The name is a tongue-twister – Virtue-Based Restorative Discipline – but at St. Peter School in Covington, it is regarded as “Catholic Identity” at its most fundamental.
For the second straight school year, every St. Peter student, teacher, administrator and parent is being challenged to be a better practitioner of the virtues; to support others in their own living out of the virtues; to more mindfully dedicate themselves to constructive thoughts, words and deeds; and to find solutions in support of virtue, even in prickly times of disagreement.
How does a school family strive to meet such lofty and wonderful goals?
The crux of the virtue-building endeavor has students coming together with their classmates and homeroom teacher every Monday morning for campuswide “Virtue 360” circles focusing on a different virtue each month. Through prayer and discussion, the 15-minute circles offer students and teachers a weekly opportunity to examine their relationships as a class and to share ways they and others have lived out – or have failed to live out – virtues such as hope, charity, kindness, cheerfulness and humility.
The Virtue 360 template is relatively straightforward. After an opening prayer, a “talking piece” – a tangible object ranging from a ball to a cross to a stuffed animal – is passed around the circle so each holder can offer a single “check-in” word that describes his or her mood at that moment.
Next, the circle leader asks a series of questions connected with the virtue of the month. For example, during their Nov. 1 examination of the virtue of respect, students were asked why they thought it was important to respect themselves, their parents, their teachers and all human life – and were also asked why this was occasionally difficult.
The Virtue 360 discussion in one homeroom revealed that one circle participant felt a pang of disrespect every time someone laughed at her accent.
Lower school religion teacher Jennifer Baham said one of her students went from feeling “horrible” to “awesome” in the space of a single 15-minute circle.
“The beauty of (the Virtue 360) is that it draws out each child – it gives each child special attention, special talking time and gets them to reflect,” Baham said. “Normally, in a classroom setting, you’re going to have just five students raising their hand. The circles give everyone a little voice. You get to see their uniqueness because everyone speaks!”
The spotlighted virtues also are taken up daily in religion class, with teachers choosing a relevant Scripture verse and a saint who emulates that virtue. For October’s virtue of joy, the daily Scripture excerpt chosen by Baham was: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks” (1 Thess 5:16-18).
St. Philip Neri was held up as the saintly role model of joy, “because of his sense of humor,” Baham added.
Each grade level at St. Peter takes turns at presenting the fruits of their classroom virtue discussions on bulletin boards in the school cafeteria.
For example, seventh graders listed the many ways they experience joy in their homes on paper sunbeams. Their joyful family activities included praying, cooking and eating together, going to Mass as a family and movie-game nights. One student told of his joy in packing his sister’s lunch, knowing that she had stayed up late to finish a school project.
Students also must occasionally bring the Virtue 360 circles home to their families. Sixth grader Ariel Herring recently asked her family to turn off all electronics for a 15-minute circle after dinner.
“I like being able to spend time with my family and sharing my faith with them,” said Ariel, who asked her family: “How can our faith as a family grow even stronger?” Their ideas included spending more time in family prayer and going to confession as a family.
St. Peter’s principal, Michael Kraus, conducts a Virtue 360 circle with his staff at the start of every faculty meeting. He said the approach enables St. Peter School to work on the virtues without sacrificing any traditional instruction time. Significantly, the circles are held on Mondays, giving teachers a golden opportunity to check in with their students after the tumult of the weekend.
“It gives you a sense of where the kids are – are there any relationships that we need to work on here? Has anyone had their feelings hurt recently? Do we need to talk about anything as a class?” Kraus said.
“It helps us meet the students where they are and (also) helps students and faculty form good relationships before a problem arises,” Kraus said, adding that the circles also telegraph the reality that both children and adults are “in this together.”
“I’m here to grow in virtue; you’re here to grow in virtue,” Kraus said. “We all want to get closer to Jesus!”