Over the last few years I have had the privilege of being part of the IEE Team that worked with the staff at Allen Creek Elementary in the Pittsford School District. Last month Allen Creek Elementary was one of three schools in New York State to be recognized by the Character Education Partnership (CEP) as a State School of Character. After hearing the good news about their award I began to reflect on some of the stories I have heard from teachers at Allen Creek. There have been many wonderful success stories but one of my favorites is from Jason Juszczak, a third grade teacher, at Allen Creek Elementary.
What follows is a narrative from Jason of some changes he made during the 2010-2011 school year. I appreciate Jason’s transparency in sharing and his willingness to look at making changes that would improve the culture in his classroom.
Throughout the first 7 1/2 years of my teaching career I had utilized a very traditional form of behavioral management. Call it what you want, “School Zone”, “Red, Yellow, Green”, etc., it was simply a way to point out when a student did something that was undesirable or something that broke the rules set-up in the beginning of the school year. As I prepared my system every fall, the thought returned each time that this system is not working. It was really only effective in making the students fearful about going on the “School Zone Board”. Students complied with the rules of the classroom simply to stay off of school zone. I noticed that it inhibited the natural behaviors of the students. Even as I saw this each year, I always came back to this system because it was what worked. Or so I thought.
I was fortunate enough to have a parent conference this year where I was challenged to consider something, anything different that might put the focus more on positive student behaviors. The very next day we started our Bucket System. The students were recognized for doing something great a.k.a. for filling a bucket. While they did something nice for someone else, they were also filling their buckets and feeling good about it. Behaviors like:
1. Listening to the teacher.
2. Treating others with respect.
3. Following directions.
The list goes on and on. These were behaviors that students were “punished” for not completing in the past, but were now actively trying to get recognized for. I had students that were picking up the belongings of others, or helping people get packed up. You could hear students complimenting others about something that they did or said. The noticeable difference was the smiles on the faces of the students. It was working.
After a few months of using our Bucket System, it was time to challenge the students further. They noticed the difference this made on a group, but how could it impact an individual?
After experiencing an IEE workshop during Superintendent’s Day, I acquired various strategies and techniques for investing time rather than wasting it, as well as the concept of action steps and making mini-goals in order to go from one’s current location to their desired goal.
I introduced goal setting to my students on May 19th of this school year. We began with a whole-class goal of just trying to keep the classroom clean. We discussed that success will not come to us; we have to go to it. One student, Mia, stated, “In order to have success, you have to be your best”. It was a strong statement, but our desired location for our class was to have a clean classroom throughout the day. We realized that trying to do that from a current location of having an untidy classroom was going to be tough. We knew we wanted a clean and organized classroom, but we didn’t know what that looked like or how to get there. We created smaller action steps, or mini-goals that we could accomplish that would permit us to reach our goals on a more regular basis. What the students did not realize is that the action steps that they stated as being a path to their success were in fact the very things that were preventing them from having that clean classroom in the past. Things such as: picking up papers, keeping your desk tidy, etc. Now that they knew what they COULD do to keep the classroom clean, the students experienced success right from the beginning.
After a few days of working as a group, we decided to write individual goals. The students brainstormed areas that they would like to improve on. This was not academic, it was personal. Students set goals to pace themselves while working, stay focused on their reading, and listening to the teacher. In order to reach that goal, students needed to create smaller action steps that were help them experience success; again, action steps that were preventers for them in the past now became drivers. One student wrote that in order to listen to the teacher and follow the directions they could have their eyes on the speaker, make sure their bodies are always facing the person talking, and not get involved in side conversations. All three of these things were preventing them from being able to listen attentively. Now students were attacking these action steps each day with enthusiasm because they finally had the understanding that they could do it.
To help students monitor their behavior and success, we incorporated the Attitude and Effort Rubric presented by IEE. Each student received a pinch card with the rubric, as well as a copy of their goal. Twice a day, once at the end of the morning and once at the end of the day, students recorded how they thought they performed. I would go around and then record based on my observations. During this process, conversations and reflections were made about how a student was able to get a three today, how that felt, or what prevented them from achieving a three. We discussed how a three every day would be great, but that it wasn’t expected that students were perfect all moments of the day. Some days are better than others, and the important piece would be recognizing what the drivers and preventers were on those days.
The change has been tremendous. When asked what her feelings are when she achieves her goal, Annie said, “I feel good because I went to my goal for that day and I was a better writer. I used to miss a lot of punctuations in my writing because I was always rushing. Now I think of my goal and I always remember”. Annie went on to comment on changing to our Bucket System by saying, “It is better now because you are doing something good. Before the change you didn’t get appreciated for doing good things.” When asked what she thought about the change from School Zone to the Bucket System, Ana replied with, “The buckets actually change your behavior because you focus on your goals and focus on getting better. Before the change I just focused on not getting in trouble”.
I know that this year has been a different year for both the students and me. Focusing on the positives rather than the negatives has helped me to be a better teacher, but also a better person outside of school as it has transferred to all areas of my life. I know that when I sit down in the fall of the 2011-2012 school year and plan out my behavioral plan for the new students, I will not be asking whether or not it is going to work, I know that it will. I will be asking myself just how much these students will be able to achieve.
Some Reflections on Jason’s Story
One of the things I enjoyed most about Jason’s sharing is his taking the time to do a “self-study” (one of the Four Keys we talk about at IEE) and his realization that he could improve the culture for learning in his classroom by making some changes. I also love the fact that this is a powerful example of a teacher being a life-long learner. As a school administrator for 27 years it was always a goal that we hoped our students and staff would pursue and I am always excited when I see educators modeling that for students.
I was also very pleased to see that Jason took some of the practical tools that we discussed during our professional development day in March and began to look at ways to use them in his classroom. His use of the Culture of Excellence & Ethics Attitude & Effort Rubric and our Culture of Excellence & Ethics Goal Map Tool played a key role in some of the positive improvements he made in his classroom. The actual examples of students rating their attitude and effort twice each day and setting specific goals that they could pursue helped them to grow as students. In a time when there is such a focus on topics like AYP (Annual Yearly Progress), RTI (Response to Intervention) and APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) we believe that the Culture of Excellence & Ethics Tools we have developed are practical tools that can help educators as they look to address each of these topics.
A final comment is that Jason is just one example of how the educators at Allen Creek consistently look to improve their practices to build the culture where “Students Can Be Their Best Selves and Do Their Best Work”. Their example of being life-long learners is an excellent one for their students to see. They have truly developed a Professional Ethical Learning Community (PELC) that helps them to continually improve as a staff. I believe that the PELC they have created is one of the key reasons they were recently recognized as a NY State School of Character.