Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words
– Robert Frost

In this blog post, I wish to describe my proposed PhD project that I’m undertaking as of this coming autumn. I’d like to begin by briefly explaining the concept of character education, before describing the elements of poetry that are conducive to increasing virtue literacy. Finally, I’ll address, in light of my discussion, whether character education is something that can be taught or caught.

Character education is based on the ideal that certain qualities or character traits can, and should be, developed to a positive effect within the school system. The idea of character education is grounded on the theory that students can be assisted or guided into understanding and wanting to acquire such virtues. Building on the work already carried out by the Jubilee Centre, my PhD research will look to develop interventions in schools that enable teachers to build on the qualities or virtues in question, in their own teaching.

The focus of my forthcoming PhD research is centred on character education through literature. Using stories and narratives as a conduit for teaching virtue literacy is not a new thing. The Knightly Virtues project carried out by the Jubilee Centre successfully utilised classic stories about knights and the chivalric code, in order to increase virtue literacy in 9 to 11 year olds, particularly around the virtues of gratitude, self-discipline, love, service, humility, courage and justice.  Where my research departs from this, however, is that it will take a starting point in poetry.

The students will be taught poetry as (A) a craft, (B) an art, and most importantly (C) as a source of moral reflection. This will entail reading and writing poetry, as well as philosophical discussion and contemplation, which I intend to carry out in the following manner:

1. The students will be given creative writing exercises. The purpose of this is twofold. They will learn to experience the creative aspect of poetry and to trust themselves as having a poetic voice.

2. The students will learn to trust the group when they address poetry in an intersubjective environment, both by opening up themselves to others and by welcoming the poetic voice expressed by others. For instance, when a poem is read aloud, the teacher can ask each student to write down one word on a piece of paper, to express what emotion they might be feeling after hearing the poem. The teacher then writes everything on the whiteboard and, if appropriate, asks some of the students to elaborate on their chosen word. This can be a source for philosophical discussions. It’s also appropriate to read song lyrics, watch music videos, anything that the students can relate with (maybe watch a film like Dead Poets Society, for instance, if the age group is suitable).

3. The students will engage in philosophical discussions about what they read and write. The aim of this is to understand and express the subject matter of the poem in moral or philosophical terms. This will provide the students with a tool for critical thinking.

The elements of poetry that are conducive to increasing virtue literacy, to name a few, are:

  • it induces the imagination, which, in turn, awakens the moral imagination
  • it fosters ethical reflection, helping students to develop the cognitive side of their character
  • it provides the students with a tool for recognising and acknowledging their feelings and emotions
  • it gives the students an effective technique in measuring the aforementioned emotions against ethical concepts, vices and virtues, etc.

Although stories can trigger similar effects, poetry has a unique capacity to unify the pupils’ perspectives and experiences through symbols or language. When engaged with poetry, one enters a region of thought and emotions. When applied to an intellectual process in the face of whatever emotions it may stir, a poem can teach one something about oneself.

My proposed PhD project ultimately seeks to encourage virtuous living through the use of poetry but it does beg one final question; can character education be caught or taught? In reference to what I’ve said and how I view the study of poetry, I’d say that character education through poetry is first and foremost a very rich and creative way for students to connect with, and make sense of their emotions. But, as I’ve described, it helps if this takes place within a group of trust, and, of course, with constructive guidance. In other words, character education can, and should, be taught. But it is also caught, so to speak, by youngsters when their elders, be it their teachers, parents or role-models, set a good example.

Kristian Guttesen is a teacher, about to begin his PhD studies in the Jubilee Centre on poetry and character education.

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