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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 8

Lifting a School's Spirit

Giving children real responsibilities and decisions may promote sound values and a sense of community better than any rewards or consequences can.

At Poquonock School in Windsor, Connecticut, children enjoy racial harmony and a sense of community, responsibility, and empowerment. A survey we conducted recently showed that our students rarely experience race-related problems at school. And they display relatively few behavior problems. This hasn't always been the case, however.
Five years ago, the Windsor school system was redistricted to achieve racial balance within all four of the town's elementary schools. Even though the plan seemed to be fair (it affected minorities and whites equally), implementation was somewhat contentious.
Poquonock School went from a minority population of about 11 percent to just over 30 percent of our 500 students. About 100 new (mostly minority) students joined our school, and about the same number of white students left for a new school. All these students were compelled to attend a school farther from their homes.
In September 1992, we greeted a number of hostile students and families who were not happy about being forced to attend our school. The result was a dramatic increase in behavior problems and racial incidents, problems that faculty members were unprepared to deal with.

Controlling Behavior

To improve schoolwide behavior and begin to build a new sense of community, our staff formed a Behavior Committee. We reluctantly set up a schoolwide Assertive Discipline Plan, designed to extinguish inappropriate behavior. Our plan featured rewards (in monthly assemblies, we gave out awards for everything from courtesy to cooperation) and consequences (including a detention room). Although some committee members had philosophical differences with the Assertive Discipline model (Canter 1992), we felt it was necessary to make our school safe.
Our assessment showed that our system was working in the short run; we saw improved behavior and a new school spirit and camaraderie. But we saw, too, that many students weren't concerned about the impact of their behavior on others or about permanently displaying more responsible behavior; they were motivated solely by the rewards. For example, to win a courtesy award, one 2nd grader hung out near my office, waiting to open the door for adults. During Honesty Month, students regularly turned in money they "found" on the playground—actually their own lunch money.
Clearly we were manipulating and controlling behavior instead of instilling sound values. In addition, redistricted students continued to talk about their desire to return to their old school. Students also continued to spend much of their recess time in racially segregated groups, and the groups sometimes quarreled.

Rethinking Assertive Discipline

After some reading, reflection, and visits to schools with similar problems, we decided to change our approach. Guided by the work of Charney (1992) and Kohn (1993), we dropped Assertive Discipline, our detention room, and the monthly award themes.
Much to our surprise, students did not seem to miss the awards, and their behavior got no worse. One might conclude from these results that Assertive Discipline had controlled misbehavior or that, with time, the initial furor over redistricting had dissipated. Both conclusions are probably true to some degree.
Still, we had not generated a sense of ownership and community among students and their families. In fact, our system of rewards and punishments, including frequent calls home about misbehavior, probably did more to destroy community than build it. And we still weren't addressing the racial issues.
Over the next two years, we initiated many changes. We replaced rewards with schoolwide celebrations and replaced consequences with problem solving. Now when students misbehave, we encourage them to reflect on their behavior and its effect on others. We then ask them to come up with a plan for restitution (if appropriate) or other solution to the problem.

Putting Children in Charge

Most important, we moved the focus from teacher identification of problems and solutions to student identification. We encouraged students to participate in various groups and activities: a Student Spirit Committee, the Student Council, a Classroom Buddy program, school-community breakfasts, biweekly student assemblies, and suggestion notes to committees and the principal. The effect of these changes has been dramatic.
Student Spirit Committee. This committee, which replaced the adult Behavior Committee, consists of 15 students who volunteer for the job. Membership changes regularly so that any student who wants to be a part of this group eventually gets to participate. The Spirit Committee selects a monthly theme to encourage appropriate behavior and a sense of responsibility (good sportsmanship, self-control, thoughtfulness, put-ups/not put-downs, teamwork and cooperation, and manners are some past themes).
Committee members develop activities that promote the theme to the entire student body. They also plan an assembly to celebrate the theme's success and introduce the next month's theme. Students may use the assembly to dramatize problems and possible solutions, to express opinions, or to perform a student-written rap session related to a theme.
The Spirit Committee also participates in various community service projects. Members have helped a family whose home was destroyed by fire, conducted a food drive for the local food bank, and collected toys for less fortunate children.
Student Council. The Student Council has addressed problems ranging from unclean bathrooms to long lunch lines, name calling, and put-downs (what students called ranking). Council members identify issues through student surveys, class meetings, and notes to the Council's advisors. After a year of protesting speeding on the highway in front of the school, council members recently got a phone call from the town engineer informing them that the State Traffic Commission approved their suggestion to have a yellow caution light installed. The students had worked with the local police force to clock the speed of cars, written to their state representative, and spoken to the town council about the problem.
Among the council's other accomplishments: Members acquired a large aquarium for the school hallway, painted a U.S. map on the blacktop of the playground, collected a million pennies to buy computers, raised funds for new playground equipment, developed a welcome program for new students, sponsored a teacher-student volleyball game, and provided a baby-sitting service during parent-teacher conferences.
Classroom Buddies. This program pairs two classrooms, usually an upper and a lower grade. The students meet regularly to help one another and learn together as they work on class projects. One year, students in all the Buddy classrooms designed quilt squares, which parents sewed together to create beautiful friendship quilts. They now adorn the cafeteria walls.
School-community breakfasts. Each breakfast draws more than 200 parents and students. We held one in conjunction with our book fair, another to highlight our school band, and others to enable parents to meet artists performing or teaching at the school. We began this program when we discovered that many parents are willing to come to school on their way to work, but find it much less convenient to attend evening activities.
Biweekly school assemblies. Students generate most of the material and ideas for these assemblies, which celebrate our achievements and our community. Members of the Spirit Committee and the Student Council report on their activities. We recognize about 50 students who have volunteered for school jobs. Many of our jobs—cafeteria table washers, bus sign holders, recess helpers—rotate frequently, and all students have an opportunity to volunteer for them. We also honor students who have contributed to the Good Work Bulletin Board (anyone may) and students who celebrate their birthday that month.
Students frequently volunteer to perform at these assemblies. They may dramatize something they have written, do a choral reading, or perform a play related to a theme they are studying. Members of one classroom (selected by random drawing) get to sit on the stage, lead the welcome song, and play a quiz game. The Pep Band plays entrance and exit songs, music for our birthday celebrations, dramatic drum rolls, and other special effects.
An unexpected benefit of these assemblies has been parental participation: 15 to 20 parents normally attend. In fact, because of our open-door policy, parents are fulfilling many roles throughout the school on any given day. Jobs range from working in the publishing center to helping in a classroom or the library.
Suggestion notes. Every week students make suggestions for enhancing the school environment by sending notes to members of the Student Council, the Spirit Committee, or the principal. This past week, I received a note from a 3rd grader suggesting that students form intramural sports teams that could occasionally play during recess. Two 5th grade boys suggested that the Student Council look again at their practice of announcing which bathrooms are the cleanest each week. They felt that some students were getting discouraged by the competition.

Congregation, Choice, and Caring

As we have changed our focus from teacher solutions to student solutions and given students more responsibility, our school climate has improved dramatically. Students no longer play in racially segregated groups. Even though they live in two separate areas of the community, they are one community when they come to school. Our 30 percent minority enrollment is reflected in the membership of our student groups and committees (we have no quota system) and in parents' attendance at our school events. This has happened gradually as families have come to feel a part of our school community.
  • Congregation. In our biweekly assemblies, students celebrate the school culture through shared songs, games, and rituals. Parents also congregate in our assemblies, breakfasts, parent-teacher organization, and open houses that we hold in the fall and spring.
  • Choice. Students choose the issues they want to address and form their own committees to solve problems and make decisions. (As they do so, they must reflect on and discuss their values.) These activities make students feel important, responsible, and powerful. Parents also have choice; we frequently solicit their opinions on issues that affect their children.
  • Caring. Community service is one way our students gain a sense of their role in the larger community and their individual and collective responsibility for one another.
Our original goals were to control student behavior and build community, but along the way we learned that these are conflicting goals. If students work together in a caring environment on tasks that they are responsible for, a system of rewards and punishments isn't necessary (Kohn 1996). Thus we defined a new goal—helping students become responsible citizens of our school community.
Our students have taught us that to establish a positive learning environment and a true community, adults must give up control in areas that students are developmentally able to handle. Schools, like businesses, have enjoyed far greater—and more lasting—success when the frontline workers take an active role in identifying and solving workplace problems.

Canter, L. (1992). Lee Canter's Assertive Discipline. Santa Monica, Calif.: Lee Canter and Associates.

Charney, R. (1992). Teaching Children to Care, Greenfield, Mass.: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by Rewards. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kohn, A. (1996). Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Cooperation. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Ruth K. Wade has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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