How to Build Classroom Community with the Positivity Project
Amy Stohs, a 6th grade teacher from Virginia, joins us to talk about the Positivity Project, an exciting movement that helps grow students character and build classroom community. Join us to discover simple ways to engage your students in discussions about character, positivity, and the truth that other people matter.
read the transcript:
[Linda] I'm here today with Amy Stohs, and she actually reached out to us because she was so excited about some of the things happening at her school with the Positivity Project. Even if you’re not looking for a 'character education program', these truths and the ideas she's going to share are incredibly valuable. Whether you implement them formally or you just start to scatter them throughout your classroom, you are going to see tremendous results in building relationships, better connecting with students, and building that classroom community that you're desiring to have.
[Linda] I can't wait to dive into this with her, but first, Amy, can you share a little bit about your background?
[Amy] Sure. I have been teaching for eight years now, and I teach in Northern Virginia. I teach sixth grade. Sixth grade for me is still elementary school, so I teach a variety of subjects. I teach math, language, arts, and then I teach two classes of science.
the positivity project
[Linda] Awesome, and you reached out to me because your school has implemented the Positivity Project and you've seen some really good results with that. I really wanted to have you on to share a firsthand experience. We're going to talk about the Positivity Project specifically, and then also different things that teachers can do to teach character and teamwork and all of these values in the classroom.
First of all, can you share an overview of what the Positivity Project is and the idea behind it?
[Amy] Yes. The motto of Positivity Project is “Other people matter.” They usually put a hashtag before that. The mission that they give on their website is to empower American youth to build positive relationships and become their best selves. Positivity Project started as someone's passion project out of their understanding of positive psychology. We often think about psychology as figuring out what's wrong with people and trying to get them on a better track. Positive psychology is all about understanding what's going right in people's lives. Why are these people happier and healthier than others? The research of positive psychology was trying to figure out what are the character traits, the character strengths, that are found in people that lead to these really happy, healthy lives. Dr Chris Peterson was one of the researchers who's famous for all of this.
He said, "I can sum up positive psychology in just three words. Other people matter, period. Anything that builds relationships between and among people is going to make you happy." While I find those 24 character strengths that he studied really fascinating, the core beliefs of positive psychology are things that really resonate with me, and that I think you could incorporate into any classroom philosophy. Those five components of the "other people matter" mindset are:
- Identifying and appreciating the good in others
- Knowing that my words and actions affect others
- Supporting others when they struggle
- Cheering their successes
- Being present and giving others my attention
I think that those five things are the ways that we really show love to our students, the way we teach them to show love to one another. I might not be able to tell them that God says to love one another, but I can show them how to love one another. I could find so much evidence and scripture for all five of those things: Building one another up, encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, and being patient with them.
[Linda] That's what I thought was one of the coolest things when you reached out to me. You are taking what is really a secular program and are able to see all these tie-ins with biblical truth. That's because, as I was thinking about it, God has given us this common grace where even if we can't say directly to a student, “This is what God says”, even if we can't take them to Jesus, we know Jesus is the ultimate answer. He's what kids need the most, but when we can't take them right there, God has put this common grace. God has designed the world to work in a certain way. When we can teach students these character qualities or these principles to put others first, this is wisdom God has built into the universe, and it works.
Secular studies and organizations can recognize them, and so it's so great to have these ideas coming back to us from a secular organization and in a way that no matter where you teach- Christian school, public school, private school- you can implement it. I think that's exciting.[Amy] I thought it was fascinating that this research that was not driven by a religion at all still found all of these religious truths. I just think that it goes back to the fact that truth is truth, no matter what, and that we recognize that loving other people and that the ways in which we show love and being faithful to others, and even spirituality, is one of the 24 character strengths. Having all of those pieces are beneficial, but I do find it really interesting that this whole study that went around the entire world still came back to the same truths.
the 24 character traits
- Social Intelligence
- Love of Learning
- Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence
humanity, justice, and courage
[Linda] That's amazing. You mentioned something about these character traits, and I think you said there are 24. Can you share a little bit about these character traits? I know you mentioned before they relate a lot to the fruits of the spirit.
[Amy] They are grouped into six different categories, and some of them might sound very familiar to other character education programs, but I think that some might surprise people. I'll just go by groups. The first one is humanity. These traits are what we think of as the ones that “nice kids” have. Love, kindness and social intelligence. I do love that it includes social intelligence, about being able to respond to situations appropriately and understand relationships between people.
The second category is justice. I think this is another one that's big in schools already. We definitely encourage kids to take on leadership roles, and to value teamwork and collaboration. The three in that category are teamwork, fairness, and leadership.
Then there is courage. Before Positivity Project, we gave out awards of character traits of the month to kids, and these were some of the ones that we had about bravery, perseverance, and integrity. The one we didn't have was enthusiasm or zest. It's written as both words in different places, and I think that's cool that it includes just having enthusiasm for things. That's something that sometimes we can tamper down in schools. It's like, “Well, don't get too excited”, but it's cool that it's included, and that's something that makes people happy.
[Linda] Right. That's something where sometimes we see that as a kid getting overeager or jumping out, disrupting the flow of class. That is cool to stop and recognize, we obviously need to learn how to channel this enthusiasm by recognizing the core enthusiasm as a positive trait. That's really cool. Let's keep going.
[Amy] The next group is all about temperance. How often do we talk about temperance? I think that's a word that we don’t talk about as much anymore. We get really focused on being really confident, going with the flow, doing what you feel like. This idea of temperance is one that I think is more Biblical, so this includes forgiveness, humility, prudence, which is like being careful, and self control. We talk about self-control with kids in school in terms of control yourself, control your body, keep your hands to yourself, but I think we lose sight of humility, forgiveness, and the careful piece. I just think that it's cool that it has all those pieces, and that all of those are part of a healthy lifestyle.
The other thing that I like about the 24 character strengths is they're not ranked in any way. There's no number one most important thing. These are the 24 that they found that were consistent across all cultures. They're all important.
[Linda] That's really neat. I think we're going to talk a little bit more about what these look like in the classroom, but I love that. Different people are going to have different strengths. Some are going to be better at some than others. I think that's really, really neat to just help kids recognize where they're good at and then where they have room to improve.
Okay, let's keep going. I think we have one or two more categories?
wisdom/knowledge and transcendence
[Amy] Yes, two more. The next one is wisdom and knowledge, which is very clearly integrated into the school thinking about perspective-taking. Perspective, love of learning, open-mindedness, curiosity, and creativity. That's a larger category. Then the last one is probably my favorite category just because it has my strengths. The last category is transcendence and appreciation of beauty and excellence is my number one trait.
During this week, I love showing kids pictures of the universe, like from the Hubble telescope. I have this one set of pictures that has a comparison of really tiny objects and really big objects and how they look the same in the pupil of an eye. For example, they show a virus and stuff around it and then a nebula and how they look super similar. It's interesting. Gratitude is one. Optimism- this is like hope/optimism. I like to talk to kids about the hope side of it as well. Not just thinking about this as being cheerful all the time, but this is about having hope. Hebrews 11:1 is one of my favorite verses, that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. The whole moral argument for God is that this thing is better than this other thing, but how do we know what's better?
People just say, “Well, this is the better thing”, but how do we know that? It is because we have this sense of what's right in our minds and that we hope for better things. When we hope for better things, we automatically have an idea of what is better. I think that's an interesting thing to talk about. Humor is one, which once again, I don't see that in a lot of character trait programs.
We're going to focus on humor and people that are good at making other people laugh, and then purpose and connection. In the research that's spirituality, but just for P2 purposes, they listed as purpose or connection. Having a vision for your life thinking about how are you seeking purpose. It's interesting to think about a vision for yourself. What do you want out of life? How can you think about the meaning of it all?
[Linda] I can imagine getting kids to think about those big questions can lead them to seeking some of these answers. We may or may not be able to tell them directly where to find those answers, but it can set them onto that path which is really, really cool. Who am I? Why am I here? Where are we going? Those big life questions. They're important.
[Amy] Yes, your listeners might be thinking now that, "Oh yes, a lot of those you can connect to the fruits of the spirit. Love is love. Joy is that enthusiasm or zest. Peace, is a result of many of those transcendent strengths. Just appreciating beauty and even being calm and careful, having patience with self-control, and prudence. Kindness is one of them. Goodness like being a good person.
Faithfulness, I think can be attributed to having that courage and perseverance. Gentleness, sort of goes back to temperance, like it's a good thing to be gentle. You don't have to be overly intense. Then, self-control. That was one of the things that first stuck out to me when I went to the training for this- how many of these words were things that I had been taught in Sunday school?
implementation in the classroom
[Linda] That's so awesome, and if people are curious, you sent this to me and I did it. There's a little survey that you can take that you go through and it tells you about your strengths or your top character traits. My top three where honesty, spirituality, and gratitude. Do you know your top few off the top of your head?
[Amy] Yes, my number one is appreciation of beauty and excellence, and then I really like to know people's top five. I have kids take this, and then I like to know the top five. I think my others are creativity and kindness. I can't remember if it was kindness or love- I think it was kindness. Then spirituality was one of my top five, and I can't remember my fifth one right now.
[Linda] Yes, it was really cool to see and it ranked all of them all the way through and I thought it was fun. You can try it and you can have your kids take it, too. It's a great discussion starter even if you're not able to implement the full program.
[Amy] Yes, that's VIA Character. There is a way for you to assign it. There's a youth version of the survey, and you can create your own class. It walks you through it, it's not that hard.
[Linda] Awesome. Let's get into, what does this actually look like in the classroom? How are you able to kind of use this opportunity to invest in students spiritually?
[Amy] I’ll start by giving the caveat that positivity project doesn't really see themselves as a curriculum program. They see themselves as a movement. They really want people to grasp onto the ideas of the movement that other people matter, that you're trying to build relationships between kids and between kids and teachers. I just want to say that because they do have sort of a curriculum that they've created, but I don't think that they would say that's the most important thing about the program.
[Linda] You're saying there can be a lot of freedom and you could implement these however you wanted to, but they do have resources if you need some direction.
[Amy] You have huge amounts of resources. They have all these Google slide presentations that are intended to take about 10 minutes a day. The ones for middle and high school are broken up a little bit differently. The ones for elementary school are broken up literally day one, day two, day three, day four, day five. The ones for middle and high school which are the ones that I use because I have sixth graders start with an opener and introduction and then have an active engagement and then Marva reflection part.
It's broken up into three pieces. I choose bits and pieces of those, and they include some videos, like different YouTube videos of motivational speaker and interviews. They have all sorts of different people, like Oprah. Another is this little video of a kid choosing to give the money that he was going to use for ice cream to a homeless person. Just discussion starters.
Then it has a whole bunch of questions. Some of the younger slides have a lot more read-aloud books, so they'll have a YouTube video of reading aloud a book that connects to the trait. Just lots of different sorts of things. They'll have props or images for the week. For example, humor has a bunch of blank memes, and so then it has kids create memes to go along with it. Lots of activities, like they do little skits. It gives you directions and everything is very easy to follow, so you can pick and choose what you like. It's intended to take about 10 minutes a day.
[Linda] When do you do that in your day?
[Amy] In my day, I do that during morning meetings, so I include that as part of morning meeting. I don't do all four parts of morning meeting every day. I follow responsive classroom philosophy, so greetings, sharing an activity, and then I'm reading the morning message. I just post my morning message, we don't read it chorally all together. I do a greeting at least on Monday. I do some sort of whole class greeting with everybody's names, and then sometimes we'll do that another day. With sharing, I sporadically do that with different activities.
The activities and the greetings and the stuff I choose, I try to incorporate something about the trait for the week. For instance, this past week, we had open-mindedness as the trait, and so we played a little game. It's silly. It's called the pencil dance, and so kids are trying to figure out what the trick is to being able to do it right, and they get hung up on how I'm holding the pencil. If I touch my hair, how can I make sure that I'm doing it the right way? It actually has nothing to do with the dance, so I tell them, "Just keep an open mind about how it works."
We did an activity with a greeting where they had to try to get it within a certain amount of time, so that was using teamwork for that week. I try to incorporate those pieces and even the sharing pieces. Something with the week for kindness- when is the time that someone showed kindness to you? Either we'll go in a circle and share or just share with a partner. There are so many different discussion techniques that you can do with those things. I like to do little inner-outer circles. I get a group on the inside of a space and a group on the outside and then I ring my bell and they shift and chat with different people.
Those are just some of the ways that I incorporate in the morning meeting. I also really love doing thinking routines. Sometimes, I'll have them do more of a quiet reflection towards the end of the week, like three 'Whys'. Why does this matter to me? Why does this matter to others? Why does this matter to the world or my classroom or my community? Similarly, another thinking routine I do is the four ifs, so if I really take this trait seriously, then what will happen? If the whole community is honest, what's going to happen? If people aren't honest, then what happens?
[Linda] You got some really good conversations from those.
[Amy] Yes. Just lots of different things. I like to play with it a bit and like I said, I feel the freedom to do that, to not just follow the slides every day because I know that I'm meeting the needs of my class and I'm following the philosophy behind it.
[Linda] Right. If you're listening and you've never done morning meetings before, I definitely encourage you to check it out especially if you're in a self-contained classroom with the same kids all day. The Morning Meeting book is a great resource wielding tool. Actually, we go into quite a lot of detail about how to do morning meetings in our Beyond Classroom Management course as well, so you can check that out. In middle school and high school, these are some great things that you can incorporate if you have a homeroom class or a class advisory. I know when I was a class advisor, a lot of times we came to these meetings thinking, "Okay, what are we going to fill this time with?" These types of things are just phenomenal. It's a perfect time to have some of these discussions, some of these thinking questions or even use some of these resources. If you start thinking about it, there's a lot of places you can plug this into your day.
[Amy] You can also take attendance in a fun way by asking a mutual question.
[Linda] How so?
[Amy] I can't take credit for the name attendance questions. Betsy Potash of The Spark Creativity Podcast has a whole list on her website of attendance questions that she asks kids. One of my favorite shares to do in class after a weekend is, "Share about your weekend in eight words." It can be a sentence, it can be nonsense words strung together, but eight specific words. You can get through everybody pretty quickly, but you'll get a little snippet of everybody’s weekend.
[Linda] Love that idea, nice and quick and fast. You're building those relationships. What are some of the results you've seen from this approach? We don't have a ton of time left, but I'd love to hear a little bit about it.
[Amy] I just find it's a really great way to connect with students. I can share my character strengths. I can talk about what strengths I notice in other kids. I just think that it really helps build that classroom community. One of my favorite moments last year involved a student who made comments to himself like, "I'm so stupid, I don't get this, I'm so bad at this." He repeated those things all the time, and I always was making him stop and say something nicer about himself like, "No, I can do this," and then making him move on.
One time last year, he was saying something along those lines like, "I'm just stupid." I looked at him, and I guess there was something about the look on my face, because he immediately told me, "I'm sorry, I know, I'm sorry. I can do this," and then moved right into it. I think focusing on the fact that these are character strengths that everyone has in some amount, is a different way of phrasing it, as opposed to saying, “Well, some people are good at this, and some people aren't.’ It's just about thinking where your students are and being able to balance each other out.
[Linda] That is just a totally different way of thinking about it. These are all traits we're aspiring to and we have them in different amounts versus these are the ones I'm bad at versus good at or I have it or I don't. We're all growing in all of them; that's awesome.
[Amy] The conversations we've had! I had a kid ask me, it was probably during the week on spirituality, but I'm not sure. I remember that I was making a web about the things that I do that are connected. I was asking them to make a similar web in their journal, and I added prayer, and some kid asked me, "What do you pray about?" This was a particularly difficult student, so I couldn't even think in my mind at the moment. I just told him, "I pray for you." It just came out. He just looked at me shocked and he was like, "Really?" I was like, "Yes, actually I do."
I wish that I'd been able to elaborate on that more with him in the moment, but I was so surprised to be asked that question that it totally threw me off. I think that through this, you share a lot more about yourself, and kids start to ask you questions. If you're open about that, I think that can lead to really interesting conversations.
[Linda] Yes. That's such a great encouragement, because there are a lot of programs out there like this, and this one sounds absolutely phenomenal. The Leader in Me is another popular one, and there are different approaches to this topic. People are starting to realize that this important. I know sometimes when these are implemented, sometimes we teachers are not sure what to think or maybe we're a bit resistant. I think this encouragement from you can hopefully be a really big help. Do you have any other advice for a teacher whose school is implementing a program like this but they're just not so sure about it?
[Amy] Yes. I would say definitely start with some sort of morning meeting, community building activity. Start with those relationships and keep in mind that model for character. I would think about starting with that and thinking about keeping those five “other people matter” mindsets in mind. So I'll say those again because I really like them:
- Identifying and appreciating the good in others
- Knowing that my words and actions affect others
- Supporting others when they struggle, cheering their successes
- Being present and giving others my attention
So I just think if your classroom had all five of those things going on, what a great place that would be. To be in a place where people supported others, cheered one another on, and knew that they could affect other people.
I think that's a nice set of expectations to have for kids.
[Linda] Yes, absolutely. As we're finishing up, I think our encouragement is a couple of different ways. Maybe your school is actually looking for a character education program. This is definitely one to check out. Once again, it's called Positivity Project abbreviated P2. I believe it's designed to be implemented schoolwide, but I've contacted them and asked them, “What can I tell teachers that are interested in this? Their whole school isn’t doing it. They're just in their own classroom.” They said that there is a place on their website where you can sign up and it's set up here.
So you get to try out all the resources for one week, but they said that they're happy to extend that longer so that you can really get a good feel for the program and you can really use a whole bunch of the resources for a more extended period of time. So they're being very generous. They want you to really see what the program is about. If you want to try this out, you can try it out free of charge and kind of see what it's all about, and if you love it, then you can tell your school more about it.
I hope you guys enjoy this conversation and found it helpful. I look forward to speaking with you again soon. In the meantime, keep growing. Keep striving. You really are making a difference.
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