by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Cesar Behena, Megan Brown
Virginia Tibbetts’ sixth-grade students pause at a bulletin board before picking out tags that emphasize positive traits they identify with. The tags have words like leadership, kindness, forgiveness and bravery. Students wear them proudly around their necks.
A student who behaved well for a substitute teacher while others goofed off the day before selects a tag that says leadership, and her teacher beams.
“That’s what I expect from you,” Tibbetts says. “Use your strengths to be the best person you can be. That’s an example of working from your strengths.”
In an era of high-stakes testing, Gauer Elementary School has dared to take a different approach. Visual and performing arts are incorporated into the curriculum to stimulate students’ creativity and love of learning. Emphasis on the “whole child,” instead of just test scores, encourages teachers to build on students’ strengths rather than weaknesses, as well as nurture character traits like empathy, leadership and resilience. Staff members say they are deeply committed to this transformation and are much happier about the students’ engagement in school.
“We wanted a cultural change,” says Principal Debbie Schroeder, who partnered with Anaheim Elementary Education Association (AEEA) members for a new vision. “We wanted to look at each other’s strengths instead of deficits and extend that to our scholars, staff and parents.”
Taking a different approach and building a “Dream School” became more feasible this year thanks to a $20,000 grant from CTA’s Institute for Learning (IFT). The staff’s vision for the school involves the creation of a joyful and intellectually stimulating environment where scholars thrive and become well-rounded individuals.
To determine strengths, staff took the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment, and upper-grade students took the free VIA Survey from Values in Action Institute on Character (www.viacharacter.org). Both assessments identify particular character strengths of staff and students that can be used to discover and develop their talents. There is a deeply held belief that everyone is “good at something.”
“If a child is struggling with academics six hours each day, school is an unfriendly, un-fun place to be,” says teacher Amy Asaoka-Nakakihara, who co-wrote the grant application with Tibbetts — with support of the entire Gauer staff. “Students start thinking they aren’t good at anything. We want our scholars to know that yes, school may be hard, but you are an amazing human being and you have talents you need to nurture and strengthen, which will benefit the world.”
For years, Gauer teachers and parents had dreamed of having visual and performing arts in their classrooms. The IFT grant money allows dance, music, and choral guest artists to visit classrooms, providing teachers with time to collaborate. Teachers also provide after-school enrichment in their areas of expertise by holding sports clinics, visual and performing arts classes, and computer programming. They are proud that Gauer has leveled the playing field for students in this low-income community where many families can’t afford extras.
AEEA members and administration held a “Stakeholders Summit” with community members to explain their mission, and created a mission statement for the school. Think tanks (don’t call them committees) are devoted to strategies for building on staff strengths, developing strengths in scholars, teaching to the whole child, and developing acceptance and empathy.
A driving force behind the strength-based transformation is that students see humanity and value in everyone they encounter. Recently, school custodian Sabino Fernandez talked to students about his life, his children, and his pride in taking care of Gauer. This fostered a newfound respect in students for work performed by all school employees on campus.
Staff morale has gone up, along with parent involvement and school spirit. Staff members believe these changes will result in scholars being able to identify their character strengths and talents and maximize their potential.
“Wonderful things are happening here,” says Tibbetts. “It’s wonderful to see so many smiles on so many people’s faces.”
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