TNCS Students Fill Up with Kindness!

As the third quarter of the 2017–2018 school year ramps up at The New Century School, Head of School Alicia Danyali is introducing a brand-new initiative in character development as part of her invisible curriculum that is one of the distinguishing features of TNCS. Although new, the latest initiative integrates well with other programs she has put in place over the years, especially last year’s four pillars of the TNCS learner profile, in which, schoolwide, students began exploring actively implementing Compassion, Courage, Respect, and Service into their daily school lives. Even as those concepts continue to define TNCS students and inform their academic pursuits, Mrs. Danyali seeks ways to make them more and more concrete as well as apply them in new and meaningful ways.

Grab Yourself a Bucket

So-called “bucket-filling” is conducting yourself in a positive manner with the ultimate outcome that you not only make others around you feel good, but you also feel good about yourself. Mrs. Danyali explains, “the premise is, what are you doing to influence a positive environment that ‘fills you up’? It doesn’t necessarily have to be something tangible like opening the door for somebody or saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’—which should come naturally, of course—but we want to create a community that cares about each other.”

Maybe you’ve noticed some different behaviors at home and wondered what suddenly jumpstarted your child’s development . . . well, there’s a good chance it started in class at school. Mrs, Danyali has brought bucket-filling to each and every classroom at TNCS, sowing bucket-filling seeds among the 2-year-olds all the way up to the middle-schoolers.

“I feel like we’ve done a thorough discussion about character development,” she said, “and it’s time for putting words into practice. Bucket-filling looks different in different age groups, as it should, because I don’t have the same expectations of a toddler as I do of a 6th- or 7th-grader.” As such, she has distributed books and shared the concept in every class in varying length and depth. Younger classes were in a group setting and older classes in circles (see TNCS Brings It Full Circle with Restorative Practices! for her work with circles) that allowed individual student feedback. Overall, such student feedback has been very positive, and teachers are also getting into the spirit by regularly using the language of bucket-filling in their classrooms.

She gives examples during her discussions that they can relate to, to help them understand how they can shift their behaviors and reactions in a positive direction, such as, “Have you ever been at the lunch table and noticed some trash under it that isn’t yours, but instead of saying, ‘that’s not mine,” just going ahead and cleaning it up anyway? Wouldn’t that help make a nicer, cleaner community for everyone? Or, are you ever at the store with your parents and give someone a smile just to be nice?”

Bucket-Filling By the Numbers

For the 3rd- through 7th-graders, putting bucket-filling into practice involves reflecting and responding in journals. They were given notebooks with suggestions for each of 30 days on how to be a bucket-filler, or they could go off script and record their approach.  “It doesn’t mean to be a bucket-filler to everyone you meet,” explains Mrs. Danyali. “But it uses the same line of questioning every day and then asks the student to be reflective. In our follow-up, I’m curious to see how much they share or choose not to share, but they know that there is no specific expectation to be met through the journaling exercise.” In other words, they’ll get out of it what they put into it!

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In other divisions, bucket-filling will take different, age-appropriate forms. At the 2- and 3-year old level, for example, the discussion centers more on, “what would you do?” in a given situation. In one of the K–1st-grade classes, students put a pom-pom in a makeshift bucket each time they did or said something bucket-worthy. In this way, the teacher made the concept less abstract, and students were able to visualize how good deeds literally filled their class bucket. It also demonstrated the value of working together, and even the children who didn’t initially grasp the concept (getting a bit stuck on their beach shovels and pails) came away thinking, “Wow, what a nice class we have!” Others came to the “aha moment” by hearing fellow students share during circle time, such as one child’s story of her twice yearly closet clean-out to donate clothes she has outgrown to needier children.

For the whole school, art teacher Jenny Miller created a giant bucket for the multipurpose room wall so teachers can publicly recognize students who are exhibiting positive behaviors. Nevertheless, Mrs. Danyali is quick to note that acknowledgment is not what underpins bucket-filling: “What I really want them to take away from this is that you don’t always need recognition for doing something kind. Having more of a humble attitude and just knowing, ‘this is who I am and this is built into me’ and modeling positive behavior is the essence of bucket-filling, to my mind.” In fact, a newer concept to emerge from the bucket-filling juggernaut is “putting your lid on your bucket,” which basically means making sure that you are holding on to your positive energy and being sustained by it rather than going through the motions of bucket-filling just to impress somebody else.

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Filled with Implications

There are many facets to bucket-filling, and its implications are far-reaching. For example, another component to bucket-filling is taking responsibility for not-so-nice actions, which can also contribute to an affirmative environment and, in that sense, is reflective of restorative practice. Another aspect concerns the Dr. Jekyll of bucket-filling. For instance, if you’re not being an active bucket-filler, let’s hope you aren’t becoming the dreaded “bucket-dipper,” which is consciously subverting classroom rules or refusing to take accountability for a transgression and thereby depleting someone else’s bucket. You can also deplete your own bucket by such a negative attitude. Fortunately, trying to find ways and strategies to turn it around leads back to bucket-filling.

“I’m trying to make us more aware that it doesn’t take a lot to change how we feel,” said Mrs. Danyali. “For example, I said, ‘let me see your best smile,’ and followed up with, “how does that make you feel?’ If we work on self, then it can be better for everyone else.”

What do we want for our kids? We want them to be happy and healthy, and bucket-filling can contribute to those states. If that positive message is given to them and modeled for them consistently by the teachers they love and respect, then there’s a strong chance they’ll adopt the corresponding behaviors. “Sometimes adults need the message as much as students,” said Mrs. Danyali. I ask myself, ‘is what you’re doing today bettering you and benefiting everyone else around you?’ ”

She noted that, so far, bucket-filing seemed to resonate most with students who are already strongly connected to service, but she thinks it’s going to catch on more and more as TNCS students cultivate their character strengths and grow and develop.

Future Buckets

“I’m hoping these conversations are ongoing, and I’ll continue going into classrooms and facilitating,” said Mrs. Danyali. I feel that if a good portion of the kids walk away understanding the concept and implementing it in their community and in the classroom, then it’s made the difference.”

“Becoming a bucket-filling classroom” is a thing, but Mrs. Danyali is hesitant to invite too much fanfare. She prefers to keep it “organic and authentic” to TNCS, which means that it must be differentiated among levels and it will be implemented differently in each classroom. All of the materials are available in Spanish so there may be opportunity for some bilingual bucket-filling. Other schools even make bucket-filling into a competition, but that is something Mrs. Danyali will not bring to TNCS, as competing is diametrically opposed to what she feels is the point of this whole endeavor—which is more or less to become aware of our how our conduct affects our fellows and ourselves.

“This year will be sort of an experiment,” she says. “I’m hoping it creates conversations, and we’ll see where it goes. I can see building on it year after year, like with our core values.”

If you’d like to reinforce bucket-filling at home and elsewhere, resources abound. The website (www.bucketfillers101.com/) provides useful information as well as links to social media platforms including YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and more, showing everything from having a positive influence in how we talk, how we bucket-fill at home, and how it can be done in the community at large.

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TNCS’s Inaugural Student Awards Ceremony!

Head of School Alicia Danyali leads The New Century School in many ways, not just practically and administratively. She mentors in unseen realms as well, gently promulgating what she calls her “invisible curriculum” that fosters kindness among students. During the 2016–2017 school year, Mrs. Danyali debuted the four pillars of TNCS, Compassion, Courage, Service, and Respect, as a cornerstone of her invisible curriculum and held biweekly student assemblies to discuss what these concepts mean in practice—how students can apply them to their daily lives.

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Later in last school year, she began implementing restorative circles in the classroom, which can be used to heal rifts as well as be simple communication forums. These also allow her to maintain relationships with all of her students, something as important to her as running TNCS.

That’s partly why, on Friday, November 3, 2017, she held the first-ever awards ceremony to celebrate 3rd- through 7th-grade student achievement. These achievements did not take place in academics; rather, they are indications of gains in emotional intelligence. “I wanted to focus on the TNCS student learning profile, which includes character development” she explained, “as well as to acknowledge those students that stand out demonstrating the behaviors.”

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She began the ceremony with an introductory speech to explain to students what was happening:

We have all worked very hard on identifying what makes a TNCS learner, and there are four words that can describe each and every one of you. They are compassion, courage, respect, and service, and they’re shown in different ways throughout the school day—what you do in the classroom that exemplifies one or more of these qualities. I met with your teachers and other staff, and we talked about all of the ways you exhibit the TNCS learning profile. So we are going to honor those of you at the end of each quarter who are representative of our TNCS learner. I want to emphasize that all of you have demonstrated all of these qualities, everyone has. But today we are acknowledging students who have really stood out during the first quarter.

IMG_2517She explained that two or three students were chosen in each category and reminded the audience to be happy for and congratulate friends who receive awards. (Last names have been omitted for student privacy and safety.)

In the compassion category, Bridghid, William, and Desmond stood out by having empathy for a friend; for helping out a fellow student in the classroom; or for helping students work through an  academic or social problem.

Schonbeck and Ryan exemplified courage in the first quarter by adapting to new environments and making new friends.

In the category of respect, two students—Flora and Mia—markedly demonstrated the proper behavior expected of the TNCS student.

Chloe and Livia went above and beyond in service without being asked to help.

Mrs. Danyali closed by saying, “I think everybody here is a winner and part of this group and shows compassion, courage, respect, and service. We will acknowledge students at the end of every quarter, and we’ll also begin awarding those of you who have demonstrated perfect attendance.”

The ceremony was a highlight of the school year so far, and all students were happy to learn how their efforts to be kind to one another are recognized and appreciated. Said Mrs. Danyali, “This is a nice reminder that social-emotional learning is as important in development as academics.”

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Theatre Workshop Promotes Team-Building among TNCS Elementary Students

On Thursday afternoons at The New Century School, elementary students attend Theatre Workshop with Alex Hewett. Immersed readers might already be acquainted with Ms. Hewett because she’s often doing something newsworthy and worthwhile around school! (See TNCS Drama Camp Brings Out Kids’ Inner Artists and Summertime Theatrics: Drama Camp at TNCS for previous posts.)

Drama Camp instructor, therapist, actress, and mom, the illustrious Alex Hewett!

TNCS theatre workshop instructor Alex Hewett.

Ms. Hewett is an accomplished actress in her own right and deeply believes that skills an actor/actress uses on stage translate to daily life. These skills can make us better communicators, boost our self-confidence and self-esteem, and help us trust one another—collaborate and cooperate. For all of these reasons, TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali asked Ms. Hewett to host theatre workshops for the elementary classes, as part of what she calls her “invisible curriculum” to foster community, empathy, and respect.

Warming-Up Exercises

“Kids this age can find it challenging to work together because they are so full of individual energy,” said Ms. Hewett. “It’s a matter of taking that energy and using it on stage. We’re told in society to be quiet all the time, but then how do we express ourselves? That can be especially confusing for kids because they have a lot of questions; they have a lot to say. On stage, you have the freedom to express yourself.” There’s also a therapeutic component to theatre, which, for Mr. McGonigal’s homeroom class, took the form of a big expenditure of energy followed by several minutes of calm. Students were asked to collectively make the loudest noise they could—the subsequent screams were deafening—and then laugh their biggest laughs. This is followed by holding hands with eyes closed in a circle to harness their collective energy. “See what happens when we work together?” she asks the group. “Working together” is a phrase she repeats frequently, because team-building is really the thrust of this special class. She also emphasizes how the actions of one impact the group as a whole, which sends the dual message that each student belongs to this community and must show respect to its members and likewise that each is an important contributor and deserves that same respect.

Finally, they lie on stage in utter stillness, completely abandoning movement, speech, and thought for several minutes. The latter is no easy task for 8-year-olds, but they have worked up to it, and their ability to focus has clearly benefitted. In fact, all of these preparatory techniques have multiple benefits: They transition the students from the classroom to the stage, help them block out distractions, and provide a form of release. As she guided the students gently into deep savasana (“corpse pose”), she explained in a whisper that this helps them relax and get attuned to their surroundings and themselves, gain self-control, and learn self-discipline. “If you are supposed to be dead on stage, for example, it’s not going to work if you are yawning or coughing.” Good point!

That’s not to say that the energetic kiddoes don’t lose focus from time to time, but Ms. Hewett knows how to bring them back and always keeps a sense of humor. “And a gentle hush fell over the crowd . . .” she intones when the students start to get overly boisterous, and quickly her “ladies and gentlemen” are back to the task at hand.

The task at hand was rehearsal for a poem recital, in which they will alternate individual speaking parts and also speak some lines all together. But first Ms. Hewett had a fun way to physically demonstrate the results of well done collaboration. Together, they became a “machine.” “One little tiny screw falls off a machine, and the whole thing no longer works,” she said. “So I’m going to tell you one very specific thing to do, but don’t start until I tell you to start.” She configured them on stage, and away they went!

The Show Must Go On!

Ms. Hewett knows how to coax optimal performance from these kids. “How many times a day are you told to be quiet,” she asked about midway through the machine exercise. “Well, this is your chance to be heard! Work the room!” She also fields directorial suggestions and praises the kids’ efforts to be so actively involved and creative.

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“Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” was written by Maya Angelou and illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The workshop culminated with poem rehearsal, and the class will recite the poem for the primary classes during a special performance at the end of October. Here again, Ms. Hewett has integrated a therapeutic component with performance in her choice of poems. “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” by Maya Angelou delivers the message that fear can be managed; it doesn’t have to disarm us completely. “We’re all afraid of things,” Ms. Hewett told the class, “But how can you change your way of thinking about the scary thing so it doesn’t take over?”

For their performance, the students will read chunks of the poem, accent with sound effects, and intersperse poem stanzas with excerpts from their own personal experience of what they might be afraid of. In preparation for this piece, each student stood and told “their story”—what frightens them. Ms. Hewett encouraged them to use strong voices and be proud. She praised one girl’s improvement in projecting and making herself heard over last week when she was considerably more timid on stage.

Inside the Actor’s Studio

“I’m coming at this from two perspectives: How do you handle your emotions, and how do you do that on stage while still having fun with it? I can’t separate team-building with kids from performing in a theater setting. The very first day we talk about safety, for instance, because we’re on a stage with an edge and with curtains and props. You have to work together to keep each safe. And you have to listen carefully. What happens if a classmate drops a line or forgets? You have to be able to keep the performance going. You all affect each other. Sometimes that’s positive, but when it’s negative you have to learn how to not let it wreck your energy.”

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And that is a lesson we could all benefit from learning!

The class lines up to take a group bow after their hard work during rehearsal. Well done kids!

The class lines up to take a group bow after their hard work during rehearsal. Well done kids!