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Civility as a Shared School Value

Thursday, October 4, 2018

For families who've had a child in kindergarten at Glen Urquhart School, you've probably also heard Sandy Thoms talk about how it’s impossible to provide a "value-free" education. She typically goes on to explain that there are always a few shared values that she and fellow teacher Amy Billings consistently work to instill in their young students. These shared values, the way individuals treat one another, are the foundation of something much larger--civility. This year, in the upper grades especially, we are actively discussing civility as a shared school value. This concept is something we hear a lot about in the media, especially in the political arena, but here at GUS it is a part of our daily discussions about side-by-side living, the protocols and models we use, and the values that go into being a community. We are working, as 8th grade Humanities teacher Jeffrey Bartsch says, to grow our school community into a “sophisticated civilization.” This is not always an easy task for a group of middle schoolers who are finding their way through the minefield that is adolescence. Yet, with a foundation of shared values established in lower school, and developed as they grow through the GUS program, we continue to stress the value of community and the importance of getting along.

This year, in 5th grade and in upper school, we are focusing on six main principles that embody civility. These principles are empathy, attunement, social intelligence, self control, gratitude, and altruism. One way in which we are attempting to emphasize the value and overall importance of civility is through our advisory groups in the upper school and the Open Circle curriculum used in lower school.

In 5th grade, students discuss the meaning of these important principles--words and skills--and how they apply to their everyday lives at GUS. For example, in a recent Open Circle, students shared how having empathy for oneself is essential to understanding how to be empathetic to others. With this knowledge, when students work in their partner in kindergarten, they are better equipped to put themselves in the younger child's "shoes" and validate the excitement, curiosity, or even frustration expressed with more ease, leading to a more positive experience for both children. Just like in math or science or any other class at GUS, students are learning by doing. Important lessons, and shared values, are reinforced through valuable learning experiences that allow for practice, mastery, and most of all, joy.

In upper school, we collaborate weekly in small advisee groups to ask questions, share ideas and opinions, and develop a dialogue that will hopefully extend beyond our Tuesday lunch block into other corners of the academic day. In advisory groups, students have a chance to talk about their daily experiences, draw advice from other students, and work to make real-life connections to important ideals. Developmentally, middle school students are working to "figure things out," and many times this is done through trial and error… which gives us lots to talk about in advisory! Often, the very issues we hope to address come up naturally, as students learn to work together in class activities, during X-block, or on the athletic fields or playground.

As a community, upper school students are learning that hurt happens and disagreements exist, but they are also learning how to handle these situations by constructively using advisory time to talk things through. Moreover, these open dialogues provide opportunities for teachers and students to conceptualize daily experiences as part of the larger world around us. We ask, "How does being a strong citizen at GUS translate to being a strong citizen in your neighborhood, your town and your country?" We challenge students in the lower school with this introspective work as well.

Recently, our younger citizens got a real life lesson in community politics through the development of a fort town at recess. As students wrestled with issues like access to resources, land rights, and property rights, issues developed. Students recognized a need for guidelines and rules to help improve their day-to-day community living. Representatives from every grade recently came together, under the guidance of 4th grade teacher Laura Doyle and 2nd grade teacher Elliott Buck, to debate and discuss the issues and develop some shared understanding based on common principles that will allow all students to have fun and enjoy fort building. The newly formed "Fort Council" is an excellent example of civil discourse leading students to a positive outcome.

What we are understanding, by working together, is that civility encompasses so many of the values that are essential to our school community. Whether it is respect or empathy, trust or courage, appreciation or protocols, students and their teachers are exploring ideas and topics that allow us to develop tighter bonds in our pursuit of Mr. Bartsch's "sophisticated civilization." Some of the aspects of civility that we have found to be most meaningful are delivered through simple, small actions. The gestures of saying "hello," holding a door, or acknowledging someone with a "please" or "thank you" are all straightforward ways of expressing that “I see you,” and fulfill a human need for connection and visibility. Conversation is important, but taking the lessons further and allowing students to learn through doing truly advances the work of the GUS mission.

Like the school motto, "Mean well. Speak well. Do well.," we are teaching students at GUS to respect all people, to speak up and to collaborate, to act responsibly and do good work. By creating opportunities for students to find their best selves, in the classroom or at recess, in advisory or with partners, in X-block or during sports, students are provided with experiences that allow them to grow intellectually, and also as citizens. With an established foundation of shared values, GUS students are encouraged to listen, collaborate, empathize, respect, and get along. This school year we celebrate civility and encourage those in our community to treat one another "well."

Learn more about social emotional learning at GUS.