Home All Professor Marvel: Valuing the Strengths of Children

Professor Marvel: Valuing the Strengths of Children

written by Sherri Fisher 5 January 2008

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

The strengths movement is gaining momentum in education. Kids are often very insightful about their strengths and those of others. Sometimes the people closest to them understand them least well, too. Reconsidering the way we think about the behavior of the children in our care and understanding what might be the strength behind an otherwise undesired act can lead to new ways of teaching them. Here is a way to get started:

Dear Professor Marvel:

As you may know, during the cyclone my niece Dorothy took a terrible blow to the head. Henry, the farm hands, and I headed right for the storm cellar, but Dorothy, who is quite self-indulgent and reckless given her upbringing, was out on the lane somewhere looking for that little dog of hers. He seems to get all of her time and attention and keeps her from focusing on learning prudence and humility like a good girl. Lately Dorothy keeps talking about a place called Oz, good witches and bad witches and the wizard she met there. I peeked in her diary and saw she had written about someone named Glinda, a scarecrow, a tin woodsman, and a lion. We certainly don’t have any lions in these parts. Here is what she said:


“Dearest Friends of Oz,

I arrived home and woke up in my bed as if meeting all of you and destroying the wicked witch was just a dream. My aunt and uncle and the farm hands were all there looking at me, and the ruby slippers were gone. You know what is interesting? All of you—Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Cowardly Lion went with me to see the Wizard of Oz to find your strengths, but I think you had them all along. We all did. Maybe the journey helped us to develop what we really had been hiding inside of us. Scarecrow, you are so clever. You used your brain to help outsmart the apple trees so that their weapons would turn into our food. When the wizard gave you your diploma and you suddenly were able to recite complicated number problems that we’ve never had in school, that was when you realized that you were smart, but I already knew you also had creativity hidden under all of that humble straw. Tinman, you were so overwhelmed with feeling that every time something emotional happened, when things looked darkest, you began to cry, which of course made you seize up and rust all over again. The wizard gave you a heart, but you were filled with love and sensitivity all along. Lion, you had plenty of courage and you needed a reason to use it when you were very aware of the real dangers we were facing. But you were full of courage when it mattered, and you charged the witch’s castle to save me.

When the wizard gave you your hearts’ desires, he was just recognizing the strengths that had been within you all along and both kindly and creatively helping you see, too. I just knew we would get to Emerald City and by working together we would get what we needed. I even found out that what I needed wasn’t in Oz but right in my own back yard instead. I’m writing this in my diary since I don’t really know the address in Oz. I guess I should have checked before I left but I was in such a hurry when the balloon took off without me. You know I’m so grateful to you and I’ll love you all forever. You are all welcome here at the farm any time. Aunt Em makes great cake for visitors.

Love, Dorothy”

Dorothy's Ruby Slippers

Dorothy's Ruby Slippers

p.s. Please bring the Ruby Slippers, if you find them.


Ruby slippers? Balderdash. I’m sure you can understand why Henry and I are both worried. Dorothy doesn’t seem to think that any of this is made up. I would have hoped that the bump on the head might have knocked some sense into that impulsive girl, but now it seems as if she has become more foolish than ever. This spring she will be graduating from grammar school. Her parents left a small sum of money her father had hoped would let Dorothy be the first person in the family to have a diploma, but I wouldn’t have the heart to spend the money if I thought she was going to remain so indifferent to the important things in life.

Someone needs to stand up for the truth. The only thing about her we can depend on is that she will get into trouble. She had that Almira Gulch in a real tizzy over Toto. Seemed Dorothy just couldn’t see the nuisance the dog was being in her garden. Do you have any advice for Henry and me? We are just at our wits’ end with that girl. After all, we didn’t have to take her in. But as I am a good Christian woman, I guess it was the right thing to do. Why don’t you come for coffee and cake on Sunday after church? Something must be done about Dorothy before it is too late.


Mrs. Henry Gale


Dear Mrs. Gale,

I’d be happy to join you for coffee and cake. Before you get too worried about Dorothy, there are some things I think you should know about her. The most important one is this: Some important thinkers in the Gallup Organization up in Nebraska found that the best way to help someone improve is to identify their strengths and focus training on them. Most people have talents that, in the right environment and with the right challenges, will help them to do their best every day. Why back in Omaha, where I come from, it’s even believed that students who use their strengths have higher grades, are more hopeful and miss fewer days of school. I’ve also heard that way off in Michigan people have learned that using their signature strengths like bravery, love, persistence, and love of learning in their everyday life are happier.

I know that you and Henry have worked hard to help Dorothy learn her proper place in the world. Like many children, I’m sure Dorothy can be headstrong and even disobedient. It is probably easy for you to notice the many things about her which, if they were fixed, might suggest that she would grow up to become a fine adult. I heard a dramatic reading by a man named Seligman though, who believes that it’s important to know what you can change and what you can’t.

At first glance, Dorothy does not seem to be much like you and Henry. You, Mrs. Gale, have many fine strengths of character. For example, you are exceptionally hard-working and honest, exhibiting the strengths of persistence and integrity. You’re also brave. Even as that cyclone was approaching, I’ll bet you were still counting your brood of new chicks. As a farmer’s wife you are self-disciplined, thrifty and responsible, maximizing the time and resources that this harsh life gives you. Those are important strengths and values, and may explain why so many people in these parts admire what you can get done. While you seem to know what it takes to be excellent at your everyday life and work, you never seek the spotlight and even now are asking for help for Dorothy. You are a paragon of self-regulation and prudence. Dorothy told me that you nearly told Miss Gulch what you think of her when the woman came to take Dorothy’s little dog, but I imagine that you thought you might regret it later. You were probably right. Such restraint!

You may have noticed that Dorothy can be willful, and she certainly has a creative imagination. She’s talked to me about going over the rainbow, and unlike you, passionately believes there must be a place where troubles melt like lemon drops. Isn’t that a beautiful image? Dorothy does appreciate beautiful things. She thinks you and her Uncle Henry work too hard and don’t have enough pleasure in your life. Sometimes she even wonders if you love her.

Dorothy is curious about the world and is on a journey to discover her place in it. Sometimes this may seem fanciful to you, since Dorothy can find all sorts of things worth exploring, which is probably how she missed getting to the storm cellar on time. But she is certainly brave, and Toto knows he can always depend on her love and devotion. The girl told me how she stood up to Miss Gulch when she arrived with permission to seize the little dog. Your niece is loyal and devoted to you and Henry. She let the woman take the dog, didn’t she? Unlike Miss Gulch, though, who uses her vengefulness and arrogance to diminish others, Dorothy is a girl of integrity. She’s just on a journey of youthful discovery, and learning along the road. I’m sure you’ve noticed how excited she still is about what she learned in Oz. Those of us who have lived awhile have the sense that we had our wisdom all along, but photos of our careworn faces remind us otherwise.

When I come to tea on Sunday, I look forward to helping you and Henry understand more about how to help Dorothy. I’ll share some learned tomes I got at the County Fair.


Professor Marvel


{Learned tome = Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.)

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Dan Bowling 18 January 2009 - 10:20 am

Hi Sherri

Enjoyed reading your Wizard paper. I am doing mine right now for MAPP and like your letter structure. Guess if I borros it I better properly cite you!

All the best, Dan Bowling


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