By Rachael George
As you walk through Sandy Grade School on Friday morning, you hear echoes of the story Stone Soup. Some classes are reading the story aloud on the carpet while others are following along with a YouTube reading. Regardless of the grade level, eyes are glued to the speaker and students are engaged, hanging on the edge of every word. As the story comes to an end, you hear the teachers facilitating conversations about what made the soup so delicious and how the plot connects to cooperation. Depending on the individual classroom, you hear a variety of responses. “How does this relate to Sandy Grade students?” one teacher asks. Asking how each story connects to your school and your students is one of the most important essential questions you must address in your classroom.
Whether you are at the elementary, middle, or high school level, creating and fostering emotionally healthy and resilient students is vital. At Sandy Grade School, we have approached this by connecting to our Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS) lessons, teaching to the whole child through literature, and having ongoing conversations with staff. Our PBIS structure includes lessons delivered to all students on how to “do school.” Our consistently held and applied expectations for movement around the building, respecting others, being responsible for one’s self, and being safe are taught to all students so that they know what to expect. We also recognize the exemplars so they can serve as models to other students.
Connecting to PBIS
At a quick glance, the discussion above appears to be a component of a literacy lesson when in fact it is part of our expanded PBIS that now includes both academics and character development. Throughout the last school year, our building was wrestling with how to support and grow students holistically. As a staff, we agreed that PBIS was great for our rules and systems but it wasn’t comprehensive enough when it came to creating and fostering skills students needed to work together and build resiliency. We needed to understand how to take the system to the next level.
It wasn’t until a site visit last February to a high-performing elementary school in southern Oregon that PBIS clicked for the teachers. During the site visit, staff saw students just like those at Sandy Grade interacting with others and working together in a positive manner. That led staff to ask, “What’s the secret? How are you getting your students to persevere through challenges, work hard, and get along well with others?” The secret? Teachers were explicitly teaching students about cooperation, taking on challenging tasks, resolving conflict, accepting differences, and developing a growth mindset as part of PRIDE lessons each Friday. Just like PBIS, the school approached these skills and strategies with consistency and a common vocabulary that all students could understand. This was something that we had to try as we geared up for the coming year!
Literacy Infused Lessons
As we prepped and planned for the 2015–2016 school year, we modeled our lessons after the school we visited and began a search for children’s books that could serve as a jumping-off point for conversations about resiliency and teaching to the whole child. Once we found the books, we worked to craft literacy infused lessons to start the discussion and then moved into practicing skills throughout the entire school during our Friday Focus. Students have flourished and they all love the literacy connection, even our older students. Regardless of the grade level, students are enjoying the character lessons based on books such as Stripes, The Junkyard Wonders, Frida Stops a Bully, and the Star Belly Sneetches.
To date, we are a little over two months into school and our Friday Focus lessons are a hit! Students are engaged in the learning and using a common set of vocabulary to target skills and traits that healthy, resilient students exhibit. In fact, when students come into the office, many of them comment on the books that are on display and the lessons found within them.
Our Friday Focus lessons wouldn’t be nearly as successful in helping to develop resilient and emotionally healthy students if we didn’t continue to have ongoing conversations about our students and what they need. In fact, we meet twice a month to talk about this as we review data and discuss our observations across the building. While it would be nice to roll over our lessons from the year prior, our student population changes each year and our needs vary. What we initially anticipated as a prevenient need might not be at the top of the priority list as the students start to settle into a routine. Therefore, to stay on top of the overall health of the building, you must continue to have ongoing conversations with staff and students so that you can respond to schoolwide needs.
While there are many ways that teachers and schools can help students develop resiliency and emotionally healthy behavior, these are just a few of the ways that Sandy Grade is working to support our students. We believe that our job is to grow all students through academics, attitude, and attendance to help students reach their full potential in all aspects of their lives.
Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and currently serves as the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School” as recognized by the State of Oregon. George specializes in curriculum development and instructional improvement as well as working with at-risk students and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26.