The Optimistic School District
Positivity in Education - Tales of Orange at Schaumburg SD54
Positivity in Education Fact Sheet
How Boone County Schools Creates a High Performing Culture from the Board Room to the Classroom
A Culture of Positivity
Publicly committing to something that matters can make you vulnerable especially when it involves 14 elementary schools, 5 middle schools and 4 high schools with approximately 20,000 students.
Not for Boone County School District Superintendent Dr. Randy Poe. Poe's mantra is getting students to be Career, College and Life Ready.
When you enter the imposing office of the District Superintendent, you see rows of books well-read and dozens waiting to be read.
Littered throughout the office are orange frogs and artifacts given by staff, parents and students.
I’m in Boone County at the invitation of Dr. Poe and my colleagues from International Thought Leader Network Greg Kaiser (President) and Greg Ray (Chief Executive Officer).
We are on a site visit to see first-hand the impact on culture from the school district’s decision to focus on Happiness and Positivity in Education.
Dr. Poe speaks with intention. A proponent of dispositional recruiting. "The results speak for themselves." say Poe. "We have seen a 9 point increase in reading and 5 point in mathematics scores.”
On several occasions, Poe passionately tells us that Jim Collins (author Good to Great) says we need to get the right people on the bus; Daniel Pink (author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us) tells us where to put people on the bus, and Shawn Achor tells us how to look at things positively and for all to be happy.
Keen to see how this works practically, Dr. Poe invites us out to Mann Elementary School - a school with about 800 students.
The Principal at Mann Elementary is a dynamic leader – Ms.. Connie Crigger. Ms.. Crigger suggested Poe should read The Happiness Advantage. Six months later at a Principals meeting, Dr. Poe asks Ms.. Crigger to tell everyone about the book.
Despite not having any forewarning, Ms.. Crigger eloquently describes the 7 principles of Happiness as described by Shawn Achor's research.
A speech by Mr.. Achor at the American Association School Administrators (AASA) National Conference on Education settled it for Dr. Poe. It was at this conference Poe was introduced to a parable based on The Happiness Advantage called The Orange Frog.
The Orange Frog is a simple to read book (45 mins.-1 hour) with our hero “Spark” who looks at situations with such positivity that he gets orange spots instead of being green.
Famously, Kermit the Frog says it's not easy to be green! But Spark teaches us through his experiences on his 'Pond 4' that it's easy to be green - it's being Orange that is difficult.
Orange is a metaphor for what Shawn Achor, in his TED Talk and research, calls the Cult of the Average. He explains that studies in Psychology tends to focus on the average. We look at how long it takes for the average person to do something and then if you are below average it gives psychologists a reason to discover why and strategies to make the person average!
This is where Spark – our Orange Frog hero – comes in. Caught between two worlds, Spark was exactly like every other frog in his pond with one notable exception. Spark emerges from a tadpole with a slight but noticeable orange spot. And this orange spot makes Spark feel uncomfortably different.
What’s more, Spark begins to make a disconcerting observation; when Spark does things that make him feel better (and produce more positive results), the orange spots increase. Spark is left with a difficult decision; be normal, which makes him less conspicuous, or continue doing those things that make him happier, more productive and… more orange.
The parable is backed up by a comprehensive workshop run by International Thought Leader Network.
Workshop participants first learn to embrace the benefits of positive performance they then share them naturally with co-workers, leading to a compounding effect inside the organization.
Based on the works of Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work and taught in Harvard’s famed happiness course and to companies worldwide, The Orange Frog Workshop™ provides a sustainable approach to enhancing productivity at the individual, team and organization level.
Having started in corporations, the principles translated naturally into schools. Ms. Crigger attended a Train the Trainer session at AASA Headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia and was hooked.
As a certified trainer with other colleagues from Boone County, she set about training staff within the District in what has been a cultural revolution.
As we enter the school campus on a dark and drizzly day, we notice, as we prepare to turn right, an illuminated sign that sits on an elevated hill saying "Dare to be Orange".
Having carefully navigated the puddles, we already see signs made by students with the assistance of staff welcoming the Orange Frog team from ITLN.
When we opened the door to reception, we were welcomed by some of the most enthusiastic people you will ever meet wearing orange T-Shirts with frog images.
Suddenly, two students enter as they just received an orange frog award. These students were genuinely excited and proud beyond belief. Strikingly, they were all wearing T-Shirts with a frog and a statement “the future is so bright you have to wear shades”.
There is a 'feel' to this school you don't normally have when entering a typical school with images of your own educational experiences - for most of our team that was more than 30 years ago.
That overwhelming feeling of authority, strict systems and pressure doesn't exist at Mann Elementary.
Having briefly greeted Ms.. Crigger in her School Principal’s Office - yes of course, it was painted Orange and littered with orange Spark frogs - we were quickly told Ms.. Morgan's year 2 class had a surprise for us.
As we walk the corridors to Ms.. Morgan's class, we see more than 4,000 orange frog cut outs with gratitudes, sayings and random acts of kindness on them.
To our surprise, Ms.. Morgan’s class has adapted The Orange Frog into a play. With only two days notice, the students each took on a role, including dramatic music on a keyboard. This 15-minute play was a magical experience, including cardboard images of a green frog and an orange frog.
As Ms. Morgan says, “The play kind of just happened. It wasn’t in my lesson plans, but the kids “sparked” the idea and magic happened. We wrote the play on Tuesday (this week) and performed it on Wednesday and then once this morning for another class and Ms. Crigger.
“My special needs kids were with us but really didn’t appear too interested in what we were doing. However, the third performance (when we arrived) the magic of Spark became quite evident to me. One of my students, who has been diagnosed with Autism, began to interact with the performance.
“He “hopped” right in and began acting along with the character of Bull. I noticed the panic on my students faces as they were faced with quite the dilemma. Should they say something to him? Should they stop the performance by telling a teacher? I’m so proud of the choice they made.
“They simply went with it. I know that at the beginning of the year the children would have simply just yelled at him to stop. My heart swells with pride, knowing that my students have learned how to treat others with kindness and respect”.
Ms.. Morgan says “I started out this school year with one of the most challenging classes I have had in my 21 years of teaching. We have ended this school year with one of the most unforgettable experiences I have ever had. Staying Orange made me the best possible teacher I could be for my students and I truly believe it has made the difference”.
As we continued around the school, there were endless examples of how students and faculty are demonstrating Orange. There were students all lining up to tell us about their positive experiences.
As we were leaving the school Ms.. Crigger reiterated to us, “We are already a successful school. This makes a difference in their character and who they are and that was really important to us. I never miss a day of doing 3 gratitudes. We bought over 500 gratitude journals and gave them to every employee. Every student knows about gratitude and that is where we started all the way as they graduate to Ryle High School.
“Spark is a simple for our culture. We have a Spark of the Week.” When asked her greatest story, Ms. Crigger tells the story of a student who 18 months ago was having behavioral problems and there were great concerns if he would make it through the public school system. In tears, Ms. Crigger explains that just last week he made “Pond 4” for behavior. “This positivity culture really makes a difference”, she explains.
Ryle High School
Our next stop was to the Ryle High School and a meeting with the Psychology teacher, Ms. Tammy Dorgan. “We do meditation and anyone having a bad day gets to hold Spark. We also do notes to each other and we do notes to any teacher with a gratitude. Teaching is a tough job so any time we can do something positive, it makes all the difference in the world. So we do Terrific Tuesdays and Wellness Wednesdays even if it is just going for a walk.
“It is easy to get tired teaching, especially after 14 years. But we never know what students are going through every day, so we need to be positive. Be there for them in every way. To let them know that they are loved. Some of these guys deal with enough at home and so this Orange Frog Training helps us all be positive – every day”.
“Our class now has a ‘family’ feel, not just taking notes and sitting through tests” says student Caitlin Grimes who attends Ms. Dorgan’s class. “Our class mates are people we have a genuine relationship with and we care for each other.” Grimes and classmates were inspired by a talk about suicide prevention and randomly decided to create a video that went viral to over 100,000 people in a weekend. “We did this video because with mental health issues, you need to be positive and ensure there are positive outlets, not just the negative, so it connects strongly with the Orange Frog.”
Erpenbeck Elementary School
Jenni Watson is the Principal of Erpenbeck Elementary School and is another enthusiastic leader of the Orange Frog.
As we walk into the school, everyone is wearing orange t-shirts. Watson says, “We have either sent staff to training or study groups so everyone knows the principles from The Happiness Advantage | Orange Frog. The power of this is a coalition of people and we have a Positive Behavior and Intervention Support group. So, we asked how we can show case this for staff and teachers.
“First, we purchased everyone a gratitude journal. We must stop, reflect and be more mindful of our day. Just to take a deep breath makes a big difference in our day.
“The Orange Frog is contagious. But staff needed some specifics on being optimistic and we had to work at that. We would start with Random Acts of Kindness and Gratitudes. Everyone was empowered to do this and it was contagious. Even though 80% were bought in, that meant that the other 20% will still be in classrooms and that affects students.
Our councilors have really owned the Orange Frog. They are in classrooms and teaching the character strengths of Spark. Our staff and custodians are getting more letters, notes, cards and artwork with letters of thanks and gratitudes. It makes a positive impact.
“With 5th graders, after they read The Orange Frog and get a journal with a heading, ‘The best things in life aren’t things.’ We do not get into what the students write, but we just provide the time for them to journal. In previous years, the students were ‘ready to go to middle school’ and we saw some behavioral issues – but not this year, since the introduction of the Orange Frog.
“We have regular meetings with each student on their happiness, their growth, mindset and check ins. We ask what is our purpose today. We have the resilience by design programs and seen greater levels of trust. Teachers are encouraged to take a risk-free environment. There have been significant moves around trust and empowerment.
“When we embrace something like Orange Frog and step out of the students’ way, they do their best work. We pay for half day subs for each team of teachers to work together. We have more work to do but we try new and exciting things. We have students who are on the right track – we let them loose to do it – for example, our kids are using gamification which isn’t in the curriculum but they kids are coding and loving it.”
Finally, Watson says that “Happiness is a choice and we are all making that choice. It is contagious. All over the District, we work hard. In the past, it was always about content and specific to curriculum. What we are saying now is we want the best version of each teacher and staff member. That is the focus nowadays and the results have been extraordinary.”
The Parents View
We were incredibly impressed with what staff and student had to say, but we were interested in what parents had to say also. Does this actually translate back in the family? Carie Holley says, “With my daughter, I have a 4th grader. She enjoys the responsibility of the program. It gives her ownership of her behavior and a point of reference for being positive. Gives her communality with the teacher.
“My daughter says, in certain situations, ‘Well, Spark would do this, or that isn’t a Spark thing to do.’ It takes a village to raise a child and Spark is an awesome reference point for a positive culture.”
Another parent, Laura Dumancic, said, “Kids really understand the value of kindness and generosity. The kids all like to have a frog with their name on it, to be in Pond 4 for doing positive things.
“Spark has become an everyday part of the culture in Boone County. All of the things that are done help the kids to make choices and it makes a difference in their everyday life. Spark is the opportunity to talk about things, especially with adults. Spark is OK with experimenting with what you need to do to grow in a positive manner.”
School Board Chairperson Mr. Ed Massey/Attorney
For the past 21 years, Mr. Ed Massey has served on the Boone County Board. He is now the Chairman of the School District Board and also a well respected attorney in the area. Over those years, he has seen a great deal of change in culture in the county and education nationwide.
“From a board perspective, there has been a lot of change. We used to recruit like everyone else but we now have a different outlook. This capacity to have people welcomed to the School District and that teachers would look forward to coming to school every day to teach. What we spend most of our time in Board meetings is celebrating the successes of our teachers, our kids, our parents and our community.
“That sets the tone for the rest of the meeting – which are often difficult issues like hard budget issues, discipline or tax issues. People have confidence in what the board is doing. We used to have people spend a lot of time complaining about issues.
“Now, there are constructive conversations, but we are now getting letters of gratitude now. As a Board member, we get a two page letter thanking us for what we do. It is no longer the most thankless job being a board member. Now, we feel enlightened – we want to do more, it inspires and ignites us. We ask how can we impact more students, parents and the community. We embrace problems now and look at things positively.
“I love sharing what we have learned on a state and national level by using positivity in education. We are here to serve every student. We want them to experience every opportunity to make them college-, career- and life- ready, better citizens for tomorrow, which will mean a better state, a better country and better world.”
Clearly, the impact of the Orange Frog has clearly had a dramatic impact throughout Boone County. Our last stop is to discuss with Dr. Randy Poe the impact the Happiness Advantage | Orange Frog has had from his perspective and any advice he might have for others.
Poe is excited with what we have witnessed during the past few days. He says, “It isn’t just the faculty, you know. For example, our bus drivers are the first and last ambassador of the school system. When they pick up the child, they set the tone for the day and when they drop them off, they set the tone for the rest of the evening. How they work with and greet parents, they realize the important role they play. They play an important role in the success in the classroom. The cafeteria workers – the same thing. They realize that the nutrition they serve for the children is fueling the energy in that child for greater academic performance.
“Every employee has a role in the success of the child. They know we value their work because, when we see a well manicured building or lawn, we make sure that custodian gets a star award. Research will tell you can add 10% on your test score just by having a great quality building where kids want to come into because that is the first thing that fills their happiness.
“You know, businesses come into this school to find out how we do culture and you know, we say they need to read the Happiness Advantage and Orange Frog. We also learn from them. We learned from Nationwide.”
Poe says, “You know, this not about me or Boone County, but a gratitude back to all of our employees for the great job that they are doing and ultimately, it’s all about our students.”
There is nothing wrong with publicly committing to something where everyone in this school community is contributing to something that matters - Ready for College, Career and Life. This is a school district that dared to be Orange and what they got was a lifetime of gratitude and happiness.