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The Culver Model – Positive Psychology and Well-Being in the Independent High School

written by John Yeager October 10, 2007

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.



The Culver Academies – a rigorous co-educational, college-preparatory boarding school in Indiana – is committed to integrating a systemic strengths-based approach to broadening and building character strengths and positive emotions in its academic, athletic, wellness, leadership, arts, and spiritual life programs. Providing the best “whole person” education available to its 780 high school students is accomplished through the tireless efforts of a dedicated instructional faculty and support staff that help guide students as they chart their course through adolescence to adulthood.

With a strong commitment from Culver’s administration and its Board of Trustees, we have ventured into a multi-year process that gradually instructs and informs students, faculty, staff, administration and parents with sustainable positive psychology strategies. To borrow the title of Robert Quinn’s book on leadership: Building the Bridge As You Walk On It; our “soft-sell” approach helps neutralize the traditional tension between process and performance by building high quality connections that bring out the best in students, faculty, staff and administrators.

Faculty Training

Over the past two summers, over one-half of the school’s 110 faculty members have participated in a three-day intensive seminar entitled “Building Strengths and Positive Emotions.” This program has been co-facilitated by myself, Sherri Fisher and Dave Shearon, from Flourishing Schools (http://www.flourishingschools.org/) , a consulting and coaching group integrating best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. Faculty participants have learned 1) ways to broaden and build position emotion in themselves and their students; 2) strategies they can use their strengths to be more optimistic and resilient; and 3) relationship-building approaches for building high quality connections at school. Faculty participants have identified their own and student “signature” strengths, such as hope, wisdom, creativity, future mindedness, courage, responsibility and perseverance. They have developed strategies to foster a strengths-based approach in the classroom, living unit, visual and performing arts and athletic arenas in the areas of motivation, optimism, resilience and savoring. By learning about character strengths and ways to build and apply them, teachers can be guided to acknowledge, own, and apply their own strengths, to value their authentic selves, and to increase both their collective and self-efficacy. This information is very valuable to faculty members who can then have a better snapshot of individual, peer and student strengths. Also, this may be very helpful in working with groups of students in all phases of school life. As one faculty participant so aptly put it, “I now think differently about how I teach.”

Faculty Performance Review

Currently, we are developing a strengths-based annual performance review (APR) for faculty. Traditionally, faculty performance evaluation has been akin to “chewing tin foil.” We are finding that capitalizing on faculty members’ sense of meaning and purpose in what they do at Culver, and explicitly addressing the “engagement” component of their work, we can have a more productive discussion about areas of strengths and challenges. We are approaching the process from a ‘malleable or growth” mindset where department chairs (the middle manager evaluators) 1) capitalize on faculty areas of proficiency – through process and product praise; and 2) identify and healthfully respond to patterns of faculty adversity.

Student Strengths and Academic, Leadership and Wellness/Athletic Programs

All Culver students are administered the on-line version of the VIA-Youth (http://www.authentichappiness.com/) when they arrive at school each August. Putting a name to a character strength and knowing what particular traits look like in action has been instructive and informative for many students as they navigate their pathways to growth in the classroom, leadership in the living unit, athletic arena, and stage. For example, in student-centered Humanities classes, students explicitly compare their strengths with the nuances of the characters in literature and history which allows for the subject matter to resonate and come alive.

Embedded in Culver’s formal leadership program, student leaders are starting to frame discussions and behavior from a strengths-based perspective by participating in an “appreciative inquiry” process. Also, they are now discussing the power of positive emotions and explanatory styles to better know themselves and others in the quest of building high-quality connections.

Culver’s progressive and sequential four-year wellness education program provides students with an opportunity to cultivate their optimism and resilience in the areas of nutrition, sleep, physical activity and stress management. Also, through the mentorship of some of their coaches, student-athletes compare and contrast their strengths as part of the team-building process. After being habitually exposed to a strengths-based approach, Culver’s rising seniors are better prepared to declare their strengths in their college essays and to carry those strengths to college and beyond.

Integrating the principles of positive psychology is helping Culver flourish by focusing on identifying, broadening, and building the unique strengths of the faculty, staff, students, and administrators. We want all Culver stakeholders to be meaning makers and culture keepers in making positive psychology sustainable in all aspects of school life.

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9 comments

Jeff Dustin October 11, 2007 - 5:27 am

John,

Culver sounds like a great workplace. I work at a school for children with emotional and behavioral disorders and comorbidities. I wonder if a strengths model like Culver’s could work with extremely challenging populations that are explosive or prone to violence? How would students flourish under this paradigm? In short, how can we teach these individuals prosocial behavior (don’t stab your classmate in the back with a pencil…or crayon…or chair leg) and beef up their strong points?

Reply
Jeff Dustin October 11, 2007 - 5:28 am

Is it my bad eyesight or is everything in Italics? Senia HELP!

Reply
Editor S.M. October 11, 2007 - 9:05 am

Thanks, Jeff. Done.

Reply
Senia October 11, 2007 - 9:29 am

John, it’s really good to read about the details of what you’re doing at Culver. It’s really good to hear the pieces of it – the faculty training, the student online assessments, the parallel discussion of strengths in literature and in individual students.

Here are two opinion pieces about colleges and educating young people that you might find interesting:

Are colleges failing?” by Derek Bok

and
Why are we here?: Colleges ignore life’s biggest questions, and we all pay the price” by Anthony Kronman

What do you do with the one or two students who doesn’t want to take the assessment? Is that student still required to do so?

Reply
Dave Shearon October 17, 2007 - 7:21 am

Jeff, Appreciative Intelligence by Thatchenkerry has a chapter on a school that uses an appreciative inquiry type approach to work with students that learn differently. Might be applicable to your question.

Reply
Jeff Dustin October 17, 2007 - 4:42 pm

Dave,

I’ll have to read Thatchenkerry, then. Thanks!

Reply

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