A School of Fish:
A Lesson in Character Development


Kaye Anderson

The public appears to support the desire of many educators for a return to the teaching of ethics. This support is demonstrated by the resounding success of books related to values and ethics, such as Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,1 Bennett’s A Children’s Book of Virtues, Edelman’s The Measure of Our Success, and Taulbert’s Eight Habits of the Heart, to name a few.2 Incidents such as the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and other similar events alert us to the importance of helping students develop ethics in their lives. In many school districts, teachers are strongly encouraged to teach character education, yet many wonder how they can squeeze this admittedly important item into an already overloaded curriculum. How can we get a handle on the huge task of helping our students develop good character?


Character Education and the School Curriculum

Educators across the nation, from Missouri to Arizona, are using Stephen Covey’s rather comprehensive model of ethics as described in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as the basis for lessons on good character traits. Briefly, the model suggests that one can become effective by developing one’s own personal strength or sense of integrity and then expanding one’s influence outward to develop trust in interpersonal relationships, empowerment in managerial relationships (fostering interdependence and mutual growth), and alignment among the formal and informal groups and organizations in which one participates (for example, family, clubs, and community groups). Because it organizes cohesively several different ideas, this model provides ready access to beliefs and practices that correlate with responsibility and freedom, equality, community, and teamwork––values that are regularly taught in many homes and religious organizations. Covey’s model, however, is not tied specifically to any one religious practice, but embraces values and principles at the heart of all of the world’s major moral systems. Consequently, the model could be described as multicultural in origin. When I taught the 7 Habits as the “Secrets of Success” over a ten-week period of time to 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders, I heard no objection to the content among families in the multicultural neighborhood of Charles J. Carver Elementary School in Cerritos, California. The ideas appear to be acceptable to individuals of good will from diverse backgrounds.


A Less-Formal Approach

Students could be taught essential character traits in a formal curriculum of study,3 but my approach is more informal: I encourage students to discuss the traits and to find them reflected in literature and history during weekly one-hour sessions. Research on this later approach seems to show it to be effective. For example, results from surveys that I sent to the students’ families at the end of the informal course revealed that most parents or guardians considered their children to be more serious about school, more tolerant of others, and more willing to stick with a difficult situation after these sessions than they had been before the course.4 Moreover, some parents said to me that their children generally demonstrated a more positive and happy overall attitude than they had before the study. Interviews with their teachers confirmed the parent observations of more positive characteristics among the children and revealed that the students exhibited genuine pride about learning such “adult” material.

The benefit of teaching values through discussions of a model such as the 7 Habits, for example, is that there is no program to buy. Teachers introduce a concept one week and discuss the concept with students as it is reflected in their daily lives. Students can find examples of the values (or lack of them) among people in the news and among characters in the books they read. Our rich heritage of children’s and young-adult literature, therefore, can become a major resource for learning values and ethics (without adding new textbooks).

Furthermore, relating the 7 Habits to children’s literature and analysis of news in nonthreatening discussions allows students to “discover” the concepts in the literature and in real life experiences. As they make connections and associations, they simultaneously build their powers of critical and creative thinking, instead of passively accepting ideas.

While Covey’s model is simple on its surface, it is by no means easy to automatically adopt and live because, like an onion, there are multiple layers of meaning and diverse ways that it can be applied. Each of his 7 Habits includes various principles and concepts that people could spend a lifetime exploring. Additionally, many of the patterns “typica#148; of modern America seem opposite to the values inherent in this model, so individuals frequently must unlearn unhelpful behaviors and attitudes while they simultaneously learn helpful ones. For example, in many discussions of public issues on TV, the participants are adversarial, litigious, or competitive. One rarely sees people work through a problem cooperatively with skillful mediation or negotiation.


A School Wide Effort

For the best results in encouraging students to become more ethical citizens, it is desirable to include discussions of the habits every year. Optimally, an entire school or district could focus on one habit per month. When an entire school learns the same vocabulary of ethics, it builds a spirit of community through the common experience.5 Although students may study the same list of good habits from year to year, different nuances of meaning will come into focus as the children mature. Also, using different and progressively more challenging books each year maintains freshness in the program.

Moral concepts, relevant to children and adults alike, can provide a unifying paradigm, or way of viewing life, uniting schools and families. Parents can be involved in such a curriculum in many ways: engaging in discussions of the 7 Habits among themselves or with their children; helping to identify new books that readily demonstrate one or more of the 7 Habits (this activity can provide a worthwhile service to the schools that simultaneously reinforces the parents’ own literacy and thinking skills); and sharing a book and discussing one of the habits with a small group of students (so that many children are able to explore and discuss the ideas within the safety of a small group setting). Table 1 lists 109 trade books (with related good habits) that parents and teachers might choose from. When parents and teachers are reinforcing the same ideas and concepts, there is greater assurance of transfer of the ideas to the many facets of life’s experience.


Relating the 7 Habits to Swimmy

One popular children’s picture book, Swimmy by Leo Lioni, demonstrates within its story all of the 7 Habits.6 In brief, Swimmy is a black fish living in a school of red fish. When a large predatory fish eats all of the red fish, Swimmy is devastated. Following a period of grieving, he sets out to explore the various marvels in the sea, and he finds another school of red fish. He encourages them to join in his adventures, but they decline, fearing the large predator that is still about. Swimmy conceives of a plan: the group will swim together in the pattern of a giant red fish (where Swimmy is the eye). After much practice, the group succeeds in scaring the big fish away, and thus is free to roam in formation.

After studying the 7 Habits, students can be challenged to relate those habits to character traits exhibited by Swimmy. By drawing parallels between concepts and events in a fictitious story, students might begin to see how principles and virtues can be applied to concrete problems and novel situations.



The first of the 7 Habits is for one to have a positive “I can!” attitude. It means having high self-esteem, recognizing one’s competence, and believing that everyone is special, each possessing infinite capacities and opportunities––the birthright of being human––as well as unique combinations of qualities and experience that can be applied to promote continual improvement and growth within self or a specific group at a particular place and time. It involves the recognition that all people choose their behaviors and attitudes, so if we don’t like ourselves or our present situation, we can change to become more like the selves with the future that we dream.

In the midst of grief, Swimmy decided not to be reactive and mope around feeling sorry for himself. He found a way to find joy in his life despite his grief, and he believed he had the capacity to be proactive—to think of a plan to solve the problem of how he might enroll his new friends in his explorations. Swimmy appreciated his uniqueness and used it to advantage, rather than trying to conform himself to be like his friends or act as they would expect him to behave.



Beginning with a vision of the desired outcome is the best motivation that humans have, whether that result is a thing or event (blueprints for a building, a meeting agenda, a shopping list, or a budget), a new behavior (jumping further, acting more kindly), or one’s life’s work (revealing the importance of a dream and writing a mission statement). To be successful, one must “give up” self-destructive goals such as obtaining drugs, overeating, excessive worry, and being negative or mean and strive toward positive, “go up” goals that inspire individuals to be their very best selves in all dimensions.

After defining our vision, it is necessary to set observable, measurable, attainable goals that lead to a desired end. That way, we can assess whether we are, in fact, moving in the direction of our dreams.

During his adventure, Swimmy had several long-range goals: to explore the sea, to gain a feeling of community to replace the one he had lost, and ultimately to be happy in his new life. These goals necessitated forming a more specific goal: creating a means for his new friends to feel safe enough to wander along with him.



Managing oneself and living a self-disciplined life involves focusing on the most important things (planning, study, people, intergenerational connections). It means identifying priorities, preventing situations that continually create crisis conditions, and embodying the principles of character that promote long-term gain rather than short-term pleasure. It includes finding ways to leverage one’s efforts by choosing the right things, learning to delegate and mentor others, and focusing attention on the most critical need.

Swimmy was concerned with developing positive relationships. Before his new friends would venture forth with him, a plan had to be conceived that would fulfill their needs as well as his. Even after a solution came to mind, it couldn’t be implemented immediately. Rather, the school of fish had to practice its synchronized swimming to the point where the group looked like one giant fish.



Thinking win-win means seeking mutual benefit rather than solutions that are good for one (some), but not for others (all). It means choosing to live out of the “abundance mentality” by recognizing that there are resources, opportunities, and rewards sufficient for all (when we creatively find or invent them) and to move beyond counterproductive either-or thinking, which creates conflict. It means finding creative “third alternatives,” combining the best of opposing positions. It is striving for fairness, kindness, harmony, and justice.

The desires for safety and adventure appeared to be opposite desires, so a creative solution had to be invented that could address both legitimate needs. The solution could be implemented only when everybody cooperated.



Empathic listening is the key to mature, two-way communication. It recognizes that in interpersonal relationships conflicts inevitably arise, so to harmoniously resolve them, people need to learn techniques of conflict resolution, which include sincerely trying out a differing perspective. Viewing a problem from different angles requires courage to share oneself, one’s ideas, and one’s boundaries. It also means listening with compassion and kindness to a different opinion. If both parties aim to understand (rather than just to win), both might feel affirmed, validated, and appreciated. Then, win-win solutions are not so elusive.

Human relationships require constant deposits in the “emotional bank account” (one-on-one time, courtesies, respect, kindness, patience, service, honesty, and forgiveness) in order to build trust. Excessive “withdrawals” from the “bank” (over-reactions, ego-trips, absence of apologies for mistakes, and neglect of human relationships) destroy trust and can ultimately harm individuals and their relationships.

Swimmy had to listen beyond the words of his new friends to realize that they would have loved to go adventuring, but they didn’t feel safe to do so. Rather than making fun of their fears, he knew their concern was valid and needed to be dealt with. Additionally, in order for the plan to work, he couldn’t simply order his new friends to conform to his wishes and desires, for such control would destroy the very friendships he desired. Rather, he had to entice them, to create a vision of possibility so that they would want to participate in the venture and join in the rewards of doing so.



This habit can be symbolized by the acronym TEAM: working Together, Everyone Accomplishes More. We are simultaneously members of many teams, which can be diagrammed as concentric circles of increasing size (representing our family, school, community, city, state, nation, world). Good team members encourage inclusion and welcome diversity because the different strengths of various members contribute in a complementary fashion for the good of the whole. As members of larger groups, we need to volunteer our service to the larger society.

The school of fish, swimming in synchrony as a new, larger system, is a perfect demonstration of synergy or creative teamwork. Instead of being ostracized for his different color, Swimmy plays a unique role as the eye.



A worker cannot continue to work (saw) without taking time for self-renewal (sharpening the saw) because the saw eventually gets dull and effectiveness is diminished. Renewal must occur in all four aspects of life: physical, social, mental, and spiritual/emotional. A successful life, then, is a life of continual growth and change as well as balance in our living, loving, learning, and leaving a legacy. We must balance our loving and serving others (our giving) with loving ourselves (seeking the fulfillment of our own needs so that we become refreshed), so we can serve effectively once again. This habit also involves the notion of beginning anew, becoming transformed, and extending ourselves to leadership roles where we exert our talents and influence in increasingly wider circles.

The red fish became renewed as they replaced their reactive hiding behavior with the life of adventure and joy as a proactive, creative community. In order to fulfill his personal dream, Swimmy was also transformed. As he shared his vision with his new friends and then taught them to swim as one giant fish, he became a leader within the new community.



The tools for teaching character education extend well beyond giving students a handout listing virtues. Teachers can invite students to create art, write poetry, and perform drama (see the rap lyrics in the sidebar) that illustrate values and morals. We can get ideas from books for adults (like The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and make them understandable at the elementary level in a way that is true to the original work. We can encourage our students to interpret literature, to look for virtues as they are exhibited by fictional characters (as in Swimmy) and by real people.7 We can look for opportunities in the classroom to identify, practice, reward, and get creative with good character.



1. Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990); Living the 7 Habits (1999).

2. Ernest Boyer, The Basic School: A Community for Learning (Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1995); P. Barth and R. Mitchell, Smart Start: Elementary Education for the 21st Century (Golden, CO: North American Press, 1992); California Department of Education, It’s Elementary: Elementary Grades Task Force Report (Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education, 1992); Lee Bennett, A Children’s Book of Virtues (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994); Marian Wright Edelman, The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993); C. L. Taulbert, Eight Habits of the Heart (New York: Viking Penguin, 1997).

3. Michael Bernard, Providing All Children with the Foundations for Achievement (Athens, Canada: Hindle, 1998).

4. I sent a survey with a Likert Scale and fill-in-the-blank questions home with students in three classrooms (grades 2-4). Roughly 85% of the respondents indicated that the course was effective in improving students’ attitudes and behaviors.

5. A school wide program in Georgia is described by Hang-In Kim in “Dodul-Kyoyuk: Moral Education in South Korea and Georgia,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 12, no 4 (April/May 2000).

6. Leo Lioni, Swimmy (New York: Pantheon/Knopf, 1968).

7. The Dragon Lode is published two or three times a year by the International Reading Association Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group. (ISSN: 1098-6448. Web site: www.csulb.edu/org/childrens-lit/). The IRA can be reached by phone: (800) 628-8508, e-mail: pubinfo@reading.org, or website:

8. For excellent biographies selected annually as part of the Los Angeles’ 100 Best Books (a balanced library acquisition program for grades K-12), see The Dragon Lode (15, no 2, March 1997; 17-23; 16, no. 2, Spring 1998: 30-41; 17 no. 2, Spring 1999; 21-33; and 18 no. 2, Spring 2000, in press).


About the Author

Kaye Anderson is a professor in the Department of Teacher Education at California State University in Long Beach. She is Network Coordinator for the International Reading Association Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group. The author welcomes correspondence at kanders@csulb.edu.



Students needed a way to remember the “adult” information readily so that they could use it. Consequently, I created the following rhythmic chant containing the essence of the 7 Habits in poetry form, which they enjoyed reciting and performing for others.


Secrets of Success: 7-Habits Rap

by Kaye Anderson

Inspired by Stephen Covey, Robert Schuller,
Martin Luther King, Jr., Zig Ziglar, and Mahatma Gandhi


BE PROACTIVE and you will find



To build success you start within.


To bring real peace to your neighborhood.

SYNERGIZE and do your part

To care for others with all your heart,

Then SHARPEN THE SAW to do the rest,

To grow yourself to be your best.


(Said quietly) Be stronger, wiser, better. Care for others AND yourself.


Seek the truth and what is right;

Dream big dreams with all your might.

Then plan your work and work your plan

One step at a time to your Promised Land.

When you do this, then you will see

That you create your destiny.


And you will find true happiness.


(Said quietly) We must become the change we seek.


From every circle that you see

From inside out to each society:

Fam’ly, club, and community,

City, state, nation, and globally:

If it’s going to be, it’s up to ME!

If it’s going to be, it’s up to ME!

If it’s going to be, it’s up to ME!


(Said enthusiastically) WE CAN DO IT!


(Said quietly) WE can HEAL the world.


(Change last line as desired. “We can change the world;

We can change our schools; We can change … ;

We can learn to love; We can learn to read; We can learn to lead;

We can learn ... ; We can end the hate;

We can find a way; We can run the race; etc.”)