Building Character and Community @ the Learning Commons

Sarah Murray & Barbara Fedorowicz

By Sarah Murray & Barbara Fedorowicz

According to Michael Ungar of the Resilience Research Centre, over the past decade there has been a 44% increase in emergency room visits for mental illness and a 33% increase in hospitalization for anxiety and mental illness in Canadian teens.

How can Canadian Learning Commons respond to the needs of our increasingly anxious teen patrons?

One innovative approach being adopted by schools is the implementation of character education into the curriculum. The explicit teaching of positive interventions gives all teens strategies for increasing their well-being by developing protective factors against future depression and anxiety.

Via Character Strengths
Copyright Children, Inc., 2017.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.


An Evidence Based Approach

Studies by positive psychologists, Seligman, Peterson, Niemiec and others show that:

  • When individuals focus on their top five character strengths, they are more successful and happy in life.

When incorporating strengths into the curriculum, studies show:

  1. Significant improvements in grades and standardized test scores.
  2. Decreased rates of anxiety and depression.
  3. Improved well-being.
  4. Improved classroom behaviour.

Teacher-librarians may positively impact their school’s community, literacy, numeracy and pathway goals by improving the resilience of students thorough character strength building strategies. To impact school culture and facilitate change, initiatives should combine both strategic whole school implementation with individualized teacher collaborations.

Survey the School to Identify Character Strengths

The St. Joseph Learning Commons is actively supporting the school improvement plan through facilitating the school wide administration of the character strength survey at In September, over 1500 students were invited by homeroom to use the LC chromebooks, with the support of the teacher-librarian to complete the survey and identify their core and growth strengths. Students then shared their strengths with classroom teachers to facilitate the implementation of strengths throughout the whole school.

Host a Character Day Event

On September 13th, the Learning Commons invited over 20 classes to participate in the global celebration of Character Day. The teacher-librarian developed lesson plans that included positive interventions and character building activities. The day was hosted by Let It Ripple whose mission is to use film, technology, discussion materials, and events to engage a 21st century audience in conversation and action around complicated subjects that are shaping our lives.

Read for Character Strengths

To celebrate Halloween, the Learning Commons invited classes to participate in a spooky story reading of Click Clack Rattlebag by Neil Gaiman using Youtube. Students then analyzed the short story using the thoughts, words and actions of the main character as evidence to prove which strength was core to the narrator and which strengths were over and underused by the narrator. Students then made connections to their own strengths and identified a strength that they underuse and how improving this strength might impact their personal lives.

Book Club Discussions will also actively engage students in character strength spotting as an approach for reading titles nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s White Pine and Red Maple Reading clubs. For example, a close reading of The Pain Eater by Beth Goobie provides a comprehensive model of specific ways students may overcome adversity and experience post-traumatic growth by using their core character strengths and cultivating the nine variables of resilience.

Link the LC to School-Wide Initiatives

During Kindness Week, the St. Joseph Learning Commons created displays and book pass activities to encourage students to read fiction with the theme of kindness. The teacher-librarian also created character strength nametags so that all students may self-identify their strengths. Students were encouraged to spot the strengths in others and submit a ballot to win prizes.

A Sample Character Building Intervention Activity

  • Graduation Day Test: Imagine you are standing in front of the entire school to receive your diploma. Your peers are watching you cross the stage. What do you want them to think about your character? What might you do now to build this reputation or legacy?

Samples of student responses show they engaged with the task by imagining their future graduation day positively. They named their core character strengths and specifically identified steps to make their vision a reality. For instance, one student shared that they hope others see them for her core strength of honesty and she will achieve this goal by being her authentic self. The Graduation Day Test is an adaptation of The Deathbed Test from Ryan Niemiec’s Character Strengths Interventions, A Field Guide for Practitioners, 2017).

Connect with Parents and Staff in the School Community

The teacher-librarian and Department Head of English will collaborate to host a staff book club focussing on developing perseverance and grit in our students using Getting Grit by Caroline Adams Miller. The teacher-librarian will also offer a parent book club focussing on a strength based approach to parenting using Dr. Lea Waters’ The Strength Switch.

You are warmly invited to contact Sarah Murray or Barbara Fedorowicz if you would like to know more about running similar initiatives in your school Learning Commons.

Sarah MurraySarah Murray is a high school teacher-librarian and English Teacher with over 15 years of experience in the Ottawa Catholic School Board. Her passion is literacy and she is an active advocate for reading in her school community. Her core character strength is the love of learning as she seeks to implement a character strengths approach to both teaching and parenting.


Barb Fedorowicz
Barbara Fedorowicz
is the Department Head of English at St. Joseph H.S. in the Ottawa Catholic School Board.