How to Fashion a Curriculum That Puts Character at the Center of Learning
by Dr. Sean Riley
Since its founding, The Stony Brook School has been devoted to Christian character formation. Nearly a hundred years before David Brooks drew the distinction between the resumé virtues and the eulogy virtues, Stony Brook adopted its motto, “Character Before Career,” to articulate the same truth: Who you are is more important than what you accomplish. Generations of students have graduated with that motto embroidered on their hearts, the fruit of countless hours of investment by Stony Brook teachers, coaches, and dorm parents. Much of the formative work has occurred organically, caught rather than explicitly taught, in unexpected moments, in unplanned interactions. That’s what happens when you surround students with virtuous adults who are invested in their growth.
Last year the faculty started asking how well we were delivering on our motto. We found that indeed students were growing in virtue as a result of one-on-one discipleship, the study of Scripture, and the daily rhythms of boarding school life. Students’ lives were being transformed by interfacing with our people and our program. But we also realized that we needed to expand the scope of our character education program and be much more intentional about its design and implementation. So last year, we started a process of improving character education at the school through our chapel and Bible study programs, through advisory, and through curriculum design. As Academic Dean, my focus has been on curriculum design, and I am excited to share what we have developed thus far.
The first thing we realized was that character is a huge concept. We could easily come up with dozens of moral and intellectual virtues we would want to develop in our students, and even more vices we would want to help them resist. If we were going to make any progress with these teenagers, we were going to need to break the concept down into smaller pieces, and focus our attention on the most important qualities this generation of students will need. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, we decided to look to the Scriptures and the Christian tradition for guidance. What we found there were the four cardinal virtues—wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage—and the three theological virtues—faith, hope, and love. Since our students are with us for a maximum of six years, we thought it would make sense to pick six of these seven and assign one virtue per grade as a focal point. That way, by the time they graduate, our students will have devoted a year of their lives to growing in each of these virtues.
Once we made that decision, some obvious pairings jumped out at us. What do seventh graders, our smallest, youngest, most vulnerable students need most? They need courage, the virtue that can only come to the aid of someone who is experiencing fear. What do our eighth graders in the midst of so many physiological changes need most? They need temperance, the ability to moderate their appetites and orient their desires toward what is good. How do we best serve our freshmen? In most schools, freshmen are a lost class. They no longer look like middle schoolers, but they do not yet have the confidence or the standing amongst their peers to function like upper schoolers. They need a venue for exercising their growing intellectual and emotional capacities and a call to action, so we are having them focus on justice. Sophomores, a class named after their amphibian nature (sophos meaning wise, and moros meaning fool in Greek), need to leave their foolishness behind and grow in wisdom, the virtue that will help them pursue truth and make good decisions in life. Our culture teaches ambitious high school juniors to focus on themselves above all else. They are instructed to micromanage their transcripts, to tally up volunteer and leadership hours, and in some cases to pay consultants to write personal essays for them. At Stony Brook, we want our juniors to be counter-cultural by seeing their eleventh grade year a great time to focus on loving others. First semester anxiety about the future and second semester “senioritis” define the experience of many high school seniors. For those outside the secondary school world, “senioritis” is a rare medical condition affecting second-semester seniors; symptoms include plummeting grades, intellectual apathy, and occasional relapses into middle school impulsiveness. To counteract the first semester anxiety and the second semester apathy at Stony Brook, we train our seniors to put their hope in God’s promises, not college admissions offices, and to continue doing what is good even when doing so becomes challenging.
To develop these virtues, we have intentionally oriented our literature, history, and Bible curricula around them. Our seventh graders read The Hobbit and study examples of courage in the Old Testament. Eighth graders study temperance and intemperance while reading Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre, and the New Testament. Our freshmen study justice and injustice in To Kill a Mockingbird, The Merchant of Venice, and The Odyssey in English class, while learning about the Old Testament Law and Prophets, Plato and Aristotle, and Roman Law in Humanities. Our sophomores study wisdom and folly by reading Twelfth Night, Dante’s Inferno, and C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce in literature; in history and theology through their readings of The Gospels and Paul’s epistles, their study of the creeds and heresies, and the development of both church and state in Medieval Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Our juniors and seniors study love and hope (and plenty of examples of failure in those two areas) as they read literature like The Brothers Karamazov, as they study ethics and theology in Faith and Culture, and as they study the history of Europe and the United States.
We have also developed week-long mini-courses called Character in Action in which students learn how to grow in their grade’s appointed virtue. This Fall, our seventh graders cultivated courage by visiting a veteran’s home, by doing a high ropes course together, and by practicing public speaking. Our eighth graders met with human rights activists to learn how to rightly order their desires to accomplish great goods. On a walk through David Weld Sanctuary, the students spent an hour walking in silence. The “quieting oneself” activity allowed the students to practice this discipline before being asked to test their self-control more deeply in an escape room, where they had to work together as a team, and on a rock climbing outing, where they had to remain focused and calm while helping each other.
Our freshmen learned justice by studying the injustice of red-lining in Long Island neighborhoods. The sophomores studied the Proverbs. They also gleaned wisdom from their interactions with those near the beginning and end of life, visiting both assisted living homes and an elementary school. The students remarked on the unconditional love and attachment they felt from the children. They loved playing games and conversing with the older folks as well. Our students learned what the elderly valued in life: family, relationships, and opportunities taken that gave them lasting joy. The students produced reflections, which included videos, poems, songs, and drawings in order to show what they experienced and learned from the poignant outings. They also took the Highlands Ability Battery, which gave them deep insight into how God has made them so that they can pursue majors and careers that fit their talents.
The juniors studied C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves and then practiced love by helping to organize the Lighthouse Mission warehouse and by distributing food to the poor and needy. Our seniors participated in several projects that brought hope to many locally and in the city. They made cards and bracelets for children at SBU Hospital for Project Sunshine; they helped out at HorseAbility, a non-profit center hosted by SUNY Old Westbury that provides hippotherapy to those with disabilities. Some seniors helped a widow with housework, others participated in beach cleanups, and still others raked Leaves for Christ Methodist Church. Many served meals to the homeless at Hope House Mission in Port Jefferson, the Bowery Mission in New York City, and Lighthouse Mission in Bellport.
“Character Before Career” is neither a quaint motto nor simply a slogan we use to market ourselves to a secular world. Rather Christian character formation is the essence of a Stony Brook education. It drives everything we do with our students. Intentional integration of the virtues into our core courses and mini-courses are just one way we are teaching this generation of Brookers what matters most in life. Perhaps the best lessons are unscripted, caught from wise mentors and life experiences, but a thoughtfully constructed character curriculum adds a much-needed layer of instruction that ensures all of our students are hearing the same messages, developing the same habits, and serving our community in the same way. So, in 2024, when my seventh grade son graduates from The Stony Brook School, I can trust that he will have spent six years focusing on six core virtues, and my hope is that he and his peers will receive their diplomas more courageous, temperate, just, wise, loving, and hopeful than when they first set foot on Chapman Parkway.