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Published Aug. 24, 2005

Julie Ciccone's moment of inspiration came as she stared at the turbulent gulf waters last July: I'm going to write a book.

She had just completed Character Camp, a workshop for Pinellas County teachers. The two-day seminar emphasized the Legislature's 2004 mandate to teach character to students.

Two days later, Ciccone was at the beach with her sister. As she watched the waves, she kept recalling the workshop's mantra: "Go do something."

"It was a life-changing in-service," Ciccone said. From that workshop, she came up with the idea for a workbook that teaches specific characteristics to help students clarify values and guide them to better conduct.

Ciccone, 57, leads the language arts department at East Lake High School, where she has taught since the school opened in 1987. She grew up in New Jersey in a family that stressed education. Her mother and sister are also teachers.

A strong believer in character education since she began teaching 33 years ago, Ciccone said she was inspired by the seminar's message.

For her book project, she enlisted the help of two friends, Francine Larson and Laura Manson. It took four months of "working furiously" to complete a workbook they were proud of, Ciccone said. They all donated their time and money to get the project done.

"Julie was our motivator," Larson said.

Larson, 65, has lived her whole life in Palm Harbor. She raised four daughters and taught Sunday school and nursery school. She said she benefited from those small-town values and wanted to pass them on.

The three women honed a long list of positive character traits to 10 that they called "Character Keys to a Bright Future."

"Values such as tolerance, self-respect, compassion, honesty and responsibility have endurance," Ciccone said. "They are not just a whim."

Each lesson focuses on one of the character keys, using stories, poetry, questions for discussion and suggested activities. There are reading and writing assignments. A certificate of completion is included in the 50-page book, which is aimed at seventh- through 10th-graders.

The stories are written from personal experience. The lesson on responsibility deals with peer pressure. Larson based the accompanying story on her daughter's experience at a birthday party. The article Ciccone wrote about animal cruelty for the section on compassion was inspired by her first dog, Frisky. The section on tolerance deals with bullying. "I remember being bullied in junior high by a girl in my class," Ciccone said. "I didn't go to my parents with it and I didn't go to school (officials). I sat down and wrote a letter to Ann Landers."

Laura Manson, 57, the third collaborator, has 30 years of teaching experience in Pinellas County. She taught English for 10 years at East Lake High School, where she met Ciccone. She is now retired and lives in Dade City.

"Our hope is that this workbook will act as a seed package," Manson said. "Plant a seed in a child's mind to do what is right."

Manson is leading the search for a publisher. She has written letters to school principals, children's organizations, church groups, even Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates.

For now, though, the book is self-published and self-promoted. "We're not in this for the money," Manson said.

Two versions of the workbook are available. One contains an additional page of Bible verses that support each character key. Larson said the demand has been about equal for both versions.

Our Lady of Lourdes school in Dunedin began using the workbook this month. "It fits in nicely with our family life class," principal Janice Metz said. "The students have responded well, saying it relates to their own experiences."

East Lake High junior Andrew De Long, 17, said he thought the book was relevant to students today. The news editor for the school paper and a St. Petersburg Times X-team member, he read the workbook before interviewing Ciccone and Larson for the Oldsmar Monitor.

"The 10 keys are important and well presented," he said.

Ciccone said that 40 years after her own school experiences, young people are still looking for guidance.

"Hairstyles change. Music, clothes, manner of speaking, they change. But students haven't changed," Ciccone said. She said it's often difficult for parents to sit down with their kids and have a meaningful conversation.

"Speaking as a mother, I don't care how good your relationship is with your children, some things are hard to discuss," Larson said.

The authors see the workbook as a way to facilitate discussion. They hope it will be used by parents, teachers and youth leaders. They plan a followup book.

"We believe in today's young people," Ciccone said. "We think this book could help them mature on their journey from youth to adulthood."


Character Keys to a Bright Future is available at Cokesbury Books and Church Supplies in Clearwater or via eBay (search under "character education workbook homeschooling"). The book is $12. E-mail the authors at