On their first day of school, students were sorted and placed in their new “houses.” And for the remainder of their time in the building, their houses will be their second families.Each house—Humanitas (kindness), Veritas (honesty), Respectus (respect) and Prudentia (wisdom)—is named after a character trait that their new teachers would like them to strive to achieve and, twice every month, the students will meet in small groups to complete assorted challenges and activities.
No, these students do not attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They are third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at the Eastport Elementary School.
Rather than meeting their teachers and settling into their new classrooms last Wednesday, September 3, the students were directed to the school gymnasium so they could be sorted into one of four houses—Harry Potter style. And, for the duration of their tenure at Eastport, they will be forever associated with their respective houses.
Fiona Schlegel, a fourth-grader who was welcomed into the Humanitas house, said she enjoyed meeting her classmates and getting to know some of other students in her house.
“We played games and got to know each other in our groups,” she said, “It was a lot of fun.”
Principal Sal Alaimo, who explained that last week’s ceremony is actually a school secret, noted that the names for the houses were selected based on character traits that he would like to see all his students develop during their time at the school. Each house includes a mix of grade levels, another aspect designed to enhance and build upon the sense of community among students.
For example, the school’s sixth-graders lined the halls to welcome the third-graders, the youngest students at the school. And, throughout the day, students played games and participated in team building activities with other members of their houses.
“We want the older kids to look out for the younger kids,” Mr. Alaimo said. “The bus, for whatever reason, is always a problem. Now, if something goes wrong, hopefully, someone will say, ‘Hey, they’re in my house, I’ll help.’”
Mr. Alaimo said he has been working with his teachers and faculty to develop this program for more than a year, with the goal of incorporating social and emotional lessons into the curriculum.
“A lot of the focus has been on academics,” he said, citing the new Common Core standards. “We wanted to change it up and teach the key essentials to becoming a valuable part of a community.”
Mr. Alaimo explained that he based the individual houses, and last week’s sorting ceremony, off a model from the Ron Clark Academy, a nationally recognized middle school in Atlanta, Georgia. The social and emotional lessons incorporate the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, disciplinary style adopted by Eastport.
Fourth grade teacher Kathy Gibson said that, thus far, thinking about the entire school community, and not just her classroom, has been the biggest adjustment for her. Her smaller group features 13 students, with either three or four students for each grade level.
“No longer am I just responsible for my classroom students, now I have to promote positive behavior, team building and being a positive role model across the spectrum—then bring it back to the classroom,” she said.
The students, Ms. Gibson noted, seemed to like the idea.
“The students came in clapping for the younger students,” she said, referring to the sorting ceremony. “They came in smiling and they were very excited.”
Mr. Alaimo said he believes that bringing students of different ages together to solve problems will teach them how to work together to not only create bonds, but also instruct them on how to grow up into honest and responsible members of society.
“In order to become a successful leader and student, students need more than one of these traits,” the principal said, referring to the names of the houses. “They need all four. We want to build these character traits within our students.”
The plan moving forward is that, twice a month, students will join up with members of their houses for activities, such as completing brain-teaser puzzles. Ms. Gibson explained that teachers and staff are still collaborating on the lesson plans for the bi-monthly activities.
“Our biggest challenge is keeping up the momentum from the first day of school,” she said. “There’s no moving backward at this point, and I think we’re doing a great job so far.”
Mr. Alaimo said all students will discuss the same topics or learn the same lesson during those gatherings, which will focus on improving their social and emotional skills. Sometimes, students will be given a challenge and a certain amount of time to come up with a solution that will have to be presented to their house.
“We want our kids to think outside the box a little,” he said.
That creative thinking does not stop with the students; it also applies to teachers and faculty as well.
“It’s very hard to think outside the box,” said Ms. Gibson, who has been a teacher for 21 years. “But I was able to bend a little bit and it’s definitely been a learning experience.
“One day of fun, dancing and celebrating isn’t going to change how I run my classroom,” she continued. “It’s going to enhance the child’s elementary experience.”
On the first day of classes last week, students were told to leave their backpacks, pencils and notebooks at home. The entire day was a celebration that included the sorting ceremony and team building exercises; the third-graders and other new students were then allowed to get acquainted with the staff and the school.
“A lot of times kids are reluctant on the first day,” Mr. Alaimo said. “This year we said, ‘No books, no backpacks, just come in and have fun.’”