Over the last few years, Drew Charter School has undergone many changes and transitions. We’ve added a Senior Academy, now grades 9 and 10. We’ve nearly doubled in size. We’ve become a project-based learning, STEAM school. With all of these changes, we felt it was time to evaluate our school climate and culture to create one that positively supports these initiatives and allows all of us to achieve our potential. To help with this effort, we partnered with The Pacific Institute, an organization that helps the business, government, and education sectors do just that.

This wasn’t a swift process. Two years ago we began working with key teacher-leaders to begin rethinking classroom communities, evaluating the benefits and challenges of changing the status quo in classrooms. Building on their work, last year a pilot group, including teachers across grade levels, were fully trained by The Pacific Institute and implemented the curriculum for both themselves and their students. We spent the year meeting monthly to share experiences, receive continued training and support from The Pacific Institute, and collaborate on implications for the school. Finally, this year, as we opened a new campus, it was time to rollout The Pacific Institute to our entire staff, ready to make a positive impact on our culture.

But what is “it”? It’s hard to explain. The Pacific Institute is not a classroom management system that tells you exactly what to do and how to run your class. Rather, it’s a set of principals firmly rooted in social cognitive theory that can inform our classroom and school practices to help each student achieve their full potential. Through this course, which will be continued throughout the year, we learned that we mistakenly focus on behaviors, rather than focusing on the habits, attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that drive behaviors. These beliefs are what determine our level of self-efficacy, or our belief in our own ability to cause the outcomes we want. These beliefs also determine what we attend to, how we perceive the world, what we determine as possible for us, and as a result, what we subconsciously move toward. The Pacific Institute helped answer some of the questions we’ve had about why some students exhibit the same behavior, year after year, no matter how many systems of extrinsic motivation we employ. This training also helped us see blind spots we were operating with, hindering us from finding solutions to the problems we experienced as individual educators and as a school. It gave us practical tools for changing these habits, attitudes, beliefs, and expectations to make the transitions we need to make.

As a result, we’ve seen how some of our practices contribute to negative beliefs and have failed to help students develop the real skills they’ll need to be successful in life: resilience, the ability to set goals and the belief in their ability to reach them, determination, and the ability to think critically and solve problems. We’ve begun to make changes, not only in how we manage classrooms, but how we collectively take ownership for the culture in our school. For example, we are rethinking traditions like “Student of the Month,” that celebrate the accomplishments of a small few, usually the same students each year. Instead, we’ve instituted monthly celebrations of the achievement of goals students set for themselves. They have the opportunity to talk through their goals, how they’ve achieved them, and new goals they’ve set. We’re also revamping traditional Awards Day celebrations to not only celebrate academic achievement, but also celebrate a year of setting and achieving goals, giving the students ownership over what they’ve achieved and what they will celebrate and share.

While not required, many teachers have progressed from those pesky point and color systems that have plagued us all for years. While good at crowd control, many of us have begun to question their necessity and validity, asking:

  • How can token systems (points, dollars, colors, etc) be truly objective? Is it possible to remove bias from their implementation? If we’re honest, we would have to admit this is difficult, if not impossible.
  • Are students becoming self-motivated thinkers or are they simply working to please the teacher? What happens when they leave our classrooms and enter the “real world”? Will they have the determination, self-reliance, and intrinsic motivation to work hard and take risks when no one is giving them points or reporting their daily color?
  • Should our role be to control students or give them the tools they need to exhibit self-control? Does our implementation of these systems help us achieve that goal?

This program isn’t a “magic pill” that will solve every class and school culture issue and every behavior problem in the blink of an eye. However, it has been exciting to see changes throughout our school already happening and to imagine the future that lies ahead for our students and staff. Interviewing students has been a particularly enlightening process to see just how strong and immediate the impact has been for those who are implementing the program with fidelity. Here is a portion of an interview with a 3rd grade student who consistently struggled with behavior problems last year.

  • Interviewer: How do you know if you’re doing the right thing in class?
  • Student A: Someone won’t have to tell you to “Watch your habits.”
  • Interviewer: What happens then? Does your teacher tell you what to do?
  • Student A: Someone at your table whispers to you to “Watch your habits.”
  • Interviewer: Do you ever have a bad day?
  • Student A: Yes.
  • Interviewer: What happens when you have a bad day, because everyone has bad days?
  • Student A: She might tell you to reflect at recess, because it’s fair that you get sent to another class to reflect if you don’t do what the teacher says.
  • Interviewer: What do you do when you’re in the other class?
  • Student A: We write down what your goals are, what you did, and how would you fix it.
  • Interviewer: Do you have colors in your class? Like, you’re on red, yellow, or green?
  • Student A: No, but if we get a compliment we get scoops in the jar.
  • Interviewer: Do you feel that you need to have those colors in class?
  • Student A: No,
  • Interviewer: Do you like not having the colors, or do you want to have them?
  • Student A: I like not having the colors because we’re old enough not to have colors. We’re not in kindergarten!
  • Student A: I like what we do this year.
  • Interviewer: Do you use points?
  • Student A: No
  • Interviewer: Then how do you know if you’re doing a good job
  • Student A: Your reflection sheet will be blank.
  • Interviewer: How do you feel when your write your goals down?
  • Student A: If do bad, I wouldn’t be mad. I would be fair. If I was good my reflection will be blank.
  • Interviewer: Do you set your own goals
  • Student A: Yes
  • Interviewer: How does it feel when you reach a goal
  • Student A: Happy, because she puts scoops in the jar and we get to scream
  • Interviewer: Did you use points in your classes before this year
  • Student A: Yes
  • Interviewer: And how did you feel about using those?
  • Student A: I didn’t like losing points. I got kind of mad.
  • Interviewer: Why did you lose points?
  • Student A: Cause I was talking half the time and I got sent to Coach Holloway and I got mad.
  • Interviewer: Do you feel like points helped you do better or does what you do this year help you do better?
  • Student A: What I do this year helps me do better
  • Interviewer: Why do you think it helps you more?
  • Student A: Because if you have points, if you got high points she would let us eat in the class and have a party and if you have negative points you would have to go to another class and do math. I would get mad because if she took more points you would get mad and say something mean and take it out on another person.
  • Interviewer: So if you do something wrong now, do you get mad about it?
  • Student A: No.
  • Interviewer: What do you do?
  • Student A: I fix it.

If you want to learn more about our work integrating Pacific Institute “habits of mind” in our classrooms, contact me at donya.kemp@drewcharterschool.org.


Guest Post by: Donya Kemp, Director of Project-based learning at Drew Charter School, Atlanta, GA