Jenny has found that storytelling, festival-type celebrations, and character strengths have a particular synergy in schools. She brings them together to create a program that helps students and teachers notice strengths in themselves and others. It also brings celebration and strengths into the life of the whole school as well as the classroom.
Last month I attended Celebrating Strengths in Schools in Melbourne, Australia. I experienced the power of storytelling and how ritual and tradition can make learning last.
Strengths-spotting in Stories and Celebrations
As part of the approach, children learn to tell stories using simple props. They practice spotting strengths in the stories and then later in each other. This increases the awareness of strengths in the whole school. At the same time, storytelling builds listening skills and understanding of story structure, both part of the literacy curriculum.Celebrations and festivals are used to punctuate the school year. Traditional celebrations like Harvest, Advent and Easter mark beginnings and endings. In the UK, a very colorful Performing Arts festival also brightens the dark months of February and March. These events are occasions where strengths can be observed and discussed at all levels of the school.
Appropriate stories are woven into each celebration highlighting strengths often associated with the festival. Harvest festival focuses on strengths of gratitude with traditional stories that highlight giving thanks. Particular colors are linked to each strength so that color becomes a visual reminder that is used with each story.
Special Qualities of Celebrating Strengths
A number of things about Celebrating Strengths stood out for me:
- Because the program is not a curriculum, it can fit easily into existing curricula and school activities, e.g. storytelling and school assemblies.
- While much work on strengths focuses on identifying and developing specific strengths, Celebrating Strengths emphasizes connection, sustainability, and imbuing actions with meaning.
Connection: When children learn to spot strengths in stories, they naturally move on to noticing strengths in the teller and in each other. Learning to listen, to work together in a story team and acknowledging strengths in each other all work to build social connections in a group.
Sustainability: Sticking power is important for interventions. Jenny Fox Eades’ approach to sustainability is to link concepts to the concrete, making them tangible. For example, by linking strengths to symbols and colors, visual reminders reinforce the concepts over and over. Habits, rituals, and traditions regularly call strengths to mind.Imbuing activities with Meaning: Celebrating Strengths uses intentions (rather than specific goals) and dedications to imbue experience with meaning. At the start of a session we were asked, “How do you want to be during this lesson?” and “Who would you like to dedicate this piece of work to?” Setting an intention at the start of a session reminds us that we can choose how we want to be, while dedication reminds us that our work is worth something since it can be offered to someone. When I have dedicated a piece of work to someone, I am also more likely to make a wholehearted effort to do it well. Motivation seems to increase when there is added meaning.
Managing the Emotional Tone of a Classroom:
Helping children get into a state where they are receptive to learning is an important part of classroom management. Many schools speak of the need to calm students down after a weekend of stressful or chaotic home life.Jenny uses Tai Chi movements to help a class to cheer up or calm down. Activities linked to child-friendly concrete symbols included:
- Blowing a feather: Hold your hand open and relaxed, blow the feather, and then move your other hand gently down to catch it. It quickly becomes clear that rushing and panicking don’t work as well as moving gently.
- Hands on the sea: Stand with your hands extended in front of you, palms down, as if you’re standing in the sea and the sea is keeping your hands afloat and moving gently.
- Walking paint: Let children step into a paint-filled container and then walk slowly and carefully down a roll of paper, creating their own sets of footprints. This needs a person at the end with warm water and a towel. (Can be done as water footprints on concrete for the faint-hearted or under-resourced).
Good Things Take Time
Working through the 24 character strengths of the VIA over a full school year allows students to become familiar with all of the strengths. Activities for each strength include:
- Brainstorming what a strength means to different people, how they might recognize it, and what it might look like, is an important part of developing a shared understanding of strengths in a school.
- Seeing the strength in stories and each other which allows children to feel they understand and know a strength.
- Thinking about ways in which they use a strength, allows each child to own the strength.
These are probably activities that most schools will do to some extent when they work with character strengths. However, by working through all of the strengths, we enable children and their teachers to understand and own all of the strengths.
The message conveyed is that we all have all of the strengths to a greater or lesser degree. This is an important point and one which we risk missing if we hurry though the strengths, or ask children to become familiar only with their top 5. For younger children, it may be more helpful to introduce them to character strengths in this way before considering which are greater or lesser strengths.
Jenny Fox Eades believes it takes about three years to really embed positive psychology and a strengths approach in a school. Sometimes, good things do take time.
While I loved the practical suggestions for working with children, the program gave me much more than that. It gave me a framework for thinking about how I can help embed any teaching or training in participants’ daily lives. From now on, I will consider how I can provide participants with mini-rituals and symbols that will keep the learning alive for them.
Fox Eades, J. (2008). Celebrating Strengths: Building Strengths-based Schools. UK: Capp Press.
Fox Eades, J. (2006). Classroom Tales: Using Storytelling to Build Emotional, Social And Academic Skills Across the Primary Curriculum. Kingsley Publishers.
A Strengths Gym: An educational course for children designed to enable students and teachers to learn about, recognize, build upon, and use their strengths more.
Most images are courtesy of Amanda Horne.
easy (feather to blow) courtesy of girius
Nice piece Denise. I am a fan of Jennifer’s great work.
“Many schools speak of the need to calm students down after a weekend of stressful or chaotic home life.” – eh? I can believe it – but what does that imply?
There are two wonderful schools in the US who do what you describe here, and have a long history of it. Both of them are for kids of at least normal intelligence but with language-learning, organization and often attention challenges: Look up The Jemicy School (K-8), suburban Baltimore, MD; and Delaware Valley Friends School (7-12), suburban Phildelphia, PA.
These are independent schools. In the US, public school seems to find it difficult to imagine its academics and achievement initiatives immersed in a more emotionally responsive curriculum, and the three-year approach is daunting to them. My husband and I worked at Jemicy for many years. Kids we taught there and their families still keep in contact with us more than 15 years later, powerful testimony to connection, sustainability and meaning created there. It is in part the experiences I had at this school which eventually brought me to MAPP.
Jennifer Fox Eades is spot on. Thanks for adding to the PP in education articles here on PPND!
Hi Sherri and Angus,
thanks for your comments. Sherri, I will look up the Jemicy School – it sounds great. I think you raise an interesting point about schools being required to think in the short term, rather than being encouraged to invest in their pupils well-being over the longer term of their education [and life-time].
Angus, I think the comment about students’ stressful home lives opens a whole can of worms; teachers are not social workers etc, but if they want children to be able to learn, in many schools that means getting them into a state where they can learn. It may also mean providing them with some tools [eg resilience skills] so that they can cope better with the challenges they face and be able to learn.
I think this gets into the debate Carol Craig and others in the UK have opened – about whether or not well-being is the province of schools. In an ideal world where well-being is being adequately taken care of elsewhere, maybe not, but in a less than ideal world where lack of well-being can actually interfere with learning, then I think there is a case for teaching in ways that builds social connection and enhances well-being.