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Defining Civic Virtues

60 min

Essential Question

  • Why is it important for engaged citizens to practice civic virtues to build and support a healthy civil society?

Guiding Questions

  • What are civic virtues, and how can practicing them help others?
  • How can you practice virtues daily to improve yourself and your community?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will be introduced to the concept and definitions of civic virtues. 
  • Students will describe the importance of civic virtue for individuals living in and supporting a healthy civil society. 
  • Students will create individual plans for practicing virtuous actions in their everyday lives

Educators are encouraged to begin exploring this resource with our Thought Activity for Educators. It provides important background for teaching character through the lens of virtue.


  • Introduce the list of civic virtues and explain that a healthy civil society requires the people to be virtuous, informed, and vigilant, and ensure governing institutions are directed towards their right ends. Good habits, or virtues, promote self-governance and help guarantee local communities orient themselves towards advancing the spirit of a common purpose. When done well, this moves us to a fuller recognition of our nation’s founding ideals of liberty, equality, and justice. But working towards that common purpose is challenging and not always fully achieved. By investigating when individuals acted rightly or failed to do so, we can learn lessons to apply to self-governance today.
  • In small groups, use a graffiti wall where you post the word and ask students, “What comes to mind when they hear the phrase ‘civil society’?” Students then write or draw their ideas next to the word to make connections and meaning. 
  • Scaffolding Note: Graffiti Boards are a shared writing space, like a large piece of paper or section of a whiteboard, where students record their comments and questions about a topic. This strategy helps students understand each other’s ideas and creates a record of students’ ideas and questions. 
  • In their small groups, students will build out their ideas and questions about the meaning of ”civil society” on their graffiti wall. Students may draw, write, use symbols, etc., to describe a civil society. Students may also write questions they may have about it. 
  • After some time, ask students to rotate through each group’s graffiti wall. Ask them to compare each group’s ideas with their own group’s ideas. Ask, what similar ideas did you notice? What ideas are different from your ideas?
  • After debriefing each group’s ideas, write your class’s own definition of a “civil society.” 
  • Compare your class’s definition to BRI’s definition. Ask, what’s similar? What’s different?
    • You want to ensure your students understand the meaning of a “healthy civil society.” A civil society is  a community of citizens linked by common interests, purpose, and activity. Civil society is comprised of institutions and organizations that are not associated with the government — including family, schools and universities, service groups, churches, sports clubs, local businesses, professional associations,  and cultural institutions. Civil society organizations play multiple roles. They provide opportunities for citizens to meet in a variety of ways and practice civic virtues, share interests, work together, serve each other, and solve problems. When citizens govern themselves and work together to engage in mutual support, they find solutions together and present an alternative to government. In a healthy civil society, citizens govern themselves and defend each other’s rights. They interact in productive ways that respect the dignity of every individual and uphold social norms and behaviors.
  • After discussing the meaning of “civil society,” ask students to add these ideas to their original graffiti walls with the characteristics and habits people need to display for civil society to work. 
  • After some time, ask each group to present their ideas to the class. 


  • Scaffolding Note: You can shorten this lesson by asking students to pick just one virtue. 
  • Distribute this Glossary Organizer for Civic Virtues and have your students define these terms in their own words and images. 
    • Ask students,  Did any of these virtues came up in your graffiti walls? Do you think these virtues would help create a healthy civil society?
  • Have students pick two virtues that “speak to” them or virtues they want to embody. For example, students can choose a virtue that they think they already embody and another virtue they want to practice. 
  • Students will then create a Word Map for each of their two virtues.  
    • Their chosen virtue word goes in the center of their page. Then they brainstorm ways to practice this virtue daily and write them around the main word.
  • Next, have students display Virtue Word Maps on the wall or on their desk or table. Classmates circulate the room in partner groups, discussing and viewing each other’s work, providing feedback:
    • Give students sticky notes and instruct them to write their positive and constructive feedback on the sticky notes and leave them on their peer’s Virtue Word Map.

Assess & Reflect

  • To help students practice their civic virtues throughout the course, ask them to make their virtues visible. 
    • Write them on sticky notes and put them somewhere prominent in your house. This will help you remember them throughout the day, especially the morning, as you plan your day, and in the evening, as you reflect on your day. 
    • You could even put your values on your phone or computer as a screen saver.
  • Choose ONE virtue and focus on it for a week. Think about that virtue from the start of the day to reflecting on it at the end of the day. 
  • Start of the Day reflection: What can I do today to bring my value X into my day? 
  • End of Day reflection: What did I do differently today because I was more conscious of my virtue? How could I have taken actions that were more consistent with my virtue?


To continue exploring civic virtues and practicing them as a habit, you may use the lesson Benjamin Franklin and Civic Virtue. In this lesson, students analyze a primary source from Benjamin Franklin to understand his method for practicing virtues. Through discussion, a creative activity, and reflection students can identify ways to make being virtuous a habit.