Back-to-school rally draws community together for backpack give-away, lessons on school safety

Alachua County Public Schools’ annual backpack give-away has a new theme this year: “See Something, Say Something, Do Something.”

The Florida school district’s 19th annual Stop the Violence/Back to School Rally at Santa Fe College centered on a new program for area schools this year that officials hope will help students respond to emergency situations, and active school shooters, in particular, The Gainesville Sun reports.

The event – sponsored by People Against Violence Enterprises, Alachua County Public Schools, Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, as well as other area businesses and community groups – introduced students to the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evade) method to keep them safe, with the promise of additional training for students and staff during the first week of school.

“We are going to teach your kids to fight back as a last resort,” Andrew Davis, a school resource deputy with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office told those who attended.

Officials doled out 2,500 backpacks filled with school supplies, and shared information about school calendars, supply lists, free- and reduced-price lunches, and after-school opportunities. But Gainesville Police Department Chief Tony Jones said a major goal was to compel students to do the right thing, and inform police if they’re aware of threats to their school or classmates.

“I want you to be safe this school year,” he said. “If you see something, say something.”

“This lets us set the stage for stopping violence in schools,” school board chairman Gunnar Paulson told the news site. “What could be more appropriate than talking about this right now?”

Parents who attended seemed to agree, with some recalling how the event made an impact on them as youngsters in the school system.

“I’m here because it’s important to teach our children about how to stop the violence in our schools and neighborhoods,” said 29-year-old Julianne Williams, whose two children will attend Lawton Chiles Elementary School in 2018. “I probably came here every year when I was in school to get backpacks, and now I’m bringing my children.”

The August rally drew many students and parents, as well as a wide variety of local leaders, from elected officials or those running for office to school leaders, parent-teacher groups, school vendors and others.

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, pointed to the importance of school practices and connections to the community in “The Content of Their Character,” an analysis of character education in a variety of different schools.

“How a school is organized, the course structure and classroom practices, the relationship between school and outside civic institutions – all these matter in the moral and civic formation of the child,” he wrote.

The ALICE Training Institute website offers additional details on the methods this organizations uses in K-12 schools to prepare students and staff for the worst.

“Families and communities expect schools to keep their children safe from all threats including human-caused emergencies such as crimes of violence,” according to the site. “In collaboration with local government and community stakeholders, schools can take steps to plan and prepare to mitigate these threats. Every school Emergency Operating Procedure should include courses of action that will describe how students and staff can most effectively respond to an active shooter situation to minimize the loss of life, and teach and train on these practices.”


Disabled National Honor Society grad explains how a new school changed his life trajectory

Charlottesville, Virginia High School senior Julian Smith has had a lot of struggles in life, but with the persistence of his aunt and teachers at the Virginia school he graduated as a member of the National Honor Society in June – a feat some thought he’d never accomplish.

Smith was born with cerebral palsy, quadriplegia and several intellectual disabilities, which made for a difficult childhood growing up with his grandmother in Maryland. He struggled in school, in part because of his physical issues, but also because his teachers had little faith he could perform at the same level as his peers, The Daily Progress reports.

By the time Smith entered ninth grade, school officials said he had the cognitive abilities of a second- or third-grader, but his aunt Joanna Moore knew better. When Smith’s grandmother could no longer care for him, Moore took over and pushed the teen to live up to his potential.

“Up until that point, everyone just saw the wheelchair, saw the level he cognitively tested at and assumed he couldn’t do the work, he couldn’t be in the general population classes,” Moore told the news site. “I know his capabilities and I knew how smart he was, and I knew I had to fight.”

Moore said it wasn’t easy. The two studied relentlessly to help Smith get through the basics.

“At first it was catching up: addition, subtraction, multiplication – things no one had ever thought he could learn and so no one had bothered to teach him,” Moore said. “That was a lot of work, and I think both of us struggled.”

“High school was very hard at first, just getting used to how everything worked and the speed, especially for me, because I can’t think as fast as other people can,” Smith said. “It took memory, a lot of studying and a lot of concentration.”

It also took a different kind of school – with educators who believed in him – to help Smith flourish. When the two moved to Charlottesville for Moore to attend the University of Virginia, Smith’s experience at school drastically changed.

Unlike his teachers in Maryland, educators at Charlottesville High School shared Moore’s confidence Smith could excel in his studies – and he did.

“He loved it, I loved it, he felt so supported,” Moore said. “They had so many different mechanisms to get him to succeed. They believed in him.”

On June 14, Smith graduated with honors and with acceptance letters from three universities: Wright State University in Ohio, Edinboro University in Pennsylvania and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, which he ultimately chose to stay close to home, The Daily Progress reports.

Smith’s inspiring story is one example of the profound impact adults can have on students – a reality researchers at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture noted in “The Content of Their Character,” an analysis of character education in a wide variety of schools.

“As a rule, students want their teachers to think well of them and respect them, and they recognize teachers as role models as they do other adults, such as coaches, administrators, and parents,” according to the study.

Without Moore and educators at Charlottesville High School, Smith undoubtedly would not have been so successful.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues offers other examples of students “Flourishing From the Margins” to highlight how parents and educators can achieve similar results.

California school district works with nonprofit to fight ‘culture of go, go, go,’

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District is considering recommendations from a California nonprofit about how to de-stress students in an increasingly competitive academic environment.

Challenge Success, based in Stanford, helps more than 150 schools across the country strategize ways to reduce the burden on students and allow them to focus on other aspects of building a successful life, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“We’re fighting against a culture of go, go, go where schools are busier than we ever have been before,” Challenge Success program director Margaret Dunlap told Newport-Mesa school board members.

The Challenge Success website contends the “largely singular focus on academic achievement has resulted in a lack of attention to other components of a successful life – the ability to be independent, adaptable, ethical and engaged critical thinkers.”

“The overemphasis on grades, test scores and rote answers has stressed out some kids and marginalized many others,” according to the site.

Dunlap is working with several high schools in the Newport-Mesa district to collaborate with parents and students to develop their own plan of action to address the issue, through things like reduced homework policies, no homework nights, limits on time spent on sports, revised grading policies, and “dialogue nights” between students, parents and school officials, the Times reports.

“We don’t have a one-size-fits-all curriculum,” Dunlap said.

Other potential changes, such as an earlier start to the school year, will require district officials to negotiate with union leaders to modify the district’s collective bargaining agreement.

Teams of volunteers – eight to 10 parents of school faculty – will also attend Challenge Success conferences in the spring and fall to brainstorm ideas and craft action plans. In the meantime, district officials are distributing information from Challenge success about research on homework and cheating, with ideas about how to limit stress on students.

“Parents are anxious to learn – they have their own stress built in,” said Charlene Metoyer, vice president of the Newport-Mesa school board.

James Hunter at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture supports this sentiment: “One cannot understand character outside of culture, and culture matters decisively” (The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, p. 6). The question then becomes what is the shared vision of moral goods shared by a particular community.

Teachers and principals in thinking about whether academic studies override the school’s efforts to instill positive moral and character development in students can find useful information at the UK’s The Jubilee Centre by reading the Jubilee Centre’s document, Character Education: Evaluation for Schools.

New narrative

In order to combat the narrative the world presents to our students of who they are as people, from day one we present a new narrative. After spending the last several years working in different classrooms at Cornerstone Prep Lester in Binghampton, Memphis, we began co-teaching third grade this year with a focus on presenting this new narrative to our students. We narrate who each student is so he or she becomes that person. We also teach students the skills to follow the narrative we present. To the student who struggles with lying, we tell him he is not a liar, and give him opportunities to tell the truth. To the student who doesn’t complete her homework, we tell her she is someone who is prepared for each day with homework complete. We call the discouraged, courageous, and give her opportunities to be brave. We call the lazy, hardworking, and tell him how a hard working student acts. We call the angry, kind, and give him tools for anger management, as well as the words of kindness to pass along to his classmates. Our students need someone to believe in who they can be before they can move in the direction. We paint a picture of that future for them, and then give them the tools to move in that direction. We fight against the narrative of the world with a new narrative.

James came to us this year consistently struggling with emotional breakdowns and outbursts. He was self-aware of experiencing various intense emotions. He would speak phrases like “I’m irritated! I’m irritated!” while tearing at his clothes, ripping off his shoes, slamming his hands down on his desk, or collapsing in the hallway. James would sometimes come into school already emotionally charged or something would trigger him part way through the day. His classmates who had travelled through previous grades with James were never surprised by his breakdowns and outbursts.

We immediately went to work presenting a new narrative of who James was as a person. Everything we spoke to James had the same vein of truth in it – you can control yourself, and here are the tools. This was the narrative we wanted James to move toward, and we believed in him.

“James, you are not controlled by your irritation. You are the boss of your irritation. You are irritated, so use these words to tell us and use these strategies to calm down.”

“You are not someone who slams their desk. You are resilient when you get frustrated. You keep your head up. You work despite the frustration.”

We cannot even begin to describe the growth in this student. James still has meltdowns, but with less and less frequency. Students need adults to paint a new narrative of their future, while equipping them with the tools to move toward that future. We know what we believe as adults is displayed in our words and actions, and we want our students to emulate our good beliefs about them.

Wichita district launches new “opportunity” school for disruptive students

The Wichita, Kansas school district is launching a new “Opportunity Academy” for misbehaving students that will focus more extensively on developing character – an effort to address increasing disciplinary problems in recent years.

The number of suspensions, detentions and trips to the principal’s office in Wichita elementary schools increased from 8,762 four years ago to13,500 incidents last year, despite the fact that district enrollment decreased.

District wide, discipline issues are up 11 percent, and teachers union officials have complained about chaos in the classroom, according to The Wichita Eagle.

“We’ve been looking at areas of need, both academically and in terms of behavior,” district spokesman Terrell Davis said. “And one of those areas is kids who just need additional structure and a hands-on approach.”  School board members unanimously approved a new Bryant Opportunity Academy at a recent meeting to help students “who need a more highly structured, controlled environment,” Davis said.

The Academy will serve 100 kindergarten through sixth grade students who have struggled at other schools by offering smaller class sizes, additional counselors and social workers, and a strong focus on character development, according to the news site.

The effort is part of a broader push to address disciplinary problems that started with daily lessons on character and social and emotional skills at all elementary schools last year.

“We’re looking at school differently for a group of kids who … may not have learned how to play school,” Davis said. “This is a way to think outside of the box to serve those kids.”

The school will open in what was previously Bryant Elementary, one of five schools closed by the district in 2012. A new school funding formula directs additional money to “at-risk” students, though Davis said officials are describing troubled students in terms of “opportunity.”

“We don’t like to use the term ‘at-risk’ to describe our students. We use the term ‘opportunity,’” he said. “We really believe every child has the opportunity for greatness and success … They may come from different places and have different needs, and we just need to meet them wherever they are.”

Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia are cautious about instances where claims that shifts in vocabulary will reframe the experiences students will have once the new vocabulary are in effect.  Also, in instances where school authorities segregate disruptive students, it places an emphasis on fixing the individual student rather than addressing the deficits in the wider school culture of the previous school. Character is foremost a communal problem not simply an individual one. Moreover, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture sociologist James Hunter in his book, The Death of Character, warns, “Neologisms from the moral education establishment, like ‘prosocial’ are only the most overt and self-conscious attempts to avoid the awkwardness of words like ‘good’ and ‘evil.’” “Troubled students” may well see through the shift in terminology from “at-risk” to “opportunity.” While well intentioned, sometimes it may be necessary start by naming the problem in stark moral terms.

Teachers and principals interested in strengthening the moral ecology of their school will find information and strategies at the UK’s The Jubilee Centre.


The kings and queens of chess in Flagstaff

At Flagstaff, Arizona’s poorest elementary school, students are learning to focus their attention, correct mistakes, anticipate consequences, and decide the best course of action.

Dozens of youngsters at Killip Elementary School spend their after-school hours lined up across from each other strategizing over chess boards, learning to plot their next moves and anticipate the reaction.

The program started over 15 years ago to offer a distraction for students in a neighborhood plagued with gang violence, but coaches and parents contend students are taking home a lot more than basic chess strategies, Fronteras Desk reports.

“I love chess because it makes me feel powerful because I’m in control. Those are my pieces. I get to decide what I do with them, how I use them to complete my goal, right? I control that,” coach Ted Komada said. “I mean there’s not too many things in life that you have complete control over. Chess is one of them.”

Thirteen-year-old Karen Marcado said learning to focus her attention, to think ahead, and to anticipate consequences has helped to build her confidence in other areas of life.

“It just actually helped me push myself,” she said. Before chess, “I would not even pay attention. But since, coming to chess got me focused on what I was actually doing.”

Parent Michelle Pedilla agreed that chess’ impact on her child extends beyond the after-school program.

“Coach Komada here likes to teach them that you want to think about your move before you do it because it might give you a consequence of, oh, you lost a piece,” she told Fronteras Desk. “So in real life they teach them to slow down and think of what they’re going to do before they do it, so that way they can think about a consequence like, hmmm, should I do that? It might get me in trouble. They look, two, three, four moves ahead. Not just one move.”

Beyond those personal successes, the Killip chess team has captured eight state titles in the last 15 years, as well as multiple trips to Super Nationals. The Flagstaff school took 4th place in Super Nationals in 2017 after raising funds to take nearly four dozen students from mostly low-income families to Nashville, Tennessee.

In The Content of Their Character, a summary of research into character formation in different types of schools from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, editors James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson discuss how schools and other social institutions “form a larger ecosystem of powerful cultural influences” that shape students’ character and citizenship. The chess program isn’t all fun and games—it’s teaching the students important life lessons.

The thrill of attending his first national chess tournament four years ago, for example, made quite an impression on 10-year-old Skyler Boyce.

“It was tons of kids!” he told Frontera Desk. “It’s fun and you get to learn stuff, like stuff that helps you in the real world.”

The U.S. Chess Center offers a series of lessons that teachers and parents can use to help kids learn the basics of chess—and important virtues like wise judgement and anticipating consequences.

Building social skills by eliminating social media

At San Lorenzo High School, students deposit their phones in a locked pouch for the day, a practice school leaders say has improved learning, behavior, and social interactions.
“It has absolutely changed our entire school climate and culture,” says principal Allison Silvestri. Teachers at the San Francisco area school say that they have more time to teach without the distraction of phones, according to NBC San Diego. “Things that I’ve done for years now take 10–15 minutes fewer to complete the assignment,” says teacher Olivia Hanley.
Students are noticing the impact, too. Deshaun Smith says, “My grades have been getting better and better,” going from getting C’s and D’s to getting A’s and B’s.
In addition to improved classroom learning, students and teachers are noticing the difference in human interactions. “People are more interactive with each other and less with headphones and just by themselves,” says student Daniella Ceja. “Students talk to me in the halls now,” said principal Silvestri. “They have to talk to each other. A substitute teacher noticed better posture because they’re not looking down at their phones in the hallways on the way to class.”
But the talking isn’t the kind that gets them into trouble. The number of students being sent to Silvestri’s office has declined by more than 50%.
San Francisco-based Yondr created the green pouches specifically to curb cell phone use. A couple of students said they think the policy is too strict, and they wish they could at least have access to their phones during breaks and at lunch, but the benefits seem to be outweighing the criticisms.
San Lorenzo High School isn’t the only organization battling the impact of technology on school climate and culture. In field research conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture on school cultures and student formation, researchers found that a pioneering group of schools had established low- or no-tech policies in order to cultivate students who can attend to learning and to each other. The Waldorf, Montessori, Friends, Democratic, and International Baccalaureate high schools studied “had some limits on the use of technology in the classroom—for example, minimal projector use, no Smart Boards, and no cell phones in the school,” writes David Sikkink in The Content of Their Character. These “pedagogical” schools—defined by their commitment to particular modes of learning—could limit technology on the principles of their pedagogies.
Ultimately, every school needs a principled reason for including, excluding, or limiting technology. Yondr is one tool that, at least in San Lorenzo, is doing the trick to promote learning and relationships.

Apple investors urge company to study tech overuse

Investors are urging Apple Inc. to study how smartphone use impacts mental health amid growing concerns about youth phone addiction and rising depression and suicide rates among teens.

Apple has been largely silent about how parents should manage children’s smartphone use and the company currently offers no guidance on responsible use.

But two of Apple’s largest investors recently issued a letter urging the company to do better in helping parents understand how smartphones impact their children and to give them more control to moderate their phone use.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or Calstrs, which control about $2 billion of Apple shares, sent a letter to Apple on (Jan. 6) urging it to develop new software tools that would help parents control and limit phone use more easily and to study the impact of overuse on mental health.

“Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do,” the shareholders wrote. “There is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility.”

The move is the latest in a broader effort to push technology companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Snapchat to consider their impact on society. Parents, educators, and even company officials have raised concerns about increasing rates of teen depression and suicide some believe is linked to a lack of face-to-face human contact.

The concerns range from overuse of smartphones to the content teens are exposed to online.

The push for more corporate responsibility comes as many schools are already taking action to curb the influence of some technologies.

David Sikkink, lead researcher of pedagogical schools for the School Cultures and Formation Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia recently documented how schools are approaching the issue.

His research team observed six schools, and interviewed students, faculty, administrators, and parents in order to better understand the role that schools play in character formation. Sikkink reported, “Five of the schools in this sector had some limits on the use of technology in the classroom—for example, minimal projector use, no Smart Boards, and no cell phones in the school.”

These schools, recognizing the power that technology—and phones in particular—can have on attention and interpersonal interaction, have already placed limits on those technologies to keep students focused.

However Apple responds to its investors, families and schools are taking proactive steps to limit the public-health, attention, and character effects of overuse of mobile technology.

Sikkink’s research appears in the new book The Content of Their Character, scheduled for publication in February. CultureFeed subscribers can pre-order the book today for a deep discount and free shipping.

Fourth-graders teach adults to focus

Good character is formed over a lifetime. At a recent Ashland (Oregon) School Board Meeting, board members were well-reminded of this fact as they were led through a series of mindfulness exercises by local 4th-grade students, reports the Ashland Daily Tidings.

Distractions are an unavoidable facet of our modern lives. Smart phones, social media, and other outlets pour a deluge of digital information into our brains. Being able to maintain attention to a task or important matter has become an essential trait for success in family, career, and life. If we were to think of attention as a resource, then it represents a precious commodity indeed.

Students at Bellview Elementary in Ashland have been working on this problem by participating in a program called, MindUp, and they came to the board meeting prepared to share their knowledge of how to “achieve and maintain focused attention.”

“MindUp really is about self-regulation and it’s about calming your body, and it’s brain-based learning,” said Bellview principal Christine McCollom. She has spearheaded the implementation of different character-education initiatives in her school, including a social-emotional curriculum and now MindUp.

Maintaining attention is a foundational ability with regard to character. McCollom highlighted this fact when explaining that she didn’t feel her students were prepared to dive right into social and emotional learning. “[T]he kids didn’t have all the precursor skills to do all that and [the] program wasn’t necessarily designed to provide that,” she said.

Hence, her school’s focus on attention and mindfulness. And so far, the effort seems to be paying off.

McCollom, like any good principal, withheld judgement of the program until she saw the data related to outcomes. So, her staff adopted a strengths and difficulties survey for students and she says, “We used that tool to measure whether or not [students’] social skills grew over the course of the year, and they did.”

Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture fellow Matt Crawford would be encouraged by the work at Bellview Elementary. He argued in the The Hedgehog Review that, “Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it.” Crawford also urged readers to consider the impact of this line of thinking, “What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common?”

We must remember that cultivating the habit of attention is challenging and important work. Charlotte Mason, a renowned British educator, wrote of the subject:

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention. It is…”within the reach of everyone and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline”; for whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them.

Ambleside Schools International offers this helpful guide for educators to nurture this habit of attention in students through “a finite amount of time for specific work to be done.”