvels: her children’s publishing industry.
To sum up: you will find that the virtues component in the Morning Gathering quickly becomes “the heart of the day.” It starts the day on a positive note, and provides a personal challenge for behavior in the six or seven hours that follow. It generally leaves children peaceful and uplifted, ready for the day’s work ahead.