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Strengths-driven culture in the Fullerton School District

The Fullerton School District prides itself on anticipating their students’ needs from social-emotional learning to preparing middle school students for the rigors of high school Advanced Placement classes, Fullerton makes sure that students begin their learning journey from a position of strength.

Middle school teacher, Dr. Tricia Gee, has not only embraced the strengths-based culture at Fullerton but has also deepened her district and her union’s work by using her doctoral scholarship to advance the movement. “Nel Noddings’ life’s work resulted in a philosophy called ‘the ethic of care;’ this informed the premise of my study and it undergirds my work today,” explained Gee. “Trusting relationships are the key to all we do as educators. They are what encourage our students to strive and grow and they are what hold educators accountable to our students and to one another. This is what I call ‘relational learning’,” she added.

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For Gee, each new year begins with understanding her students’ strengths: “When we create relationships with students, it’s more likely that we’re going to help them tap into and leverage their strengths. I start my year asking my students to take the Thrively Strengths Assessment. Each student discovers their strengths and begins their year of academic and social-emotional learning on solid footing.”

Gee explained that her dissertation also looked at self-efficacy and the confidence that children build through mastery experiences–a seamless alignment with Thrively. “It all connected perfectly,” she said. “At the beginning of the school year, I told parents ‘from this point forward–and for 185 days–I will look at your children through the lens of their strengths and talents.’”

After having printed out each student’s Thrively Strengths Certificate, Gee was surprised by her students’ excitement at knowing their strengths. “I was standing in my classroom one day, and I noticed that several of my kids had displayed their Thrively certificates in their clear-view binders to customize their covers–funny, it not only helped me know their names but also supported my knowledge about their strengths and talents. That simple gesture was precious to my students and me as we were all reminded–each day–that we need to be a strengths-driven classroom.”

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Towards the middle of the fall semester, when Gee was conferencing with students regarding midterm grades, she asked an especially struggling student (for this article we will call him Jared), to her podium. “I said, ‘We both know that your grades are Ds and Fs in all of your classes. I don’t want to give you a D or an F. You are so much more than grades.’ He had his head down and said, ‘I know. I know. I gotta do the work if I’m going to get anywhere in life.’ ‘No’, I replied, ‘we can figure this out, I can give you assignments that fit your . . .’ Before I could finish my thought, he looked up wide-eyed to say, rather enthusiastically, ‘Thrively said I’m good at creativity!’ The fact that Thrively said it, and it wasn’t a teacher or parent, was somehow more credible for Jared. We invited Jared to a parent meeting where he talked about how his creativity led him to that very parent meeting, and how he enjoyed the differentiation and being honored and valued for his talents. This changed the way he saw himself–he started to thrive in the way he knew he could; he was an excellent presenter, by the way. As a school, we ensured that his oral language assignments were wrapped around his talent with public speaking. I saw a happier, more positive student in him,” shared Gee.

As the year came to a close, the exclamation mark on Fullerton’s strengths-driven culture began in the form of a commencement address at graduation. “Before COVID, every 8th-grader in our district who graduated from one of our five junior high schools received a Thrively Strengths Certificate in addition to their diploma. At the Parks’ commencement ceremony, one of our graduates who had recently emigrated from South Korea said during his commencement speech, ‘When you go to high school and things get rough and you’re not sure where you’re going, always remember to check your strengths certificate and use the strengths!’

Thrively is absolutely fundamental to our PATHfinder (Personal Actions to Happiness) program in Fullerton. Students are not empty repositories, waiting for our erudition. They come to us fully formed, with values, interests, aspirations and strengths. When we build off their assets, we help them soar.

Deeper Learning in a Time of Challenge

As coronavirus shutdowns have spread across the country, we have seen many of our partner schools and districts grappling first and foremost with the challenges inherent in delivering meaningful instruction at a distance. Distributing devices, building new schedules, and rapidly training staff on virtual meeting platforms have inevitably consumed most of the initial energy. Students must still be able to learn.

At the same time, some of the more progressive districts have purposefully turned attention to their students’ social and emotional health during this deeply challenging time. In Anaheim Union High School District, Carlos Hernandez, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and Mary Jo Durkin, School Counseling Curriculum Specialist, wanted to ensure that vital SEL instruction continued, even as students were stuck at home.

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Given that at Thrively we are deeply committed to exactly that kind of student-centered approach, we jumped at the opportunity to use our existing resources to best support all AUHSD learners. Over one busy weekend, our content team constructed five different playlists filled with engaging 30-minute lessons that corresponded to the district’s own 5Cs framework for developing 21st-century skills:

  1. Character & Compassion,
  2. Collaboration,
  3. Communication,
  4. Creativity, and
  5. Critical Thinking.

With that alignment, students could engage in meaningful, self-directed learning while making real progress towards the development of the very skills that AUHSD had prioritized. 

All Thrively lessons include ample opportunity for students to reflect on the learning, and so one of the unexpected benefits of the new district-wide playlists is that students have been able to really open up about the stress they are feeling and share with their teachers and counselors just how they are doing. Feelings ranging from fear to grief to frustration could all be expressed in conversation and directly connected to a deepening understanding of the crucial SEL skills.  

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Thankful to work with such forward-thinking districts who have focused on the fact that SEL’s relevance really does only become more vital in times of crisis. Go AUHSD!