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10 Ways to Start With Strengths in Schools

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

I sometimes struggle with the volume of posts that give lists of  ”5 ways…” or “10 reasons…” but I have recently been asked a few times how schools could get started using a strength-based model with students.  This list is by no means the end but more about the start; these are thoughts that have worked in schools I have had the privilege of working in; however, the context of your school is different so the ideas will vary depending on the school.  If you have further ideas or examples, I would love to read them (and steal them) so please leave them in the comments below.

Shifting the lens in schools to a focus on strengths rather than deficits… a focus on CAN rather than cannot… has been one of the most significant changes for me as an educator, formal leader and parent.  Where do we start?  What can we do this month? This year?  (there are links embedded in the list if you would like further detail on some of the stories and ideas).

  1. Shift from MY students to OUR students.  A previous teacher or a teacher in a different subject area can have knowledge of a child’s strengths and a positive relationship with the child.  Do we embrace this relationship or do we shut it out?  If we shift our focus from being classroom teachers or subject teachers to school teachers, can we better tap into the strengths of other adults in our building? Relationships are not zero-sum in that if one person has a strong relationship, it does not mean that others cannot as well.  Students need at least 2-3 strong, positive relationships with adults in the building.  These strong relationships often come with the knowledge of a student’s strengths… embrace these.
  2. Make the first contact about the strengths.  Make that first contact a positive one.  When we start the year, inquire into the strengths of our students – inside and outside of school and tap into these throughout the year.  Run a class or school Identity Day. Make the first contact with parents a positive one.  It doesn’t have to be about something the student has done but more about sharing that we value him/her and we know who they are.
  3. Schedule in time for a child to use his/her strengths in school.  If a child has a strength in the arts, technology, or with helping younger students (for example), provide time in the day or week for this to happen.  A student who struggles will often flourish when given a purpose or an opportunity for leadership beyond the classroom.  The important thing is to not use this as a punishment or reward.  If it is important to help change the story, schedule it in… but do not use a child’s strength as a carrot/stick to have them do the things we want them to do.  If we use it as a reward, we may get some short term compliance but the student will soon figure out that his/her strength is not valued.  Having said this, I do know that students will try to get out of doing the things they do not want to do and things in which they are not successful (adults do this too).  This is why it is scheduled in to the day/week/month so the students have to continue to work on areas of struggle AND they continue to get opportunities to use their strengths in a way that helps the school community.
  4. Teach parts of the curriculum through the strengths/interests.  Start with one lesson or one unit and ask how we can include the strengths and interests of our students.  It doesn’t have to be a big shift like Genius Hour but can be smaller shifts that include the curriculum like guided inquiry, writing assignments, reading reflections, and different ways of demonstrating student learning.
  5. In meetings, start with the bright spots.  If we are having a meeting about a child, start with the positives and see how these can be built upon. We need to acknowledge the struggles and look to how we can tap into the strengths to build confidence and change the story.  As principals, we can model this in staff meetings as we start each meeting/topic on sharing the bright spots.
  6. Start the conversation on how we honour students in schools.  Are there certain strengths we honour over others?  How do we honour the strengths of students that fall beyond the traditional awards and honour roll? Are traditional awards ceremonies the best we can do?
  7. Reflect on our assessment practices.  In our assessments, do we build on what students CAN do or do we focus more on what they cannot do?  Do our assessment practices build confidence or strip it away?  I know it is not a black/white practice as we need to support the challenges too but we need to reflect on the balance of strengths/deficits in our assessment practices.
  8. Watch those labels.  Do the designations of our students define them?  I realize there is a need for designations but I wonder if sometimes these work to put lids on kids.  A designation should come with a plan on how to embrace the strengths of the child and help us to support the deficits; it should not BE the story for our students.
  9. Start with strengths of staff and the school community.  Are we embracing the strengths of the adults in the building?  Do we tap into the strengths of parents and families in the school community? Once we know a child’s strength, how can we use the aligned strengths in our school community to help?
  10. Share the stories.  Share the stories of strength in your classroom and schools.  When you look for the bright spots and you share these beyond the classroom walls, you shift the culture of the school.

We find what we are looking for. When we start with strengths, we change the lens we look through and see the strengths in our students more than the deficits. When we change this lens, we change the stories of our students at school.  For many, this change in story can be life changing.

In BC, we have many schools that are already making this shift and we have a golden opportunity to create more space for us to bring in the strengths. This list is just a start.  If you have other ideas, please write them in the section below.  Hopefully, I can tap into YOUR strengths which will help me and others through the stories and the comments you share.

Click here to access a FORCE society “In The Know” series webinar on the topic.

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Honouring A Student’s Strength: Story of Daniel

“We don’t know who we can be until we know what we can do.” – Sir Ken Robinson

(This was originally guest-posted as an “A-Ha Moment” on  Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension.  With all the talk about how we changed our awards ceremony to focus on ALL our students’ strengths, I felt now was an opportune time to cross post.  Thank you to Pernille Ripp for the opportunity to share Daniel’s story.)

How can we truly see the potential of our students if we fail to provide the environment to bring out their talents?

I have always wanted to be a high school teacher and I was exactly that for 7 years. You never know where your life will lead you and, while completing my Master’s Degree, I was offered the opportunity to work with an amazing principal at an elementary school. Roxanne taught me to seek out the strengths in people and bring these talents out from within and opened my eyes to the power of strength-based, rather than deficit-based, teaching and leadership. My aha moment came in my first few months of being an elementary school teacher and a new vice principal.

When I did the tour of the school I was to be a teacher/vice principal, I met Daniel (pseudonym). Daniel had a smile that was contagious but was disengaged and struggled in school; the reason I met him that day was that he was in the hall after being asked to leave class. I never asked him why he was in the hall, I just started asking him about his life outside of school; we talked about music and friendships in the few moments we shared together on that day.

The next year, I was to teach a 5/6 class (in addition to the vice principal duties) so when we were creating the classes, I requested that Daniel be placed in my class. To be honest, in the first month, I really struggled with the transition from teaching 17 year-olds to teaching 11 year-olds. Many of the students had behaviour, social, emotional, and academic challenges so I spent many hours bouncing ideas off Roxanne and other teachers trying to find out how to reach these kids. I specifically started to talk about Daniel as he was so withdrawn in class – always refusing to take part in any learning activities and that smile that drew me to him seemed to have disappeared. She asked me what I knew about him; the truth was that I knew very little about him other than he struggled in class and liked music. She encouraged me to find out more about him; find out what he loved, what he was good at and try to bring that out in him.

During the next week, I spent a recess having a snack with Dan. I found out that he lived in a nearby community in which he spent two hours on the bus each day, lived with his Grandmother because his mother was far too young, and we shared a common interest in Johnny Cash. We spent much of the recess singing a variety of Cash songs and just laughing. Later that day, I was speaking with the First Nation Support Worker (Nelson), sharing with him about the moment that had occurred, and he let me in on another strength of Daniel: First Nation drumming and singing. He said this was something that he recently witnessed in his community but maybe something that we could support. The FNSW asked me if he could take Daniel and a few others to work on this interest; I believed this was a great opportunity so for 2 weeks, Nelson spent a few mornings a week drumming with Daniel and two others. What progressed after this changed the way I teach and live my life.

I asked Daniel if I could come watch one recess. I was blown away. Daniel was so into the drumming and singing that he would actually be sweating with pride as he was doing this. A few weeks later, I asked him if he could perform for our class – he unfortunately declined. Nelson encouraged him to sing and drum with him in front of our class. He nervously agreed and blew us all away when he performed; other students cheered when he finished and then asked if they could be part of “his group”. Daniel was now not only working with his strengths but also leading others to do the same. His group added girls and grew from 3 to 6 and then 8, including 2 students from another class. They played for our class every Monday morning, to start our week, and every Friday afternoon, to finish our week. They even gave themselves a name, Sacred Connections, and began to play for other schools and community events.

The moment that brought me almost to tears was right before Christmas. Each week, 1-2 new students would join up front in the singing and drumming. We often don’t see the impact of small changes but right before Christmas, the group actually had no people to play for, because every single student was up there singing with Daniel! To create an audience, I invited Roxanne and a grade 4 class to come and see the performance. We all sat there in awe of what Daniel had done not only as a performer, but also as a leader.

The other parts of Daniel’s school and life were drastically changing too. His friendships grew, his efforts in school improved and he became very engaged in learning activities. His reputation grew as a leader in the school and community and his group was asked to play at a local pre-Olympic Games (2010) event and in the spring he was asked to perform with Pow Wow drummers at a huge event in front of our entire school and community! Daniel had gone from a disengaged, quiet student who refused to take part in the learning to a proud leader and confident learner in our school.

Leadership and Strength

Daniel leading the "Welcome Song" to start our week.

That year was one that changed my life. It was not just one aha moment but a series of moments that shaped me as a person. I want to thank Roxanne, Nelson, and most importantly Daniel for teaching me that, as educators, the most important thing we can do is provide the optimal conditions for people to grow, bring out their strengths, and truly flourish.

Rather than only recognize those select few award winners at the end of the year, we need to honour every student every day.  Every child has a strength and passion within him/her; we need to help EVERY student to find this and excel in his/her own way.

Here are the comments that the person who taught me the most about this, Dominic (Daniel).

Dom 1Dom2

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Bring Forth What Is Within

Bring Out Your Strengths

Educate: …from the root word Educe – to bring forth what is within      (Aimee Mullins)

Our school goal: For each student to master basic skills, recognize and develop his/her unique talents and interests, and to become a confident learner.

Embedded in this goal is a mission to help students find an area in which they have a strength or passion.  Too often we, as educators, focus on the deficits of students and develop strategies on how to help create more success in these areas.  What we often miss is the fact that students are already successful, they DO have a strength but it may be in an area not recognized by our education system.  As a staff, through recognizing each student for who they are and not what they do, as well as offering students opportunities to explore areas outside the curriculum, we are trying to help students to find and develop an area of strength or passion.

This TED Talk by Aimee Mullins, The Opportunity of Adversity (see video below), further emphasized to me the importance of bringing out the strengths from within. Although this is a truly inspiring lecture, the direct links to education are mentioned by Mullins in the second half (about 13:20 onward).  She speaks about how we need to be opening doors to students and not putting lids on them; “All you need is one person to show you the epiphany of your power”.  Who was that one person for you?  Have you been that one person to any of your students?

How often do we, as educators, take away a student’s strength to focus on their weakness (see Sir Ken Robinson)?  I am not saying we ignore the struggles of our students but how often do we see areas like the arts or physical education, which could be an area of strength, missed so that students can complete their unfinished reading or math.  How often are athletes prevented from playing their sport because their marks have slid (please see Brian’s post on this here); would we ever ban a student from Biology class because they received a yellow card in the soccer game the evening before?  During budget cuts, what are the first programs to go – arts, athletics, outdoor ed, field trips, etc.  We really need to reflect on what doors we are opening and what lids we are closing for our students.  The learning outcomes need to be lessened and the academic hierarchy needs to be flattened so students are provided with more opportunities to showcase their talents.

Environment is key to providing students with the mindset that they can bring out their strengths.  Mullins references a 1960′s case study in which the A-level students were told that they were D-level students and D-level students were told they were A-level students.  Teachers were also told the same thing about the students.  After 3 months, the students that were originally A-level students became D-level students.  They were taught differently and expectations were lowered because of the perception that they “could not”; conversely, the struggling students who were perceived to have A-level ability rose to those expectations.  How much harm occurs when we focus on the perceived educational deficits of students, rather than focusing on their strengths?

As educators, we need to begin to truly educate students by bringing forth what is within; we need to celebrate the strengths and passions of our students and support their individual needs in a way that instills confidence in their learning.  Only then will we know the true capability of our students.

Please join the movement to recognize ALL students.


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Good Luck, Thank You, Farewell

I have been asked by a few parents to post my Farewell Speech to the Grade 6′s that was said at our Grade 6 Year-End Honouring Ceremony June 24th, 2010:

When principals come up and give farewell speeches to classes leaving their school, they often talk about moving on and getting a step closer to the ‘real world’.  Lately, I have been pondering this idea and I have come to the realization that to our students, school is the real world.  This is not some fantasy fake world that exists in some other level or continuum – this IS the real world.  We have to be careful about ‘warning’ our students about entering the real world because as I have grown to know these amazing students, I have realized that their present real worlds may actually be more difficult than the world in which they will enter after high school.  Many of the kids in front of you are determined, supportive individuals who have overcome an unbelievable number of challenges and obstacles just to get to this point in their education.  This needs to be recognized.

EACH student needs to be recognized for all their strengths and talents that they have; they also need to be recognized for the contributions they make to our school and community.  As you are well aware, the Kent Staff has made a monumental step to change the way we honour our students.  In the past, we would be here and watch a select few students get recognized; we still want to recognize those athletes and academic students, but what about the students who spend every lunch hour working with younger students?  How do we recognize them?  They do not do this for any award, they just do this because it is the right thing to do – and this needs to be recognized.  I will never forget last year when I overheard a student say that they “lost the athletic award”.  This student has a strength in athletics yet he viewed not getting the award as a loss.  This is exactly why the First Nation program at our school puts on an honouring ceremony that recognizes the strengths of every FN student in the school and why we have expanded our year end ceremony to include all members of our grade 6 class.  The recognition of all our students is so important and so very well deserved.

In the next few minutes you will hear teachers talk about their students’ strengths and qualities.  It is our hope that these students are already aware of these amazing qualities and will leave our school and continue to focus on these talents.  It is our hope that these strengths are, in fact, passions and that they spend their time doing something in which they are passionate about.  So grade 6’s, you know what you are good at – do it!  Really challenge yourself in these areas.  Push yourselves and encourage each other in these areas of strengths.

When you push yourself you might actually go outside of your comfort zone and take a risk.  When you do this, you WILL make mistakes – please remember mistakes are made because you are pushing yourself and that is a great thing.  That is how we learn and move forward in life.  My wife, Tonya, is a dance teacher and there is a saying that she uses in dance:  “if you fall, make it part of the dance”.  That is what we want you to do – push yourselves, take risks, fall, get up – and make it part of the dance, make it part of your plan.  Times when you fall is when the best learning takes place.

Although, there are many teachers in this school that have put in significant amounts of time to help you to learn, I just wanted to take some time to thank you for some things YOU have taught ME:

  • Thank you for teaching me that field hockey can be played with lacrosse sticks and can involve teamwork of players in grades 1 through 6
  • Thank you for teaching me the importance of buddy reading and the power of having an older literacy mentor
  • Thank you for teaching me that it is ok to show emotions and that growing up can be one of the most difficult times in our lives – and that we need each other so much during this time
  • Thank you for showing me that kids do NOT need to do things for a reward – the volunteer time you have put in to help supervise our primary students at lunch time, run our gym equipment room every single day, go out every lunch and help students in our strong start centre, preparing lunches for gatherings of our families and elders, helping to ref mini-hockey games in the primary end, for giving back to our community by giving up your Saturday to accompany two of our valued elderly adults as you pushed them in their wheelchairs to attend the Highway of Heroes event a few weeks ago.

These are just a few of the things that you have taught me.  You have not participated in these important activities for any reason other than ‘because it was the right thing to do’.  We need to recognize and honour all of you for not only your accomplishments and strengths but also what you have taught us during your time here in your ‘real world’ at Kent.

Today is your day, enjoy the moment and we wish you nothing but the best in the next phase of your education.

Thank you.

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A New Era of Ceremonies

If you read a previous post, “Death of an Awards Ceremony“, you are well aware of the change that Kent Elementary School made this past month.  The staff decided to abolish all the awards and honour roll recognition and replace this with an honouring/recognition ceremony for ALL our grade 6 students.

Although the conversation started about 3 years ago (with the previous principal), I continued the conversation and happened to be principal when the decision was made; due to this, I kind of took the weight of the ceremony on my shoulders as I wanted it to be so successful that people would wonder why we ever did the awards ceremonies in the first place.

So how did it go?

Rather than trying to summarize the entire afternoon event, I will discuss a few key bits of information as well as the moments that stood out to me.

  • We have 4 grade 6 teachers at our school this year (with splits and shared teaching loads).  Each teacher spoke about the student in their class for about 30 seconds and the best part was that they spoke in their unique style.  One teacher listed off the many positive qualities and key moments she had observed throughout the year, two other teachers (who shared a class) shared a short and entertaining poem about each student, and one teacher entertained the students and audience with his wit as he spoke of how he pictures his students using their strengths in the future.
  • In past years, we normally had an Awards Ceremony for students in grades 4 through 6 which  included about 175 students. We set up 100 chairs and that usually sufficed.  This year we were recognizing 55 grade 6 students so I figured 100 chairs would be plenty.  By the time the ceremony started we had added another 40 chairs and by the time students were recognized, there was a wall of people standing at the back.  I did a scan of the audience and as far as I could tell, every single student had someone there to observe he/she get honoured by their teacher.  In the days leading up to the event, I even had some parents ask if their child was going to get an award because they wanted to know if they should take work off; I loved responding to these questions (yet another reason why this format worked well) and saying that each child would be recongnized.
  • I taught half of this grade 6 class last year so there were many great moments for me; however there were two that summed it all up. A student, Andrew (pseudonym), was called up to be recognized.  The process was for the student to stand, listen to the comments from the teacher and then shake hands with a few people and receive their certificate (which stated their strengths and interests).  While the teacher was speaking, a slide would show with pictures of the student and a list of their strengths.  Now Andrew is an extremely quiet child that is not the best athlete nor is he the most academic; he is, however, a great kid.  As he was called up, he checked at the slide to see the picture of him and read his strengths.  At this point he was trying to hold back a slight grin.  When the teacher said that he was a gentle guy, he tried to bite his lip to stop him from smiling.  When the teacher commented on his skills in technology, he could not hold back the grin much longer.  When the teacher said he is the “man with the swagger” and a “true gamer” and one who will be working for EA Sports (video game designer and producer), Andrew let out a grin and a laugh that I will never forget.  I taught this child for an entire year and I have never seen him beam with pride like that.  The other moment happened the day following the ceremony.  A girl, Tanya (pseudonym), was recognized the day before and one of her strengths was that she was ‘quiet, clever’.  The next day, this individual was helping me to clean the gym and out of nowhere, this quiet girl asked, “Mr. Wejr, do you think I am clever?”  I smiled and stopped for a moment and said, “Tanya, the greatest thing about you is that because you do not speak often, when you do speak up, people listen.  They know that what you have to say must be important and that what you say is, in fact, clever”.  She responded with a quiet appreciative grin with a glimmer in her eye and continued on helping me stack chairs.

Although there were many proud and emotional moments in which parents, staff, and students held back their tears, the moments with Andrew and Tanya completely summed it up for me.  Had we carried on with the traditional awards ceremony, Andrew would have sat up there and watched as a few of his classmates received awards.  He would probably not even have cracked a smile.    This year, Andrew grinned from ear to ear and even leaned back and laughed as the cameras of his family took photos to help cherish the moment of recognition.  The conversation I had with Tanya would have never taken place and I would not have shared a memorable moment with a ‘quiet,clever’ student.

There has been an overwhelming response to the previous post on the decision to change the ceremony (once Alfie Kohn tweeted it, people from around the world stopped by to read it).  There is obviously a huge interest out there around this topic.  So my question is: why are we still having huge ceremonies that award a select few and fail to recognize so many strengths, talents, and interest of our students?

Parents of students at our school, I would love for you to leave your feedback about the 2010 Kent Year-End Ceremony.

To read my Farewell Speech to the Grade 6′s, please click here.

I look forward to witnessing the growth of this event and Kent School in the coming years.

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