Section II D: Unlocking Strengths: Discovering and Nurturing Natural Talents
Chapter 13: Spotting Strengths: Strength Finding
Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andrew and Guy Parker-Rees
How this Book Connects to Positive Psychology Research on Character Strengths
Giraffes Can't Dance imparts the understanding that each individual possesses character strengths and these strengths, not only uniquely define that individual, but it provide a pathway to success for that individual. Ultimately, it is the individual's strengths that will define the course and direction of one's life.
The start of the story finds Gerald the Giraffe believing that he has no special talent and only a weakness for dancing. With the help of a cricket, Gerald discovers on his strengths and how to harness these strengths to become the best dancer in the forest. This allegorical story is a perfect introduction into the idea of character strengths. There are far too many Gerald's in classrooms across America and around the world.
Tom Rath, in the book StrengthsFinder 2.0, introduced the world to the ideas of his grandfather, Donald O. Clifton, who had spent a lifetime of research characterizing strengths and leading millions to discover personal strengths. Clifton's work resulted in the Clifton Strength Finder. This instrument and research emphasized the fact that life is better driven by what individuals do to harness strengths than how successfully individuals overcome and address weaknesses.
Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman in their book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, brought the idea of strengths and virtues to entirely new levels by identifying a classification of six virtues and twenty four character strengths. Their character traits assessment is offered for free online on the VIA Institute’s website: www.viacharacter.org.
The work of David Yeager, Shari Fisher, and David Shearon, graduates of the University of Pennsylvania's Master in Applied Positive Psychology Program has provided an extraordinary tool for educators with their book and training program on how teach students to harness their strengths. Their book, SMART Strengths, from which the Strength 360 Activity in this lesson is adapted and borrowed, is a hands on compilation of strategies on how students can best recognize and harness the power of their individual character strengths.
Their acronym, SMART Strengths, is a strength's intervention that the authors have piloted in schools across America to teach and research character strengths. The program seeks to have student spot their unique character strengths and the strengths in others, manage those strengths. The authors urge students to be aware of the dark or shadow side of strengths, which can involve the negative outcomes that can occur when strengths are misapplied. In this case, the strength can actually block the individual's path to success.
The shadow side of humor can become a weakness when inappropriate humor is injected at the wrong times. This self-knowledge is paramount if a student is to advocate for their strengths by building bridges to others with their strengths as connectors. Advocating for strengths can lead directly to relating, the idea of combining strengths in a synergy with others to form a more rounded and effective group that can better harness the strengths of all.
Most powerfully, training others in identifying and using their strengths can bring the understanding and employment of strengths to new levels. When students teach about skills to other students, they can bring to life the old axiom that is if you really want to know something, teach it. The model for the SMART Strengths Program can be found below and more information on the SMART Strengths program training in that program can be found on the website: www.smartstrengths.com.
More detailed information on character strengths research is available for the teacher or the parent in the reference section in the last chapter of this book. These shared sources on character strengths include YouTube presentations, life-altering books applying the research to daily life and a snapshot of the scholarly research from which the positive psychology supporting the chapter has been derived. Teachers are encouraged to dig deeper into developing a rich understanding of the research in order to strengthen the power and delivery of the lesson.
Lesson Design: Amy Kanavy Curry
The Secret of Failing Well: Giraffes Can’t Dance Inquiry
Compelling Question: Is it more important to remedy our weaknesses or find our strengths?
Staging the Question: Students will classify character strengths by placing them in order from strongest to weakest. Pose the question: Is it more important to work on your weaknesses or to work on your strengths.
What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Is it more important to work on your strengths or to work on your weaknesses?
Can you identify Gerald the Giraffe's weakness? What about Gerald made dancing difficult? Why did Gerald freeze up? How did Gerald learn to dance? What about Gerald’s physical nature helped him discover his song? Did he do it alone? What does, “Sometimes when you’re different you just need a different song,” mean? Can you change the bold words in this statement so it doesn’t apply to just dancing: “We all can dance when we find music that we love?”
At the beginning of the story, does Gerald focus more on his strengths or his weaknesses? Does this work for him? Has there ever been a time where you “froze up” and felt embarrassed you couldn’t do something other people could? Gerald was inspired by the moon; can you think of something in your life that inspires you? The end of the book describes Gerald as the best dancer the jungle has ever seen; when do you feel at your best?
The students will view a model dividing a set of 8 character strengths and ordering them from strongest to weakest. The students will complete same task and “pair and share” their results. Students will provide reasoning for their placement. A class wordle will be created so the class can view the diversity of their class’ strengths.
Students will work in partnerships to identify the answers to the questions during the read aloud.
Students will first take a free VIA character strengths test online.
After identifying strengths, students will complete an activity called Strength 360 in which they work with the classmates to determine strengths. In this activity, unlike the before reading activity, the students will be recognizing the specific character strengths in their classmates rather than themselves. They will make their selection based on provided words and must offer specific examples to support the words of their choosing.
[Source: SMART Strengths]
The 24 Character Strengths
by Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman
Giraffes Can’t Dance
By Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees
Find Your Strengths VIA-Virtues in Action
Summative Performance Task
With a carefully selected partner, students will create a Google slideshow that supports how their partner demonstrates two specific character strengths over a consistent period of time. Examples from the person’s life should be used and a variety of sources will be encouraged (parent, classmate, partner). Students will find a successful person who also contained these traits and explain how it helped them succeed.
Students will keep a strengths journal. Any time they feel they are at their best, received a compliment from someone, or notice any unique qualities that seem to set them apart from others, they will jot it down in their strengths journals. Weekly, they will conference with a peer, parent(s), and/or teacher to determine patterns or repetition of a particular skill.
Taking Informed Action
Students will include their parents in their investigation of strengths. Their parents will be asked to identify two strengths that they believe their child has based on the provided character strengths and produce specific examples to support the traits chosen. Parents will be encouraged to verbally continue this task as an ongoing reinforcement of identifying a child’s strengths as they grow and change.
Students may become school strength ambassadors by bringing the modified strength lessons to lower grades.
Staging the Lesson
Students will be asked, “Is the secret to life discovering your strengths or working diligently on your weaknesses?” Students should be given ample time to internalize this, stop and jot their ideas, and share those thoughts with the class. This question is complex and likely not one that has been given much thought to it before. It may unveil a belief system or mindset that has already been established by parents, teachers, and personal self-talk.
On the early elementary level, the question can simply focus on what is more important when trying to do better in school: recognizing strengths or working hard to fix weaknesses. It is very likely that most students, young and old, will struggle with the idea that you should place any and/or more emphasis on discovering and cultivating strengths.
Culturally, over time, schools have placed significant and profound emphasis that more time and attention should be devoted to fixing weaknesses rather than addressing strengths. It is a message students have been receiving directly and indirectly for quite some time. Failing an English class may possibly initiate a schedule change with the addition of an added English remedial class to address that weakness. Failing English results in two periods of your weakest subject, but getting an A in English will not likely find an additional period added to feed that passion.
The possibility that school should emphasize student strengths over weaknesses may have never have occurred to students at all. The question will be left open ended, as it is a question that will be revisited during this chapter and the next.
In order to better understand the question, students will be presented with eight character strengths that were identified by Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman in their book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. These strengths should be identified as qualities that all individuals contain to some degree. The following eight will be used in this abbreviated introduction: love of learning, kindness, bravery, fairness, forgiveness, hope, humor, and creativity (See teacher resource).
Based on the age and ability of the students, these eight strengths may simply be presented, or they may require clarification and a discussion to determine understanding. These strengths should be posted in the room and given to each child in the form of cards to hold, look at, and hopefully, begin to internalize their meanings.
With the reminder, that individuals possess all of these qualities to some degree, students will be instructed to order them according to the perception of the personal strengths that they possess. In other words, the first word in their stack should be the quality most identified with, the second card should be the next quality they feel describes the individual's personal strengths, and so on. Consequently, the last strength (the eighth card) should be the weakest strength.
The first partnering activity will include sharing the order of your cards with a partner. Simply stating the order is not enough, students must explain why the card was placed high, in the middle, or low on their scale of strengths by providing specific examples from daily life. For example, a student might say they are forgiving because their little brother recently broke their favorite toy, and they didn’t get angry because they knew it was an accident.
On the contrary, the student might put forgiving at the end of the list because after their little brother broke their favorite toy, despite realizing it was an accident, they held a grudge for days. The emphasis should be placed on purposeful placement of the cards with supporting evidence and personal stories[A1] . Once all students have had an opportunity to share, the class will come together to share the results.
In order to admire and appreciate the diversity of the class, a class word cloud will be designed using each student's top two strengths. The imagery should assist in noting which traits or more prevalent than others as well as provide information for more well-rounded partnerships in the future.
The book, Giraffes Can’t Dance, will provide us with some insights on strength finding, via Gerald the giraffe. For Gerald, the question of which proves more important: discovering his strengths or focusing on his weaknesses will provide a simplistic and obvious solution. The hope is that the book can inspire students to identify and harness personal strengths.
The Read Aloud: Stories That Stick
The students are now ready to engage in the read aloud exploring the story in whatever format that the teacher chooses to share the story. Questions before, during, and after the reading are on the template and are provided merely as suggestions.
It is the belief of the authors that questions used to drive the reading are best created by the individual classroom teacher as part of the teachable moments that make read aloud experiences come to life. More than likely, the suggestions will get you started and follow-up questions will arise in response to students' reactions.
Summative Performance Task
In order to follow up on the reading, it is important to continue to reinforce the ability to recognize strengths in themselves as well as identifying those qualities in others. Students will first take a VIA (Virtues in Action) Character Strengths test online to formally identify their strengths and virtues.
This next activity improves the classroom climate, identifies individual strengths, and boosts self-esteem. The activity is called Strength 360 and it was developed out of the SMART Strengths Program and is provided here as a small indicator of a truly enriching and life changing program. Each student in the class will be provided with a poster with name on it and the posters will be affixed around the perimeter of the room.
All of the students in the class participate by rotating around the room and writing down the strength (Using the 24 identified in the VIA online survey) they believe their classmate to possess. After all the students have filled in character traits on each poster, one by one students will stand in front of their poster. As they stand, each student will share the traits that student possesses and what experiences helped them arrive at that conclusion.
It is vital that students must share how they have come to choose that specific character trait. For example, a student might write kindness, but should explain, because "I saw Allison help a kindergartner who was lost find the bathroom." After the entire class has had an opportunity to write, each child will return to their own poster, and compare the findings on the VIA test with their classmate's beliefs. Often classmates will spot strengths not identified on the test.
Expect a degree of discomfort; people, young and old, are not used to being complimented in such a public way. Completing the lesson in this manner strives to send the message that it is okay to shine and that these strengths are recognized and appreciated by their classmates. After the completion of this activity, children should be comfortable with identifying the qualities associated with each strength and should begin to have a better gauge on their strengths as identified from peers.
The extension activity builds upon this by asking children to keep a weekly strength journal about their strengths. They will be encouraged to notice any patterns in the strengths people associate with them, keep track of compliments, note times when they feel at their best, and take notice of the qualities in them that seem to be uniquely theirs and set them apart from others.
Self-described “quirks” often provide insight into our strengths. The journaling activity can go on for as long as seems beneficial. The goal is that students are able to note their strengths and feel confident they understand why that attribute is associated with their unique character. The strength journal will also be used as a tool for completing the argument portion of this inquiry.
It is vitally important that the ideas of this lesson, that all children have strengths, be brought home and reinforced. An easy way to do this is to provide parents with the set of eight words and require the parents to identify two words from the list of strengths they believe their child has and why.
The results of this discussion can be recorded in the strength journal as one of the first activities. It is critical parents understand that all children have strengths and the fostering and application of these strengths can inevitably be the path for their child’s motivation and success at large.
In order to employ the rigor necessary in the era of Common Core, the following activity is suggested as a culminating activity to this inquiry. Student partnerships should be established deliberately. Partners should be a person the student knows fairly well. This could be because of friendships or maybe common experiences over a very long time.
Students must feel safe and comfortable to explore their strengths and being able to trust their partner is imperative. Once groupings are established, students will be presented with the assignment; the students will make a slideshow (Google slides or any other) that describes the two most dominant strengths of the assigned partner. Students will be required to identify the specific strength and provide proof in the form of various sources.
The supporting evidence must be persuasive and may be supplied via entries from the strength journal, personal experiences, or interviews with classmates. In addition, the students will be required to identify a successful person who also embodies one of these qualities. Explanation must be provided that documents how the figure uses character strength to achieve their goals.
The level of auditory persuasion can depend on what skill set you would like to place more emphasis on. If presenting a persuasive argument, oral presentation is a priority; it might only be required that children have a graphic organizer to reference, as they make their case. If quality evidence is the focus, you may want all the supporting details listed clearly with substantial proof clearly identified. There is a tremendous amount of flexibility in order to allow the teacher to make appropriate modifications according to his or her needs.
Taking Informed Action
The concept behind strengths needs to play a continued role in the classroom. Simply identifying your strengths in not enough to promote real change. Children can be encouraged to maintain strength journals and participate in a monthly “pair and share” with classmates and/or their parents. When designing group activities in any subject area, strengths should be addressed as an obvious strategy for developing well-rounded grouping.
Students should be encouraged to offer their assistance to classmates. When doing so, students model how this particular strength can be utilized effectively. Coaching a classmate through an activity will not only reinforce the strength in the student assisting, but it will aid the students requiring help through witnessing the self-talk of the model.
In schools that embrace professional Twitter accounts, students can be encouraged to report evidence of one of the eight character strengths in themselves or when they witness the strength in another. The hashtags could be:
At home, parents can be provided postcards. When witnessing their child thriving in a particular area, they can jot them a note with special attention to their identified strengths. This will encourage and reward the child through praise and recognition of their strengths. The combination of efforts should slowly create a shift in which children feel better and begin to recognize and employ their strengths.
Finally, if the class is an upper level elementary classroom, they can become ambassadors of the character strengths and present the modified strengths activities done in their room to a younger grade. It is this hope that action will be the start of a movement that focuses school-wide attention and emphasis on student strengths.
Love of Learning
mastering and enthusiasm for new skills, topics, and knowledge
doing favors and good deeds
not shrinking from a challenge;
acting on convictions even if not popular
treating all people the same;
not letting personal feelings bias
decisions about others
forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting the shortcomings of others
expecting the best in the future
and working to achieve it
liking to laugh, bringing smiles to others, seeing the lighter side
thinking of novel and productive ways to view things; imaginative