Home All Building Strengths and Broadening Relationships – An Interview with Ed Kelley

Building Strengths and Broadening Relationships – An Interview with Ed Kelley

written by John Yeager 11 January 2008

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 following is a brief excerpt from an interview I conducted with Ed Kelley, a humanities teacher and coach at the Culver Academies. He chats about integrating positive psychology in the good work he does with our students.

I am always looking for ways to measure what is happening in the classroom. As I have learned more about positive psychology I really believe that it’s less about the accountability factor and more about developing positive relationships with students – be it in the classroom or on the athletic field. It has been extremely rewarding in that regard.

I think you come into the profession thinking that you have sound ideas. You look to employ sound methodologies, because of what you experienced or what you were taught in school. When you thought about becoming an instructor, and then through professional development, you learn more and began to adopt more change methodologies. I am more positive on the field and more positive in the classroom, because I have realized that that works better. It is much more effective to work with students and get more out of them in that environment. I remember dealing with coaches and instructors who would employ negative reinforcement in an effort to get students to have a more solid work ethic. I am not sure if I responded very well to that. During my first years at Culver, however, I am sure that was the case. But I thought that was the way it was supposed to be done. In an effort to get student (athletes) to work hard and respond you had to light a fire under them. But now I have realized, and it is common sense, the more positive I am with students in the classroom, on the field, on the court, the more I get out of them – the more they buy in.

Student-Driven Classroom

My classroom is extremely student-driven. It is student-centered. And we focus a lot on skill development, one of which is communication. It really requires them to expose themselves to the group. I assess their ability to analyze a number of literary and historical pieces, and have them share them articulately with the group, through employing Harkness methodology. Students sit around an ovular table and interact through student-centered discussion. That can be very difficult for freshmen and sophomores, who I primarily teach, because they are concerned about how they look, how they sound, what they are saying. They may be afraid to be wrong in front of their peers. I try to create an environment where they feel comfortable to exposing themselves when communicating with each other. I impart strong empathy skills in the classroom. Students need to empathize with the student who is speaking, because they might be nervous. I use strategies in the areas of praise, motivation, optimism and resilience are essential. I remain positive as I challenge them. When they are concerned and feel that they can’t do a task, I remind them “You already have these specific characteristics that enable you to be successful and you can overcome these challenges.” Then I will challenge them to create goals and to adhere to those goals. I need to be optimistic, and to encourage them to be resilient, to not give up, to believe in themselves. That requires a lot of praise and a lot of one-on-one work.

The Harkness methodologies looks to develop a number of skills, not just speaking. It requires a lot of critical thinking. It also requires strong listening skills. And if I am looking to develop all of those traits within a student, they need to understand it first. I need to provide them with a certain rubric that they understand.

I combine strong communication skills, strong critical thinking skills, and even strong listening skills with character strengths. There are those students who can really jump into it and do extremely well and you know they will be strong communicators in the future. For those who struggle, you need to sit down with them. You can’t just say to them – “you need to talk more.” For example, I will look at their character strengths.

It might be a student who is somewhat reserved but is very creative – that is one of her top strengths. So, I need to find a way where I can utilize the creativity in a discussion where they will feel comfortable. We were recently discussing “romantic art.” There is a girl in class who loves studying art, and loves the romantics. I am going to feed on that and encourage her to share her love of art with the class. When we have a Harkness discussion, I am going to prod her a little bit and say – “This is where you are strong. Let’s see it come out. Tomorrow, we are going to be talking about Joseph Turner, one of your favorite romantic painters.” Just in that email, I will get a response that says, “You know what, I am really excited about tomorrow’s class. I am usually reserved with discussion, but because I realize that I am creative, and I love art, I will feel more comfortable participating in the discussion.” I will give her an opportunity to speak first. I will say, “In an effort to initiate the conversation, let’s have Jessica speak first about her interest in art.”

That’s one way to get a student to communicate with the group when they are usually reserved but now feel more comfortable. Another would be a student who is somewhat reserved or concerned about how they are being perceived by their peers. His or her top strength, however, is humor and playfulness. When we study Gulliver’s travels and Voltaire’s Candide, satire can be quite funny. It is not always humorous, but it is often through parody implying humor. So I approach the student. “You are funny. Your peers think you are very funny. You are often reserved, because maybe you are afraid to be the academic in the Harkness discussion. Can we utilize your humor when we are talking about parody or satire? Can you think of any films that you love because they are funny and maybe you can share with the group?” And that student was more than happy to say “You know, I love these films. Let’s talk about them in discussion tomorrow.” I said, “Sure, you lead the discussion.” I am approaching students and their reservations, and focusing on their character strengths to bring out a skill that needs to be developed further.

Building positive relationships with students and students, and students and faculty or staff members, is essential. You are looking to develop relationships because as adults on campus, we play numerous roles. I am a teacher. I am a coach. I am a mentor. I am a friend. I am a parent. And if you really want to succeed in those roles, you have to know students and you just can’t say you know them only as a student. They perform quite well in the classroom. Or I know them as a gifted athlete. You really get to know them outside of those venues and when you know them better, I think they are more apt to respond better in the classroom or on the field. There is this sense of trust. When I invite my students or ball players to my home, I really get to know them. Because of that relationship, and that development, they are more willing to perform in the classroom and on the football field for me.


Reference (from Comments)

Ciaccio, J. (2004). TOTALLY POSITIVE TEACHING: A Five-Stage Approach to Energizing Students and Teachers. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Phillips Exeter Academy, The Amazing Harkness Philosophy. Includes a videoclip of a Harkness table in action.

Student-centered classroom courtesy of Brenda Annerl

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Elona Hartjes 11 January 2008 - 11:28 am

Building positive relations is definitely the key. I teach at the high school level and find that developing a positive relationship with my students results in them trusting me. Once they trust me, they will be more open to trying new ways of learning or learning new things.

Kirsten Cronlund 11 January 2008 - 8:42 pm


Thanks for this inspirational account of what goes on at your school. I was very impressed with what I saw when I came to visit, and this essay gives an even clearer picture of the amazing learning opportunities at Culver. Keep up the amazing work!


Editor S.M. 13 January 2008 - 3:12 am

I recently saw this book on amazon, and wonder whether you’ve heard of it, and if so, what your opinion is: Totally Positive Teaching.
Best of the New Year to you,

Elona Hartjes 13 January 2008 - 8:10 am

No, I haven’t seen the book. But I’m going to look into it. Thanks for the heads up about it.

Elona Hartjes 9 February 2008 - 12:17 pm

I’ve had a chance to read Totally Positive Teaching, and I think it great. The approach in the book is one I take and that’s why I still love teaching after all these years. I think the Totally Positive Teaching is a must read.


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