Edward Pentin: Teaching Character Education With the Anthropology of St. John Paul II

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Young students learn virtue-directed skills through the program. (Courtesy of Christine Vollmer)

‘Alive to the World’ program, anchored in virtues, is making an impact on young people in 22 countries and home-schooling classes.

By Edward Pentin, EWTN News, 11/27/18 at 9:40 AM

“Alive to the World” was “my favorite thing to do at school this year,” wrote 13-year-old Vinnie Zignego of Trinity Academy Catholic school in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. “It taught me a lot about life and making decisions. My favorite lesson was about keeping your word.”

“I find ‘Alive to the World’ extremely interesting,” wrote Maria Bay, also a seventh-grade pupil of Trinity Academy. “These were very important life lessons turned into interesting stories.”

Vinnie and Maria are just two young students who say they have benefited from the character-development program for children and adolescents, now being taught in 22 countries as well as in home-schooling classes.

Created 15 years ago in Venezuela by Christine Marcellus de Vollmer, a former member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the program is aimed at teaching virtues to children and adolescents by following the stories of two fictitious characters, Charlie and his cousin Alice, and their everyday life situations.

These include tales of friendship, peer pressure, relationships with their parents, romance, sexuality, love, marriage and the application of values such as loyalty, teamwork, personal responsibility, respect for property toward their ambitions.

The story-telling technique allows the students “to easily understand and identify with how to implement the Christian virtues every day,” Vollmer told the Register Nov. 21, adding that the “weekly chapters deal with situations that they easily relate to.” Students, she said, “love the fact that the story seems to be about them and the situations, at their precise age, that they are living.”

Cardinal Raymond Burke has strongly endorsed the 13-level curriculum, to be used in classrooms from kindergarten to the last year of secondary school, calling it a “greatly useful and insightful educational program” that “meets effectively and rightly the plea for help from parents and families” in forming their children.

In a recommendation written in June this year, the patron of the Order of Malta said the program was “admirable in its didactic structure, transmitting natural truths, which is the condition sine qua non for religious education.” Having been tested in “several countries with notable success,” he said he “strongly” recommended the series.

Although not explicitly Catholic so that it can be tailored to any school, Vollmer said the program is “totally Catholic” in its approach, as it is “based on the anthropology of St. John Paul II.”

“Our Catholic faith, given us by Our Lord, is all about living for others and fulfilling our talents,” Vollmer explained, adding that the program was “developed to guide children and adults to do exactly that.”

She said virtue-directed skills are taught through the program, such as “decision-taking, how to stand up politely and firmly for what is right, how to come to agreements in a principled way and how to debate effectively.” Young Catholics today “need these skills,” Vollmer said, especially after 70-plus years of Christian culture being “aggressively” eroded by “various ideologies” and “much pain” being inflicted on children and adolescents due to the fallout of the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s.

At a time when sex education has largely been proved to be a failure in Western schooling and in some cases positively harmful, Vollmer said “Alive to the World” covers love, life and procreation “in an elegant and appropriate way,” while the “more intimate details, such as would offend modesty, are left to the parents.” (The program has a supplementary book called Sexuality Explained that helps parents address those issues at home.)

Trinity Academy piloted the curriculum for its seventh-grade class in the 2016-2017 academic year and found the classroom experience was “outstanding,” according to Elizabeth Mitchell, the school’s director of development. The students “were engaged, interested and impacted by the content of the program,” said Mitchell, adding that the children asked for the program to continue the following year.

In a world where “values are not being systematically taught or passed down to the younger generation, ‘Alive to the World’ provides a narrative doorway through which the child can encounter questions of virtue and find appropriate solutions,” Mitchell explained.

Vollmer said in parochial schools in the “neediest and more difficult areas” of Venezuela, the program has been “indispensable,” as it “changes the atmosphere, bringing harmony and motivation to the classroom.” She said “bullying and violence tend to disappear, and teenage pregnancies, as well.”

Mitchell believes the secret to the “Alive to the World” program’s success is “very simple”: It says to each child he or she is a “significant gift to give to the world” and that “you are needed; your virtue is needed. You are loved.”

“I cannot say enough about the transformative power I have seen in allowing children to discuss the logic of the virtues from the inside out,” said Mitchell. “Values are not imposed from without; they are embraced from within — because they make sense. And ‘if Alice and Charlie can do it,’ says the student to himself, ‘I can do it. I want to be like them, my peers.’”

Although the program is not explicitly Catholic, Mitchell believes its emphasis on the “inherent dignity of the human person” goes “straight to the heart of the Gospel and the Lord’s personal love,” and the program “pours it over the child.” By doing so, she said it brings students to the “starting point of any theological conversation,” eventually helping them to see “the beauty of Catholicism as the one true faith.”

Vollmer said that in private Catholic schools, students have gained a “better understanding of how to live as a Catholic” through the program, which, she added, is “the perfect complement to their catechetics or religious program.”

The program caters to young people’s innate desire to be “outstanding, trusted, admirable people,” Vollmer continued, but with “so many negative models” in the world, “they find it very hard” to know how to fulfill such desires. When they come to see that happiness “is the result of being generous, loyal, persevering, courageous” and other virtues, the program becomes “something they really enjoy.”

Cardinal Burke, who is a member of Trinity Academy’s board, said he believes the “authors of ‘Alive to the World’ have achieved a complete and successful tool, which will be of great help to children and adolescents, parents and teachers.” In a true sense, he added, “it will bring relief and joy to all who use, teach and learn from it.”

“Alive to the World” has recently been made available for purchase in digital form on the Blink Learning educational platform online. Teachers and parents can find resources here. It is currently looking for a U.S. publisher for the print version of the curriculum.

By purchasing the program, Vollmer said the proceeds will help “fund the impoverished and truly needy in Venezuela, where it is having very good results, but few schools can afford the books.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.