Monday, June 4, 2018

Using a House System to Build Community

Teaching in middle school can be tricky. Students still want to get prizes, stickers, and wear silly costumes, but they also want to be treated as a grown-up. They become hyper-aware of their peer's opinions; the interactions between classes can often resemble a Greek tragedy (at least in their estimation). So as their teachers, what can we do to provide each student with an advocate since the middle-level learner will rarely ask for help?

This is the question that the faculty and staff at Rock Quarry Middle School began asking over three years ago. We had tried out different advisory models and had mediocre success. Several of us had done some reading and attended some professional development sessions on building community, and we discovered the potential of creating a  house system...yes, like the one in Harry Potter series. Being a HUGE HP fan (Go, Gryffindor!), this really appealed to me as we dug into the nitty-gritty of what this would look like for our learners. A House System would give every single student a group where they belonged and an advocate that would see them in a small "family group" every week. Furthermore, it would allow us to put emphasis on the areas where we needed to grow (PBIS, character education, service learning, growth mindset, etc.) while still putting students in the driver's seat.

After many planning sessions, for this to become successful, we knew that we had to go BIG to get buy-in from the faculty and students. We created a list of roles that each teacher could fill in his/her house and each teacher could apply for those roles. The teachers and faculty were sorted first with a big surprise during class with balloons in their new house colors to announce their house. This also built anticipation for the students who would be sorted a few days later.

Our mascot is a Jaguar. When it came time to choose names for our houses, I found a listing of the different subspecies of Jaguars. Our administrator, Lynda Ingram, coined the phrase: Virtus in Unum Pulsatio (Strength in One Pulse). While students, faculty, and staff would all be a part of one of our eight houses, we wanted the focus to be that we are all part of one community.

So what do we do for our sorting ceremony? While having a sorting hat would have been fun, we are not Hogwarts. We are the House of Jags. We make it a BIG production. We have an enormous sorting basket that glows. I composed a sorting poem that Mrs. Ingram reads, and we have sounds of jungle music playing to set the stage. The first year, all of the students were sorted. Now, each new set of 6th graders are sorted about a month into the school year.

Students earn house points for anything from random acts of kindness, good citizenship, reaching academic goals, or classroom successes. They can also earn house points for participating in school clubs or events like Scholars Bowl, Battle of the Books, Geography Bee, Spelling Bee, Robotics Club, Canstruction, All-State Band/Strings/Choir, or one of our many athletic teams. We want to put an emphasis on being an active part of the community and representing RQMS outside of the school walls. So, students can earn house points for things like being in a community theatre production, a community athletic team, or Girl or Boy Scouts. And because we work hard to develop empathy in our middle school students, they also earn house points for participating in any service-related activities.

We meet weekly in family meetings to engage in activities and lessons that empower students to build a relationship with their housemates and their house leader (who becomes their advocate) while also developing characteristics and tools to become a stronger version of themselves. Whole houses typically meet quarterly and YES...we do have House Games where houses can earn additional house points while going head-to-head in games (sometimes they are minute-to-win-it games; sometimes they are games like Ultimate Frisbee, Ga-Ga Ball, or Kickball). At our annual Awards Day, the House Cup is awarded and my students go into that program anxiously awaiting that final announcement. (Go, Veracrucis!)

A House System. Does it work? Absolutely. Students' school spirit and morale are high. The number of behavior reports has dropped significantly. Bullying reports have drastically declined. Our middle school students are more active in the community. However, like any new practice, each journey requires ongoing reflection and adaptation to meet the needs of our students. But, when you walk down the halls and you see housemates throw up their house hand signal or do their secret handshake, you know that you've hit upon something that's truly worth the journey.

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