Catechizing 7th graders can be a challenge, but once in a while my plans succeed. This happened recently with my activity for designing posters advertising virtues.
As Catholics we have some basic theological points to cover with regard to the virtues, and this requires some memorization on the part of the students. There are the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity), and students must understand that these are supernatural gifts of divine grace and not merely natural attributes or behaviors. These three virtues are also fairly well-defined.
In contrast, the four cardinal virtues (temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence) function more like categories. One can see all other virtues (aside from faith, hope, and love) as derived from one of the cardinal virtues. Thus courage is part of fortitude, patience is part of temperance, etc. This also makes the cardinal virtues seem relatively hard to pin down for students. While they can memorize the list, they won’t necessarily have a strong grasp of what exactly they mean. For example, it can be hard for them to pin down a precise difference between temperance and moderation or fortitude and perseverance.
Any brief definition we give the students tends to be one-sided and incomplete anyway, so memorizing definitions of virtues is not particularly helpful catechetically. Instead, they need to acquire a practical, applied knowledge of virtues, understanding for example that we pray for patience while waiting for the doctor and practice humility when we are tempted by pride.
So what’s the solution? Instead of lecturing on the virtues, I told them to come prepared to do art. I showed up with an easel—just to shake them up a bit—and a sample poster that I had made using GIMP. Our task was to produce advertising posters for particular virtues. They could be serious or funny, original or parodies, with pictures, words, or both.
This relative lack of rules frees their creativity to convert a vague mental image of a virtue into a more defined visual representation. A lack of rules must not leave them with a lack of direction or inspiration, however. As I told my students, as a kid I always grumbled at art contests that asked us to draw vague concepts: “Draw world peace!” Telling students to draw virtues can easily devolve into this. An advertisement is less vague, however, because it does not need to perfectly represent the virtue, but only to sell it. In the same way, so many GEICO commercials have nothing whatsoever to do with car insurance, and yet they clearly manage to sell it quite well.
To help their imagination, I compiled a brief but non-exhaustive list of virtues and came up with several funny advertising slogans. I used an online slogan generator for many but not all of them. For the most part the students did not use the slogans, but it did help them to pick their virtue and to think in terms of advertisement.
In the end, the investment students showed in this activity was impressive, even among students who did not consider themselves to be artists. Best of all, it forced them to think intently about what a virtue meant in order to advertise it. At the end of the day, they knew something more about virtues—and that is a success.