Nurturing civility in daily life
Elementary school students claim their 'core values' by painting them
Protected by a plastic trash-bag smock and a painter's hat, fifth-grader Phoebe James confidently wielded her paintbrush this week to outline a flower on a wall at her school.
"Integrity means if someone's being bullied, you should stick up for them and not just watch it happen," she said.
Phoebe — with all 541 of her classmates at Palo Alto's Walter Hays School — is in the midst of creating the third of nine murals in the campus' Core Values Mural Project, an exercise in nurturing civility in the daily lives of children and adults at the school.
In a series of class conversations and assemblies, students reached consensus on what they consider the school's nine "core values." Now, with guidance from Principal Mary Bussmann and parent volunteer and professional artist Florence de Bretagne, they're illustrating those principles of behavior in colorful panoramas across the campus.
When the ninth mural is finished, each child, literally, will have left his or her mark on the school, de Bretagne said.
As fifth-graders worked to paint "integrity" in rotating small groups this week, de Bretagne asked them to define it.
"It means telling the truth and doing the right thing," Sophie Frick said.
Added Nathan Chun: "If you see someone getting bullied, you don't just stand there — you get help."
"Being true to yourself," said another.
The resulting "integrity" art — a sturdy brown tree trunk bursting with colorful flowers — represents the blooming of a child who is true to him or herself, de Bretagne told the students.
"If you're true to yourself, you will be strong and really blossom and get beautiful," she said.
An already completed "Initiative" mural near the school office depicts a bold field of trees — with one in particular standing out.
While painting it, fourth-graders noticed how one of the trees was "really strong and dared to be different, to initiate something new and positive," de Bretagne recalled.
"I asked them to think of a time they had started something new and positive in their lives, and they had trouble with that.
"Then we said, 'If you have a new student in your class and nobody talks to her, somebody can be the one to initiate a conversation.'"
The other core values chosen by the students are respect, resilience, cooperation, inclusion, responsibility, perseverance and empathy.
Principal Bussmann said children need ways to grasp the relevance of lofty values statements to their everyday lives.
"Social-emotional learning isn't a program. It's not something you order from a company and pull out of a box and give a lesson.
"It has to be at the core of what you do every day, every minute of the day, with every child."
The home-grown values project grew out of Bussmann's conversations with parents, as well as a series of school-based parent discussions of P.M. Forni's book, "Choosing Civility," over the course of last year.
"We read the book and talked about what was on our minds, what we were seeing with children, what we saw at school, what we saw at home, what we cared about and what we wanted for our kids," Bussmann said.
The book group led to formation of a school Core Values Committee and assemblies in which kids were asked, "What do you need to learn and grow at Walter Hays?"
Sometimes the kids would come up with stories, and adults would help them find words.
"They'd say, 'We want other people to understand us when we have hurt feelings' — empathy comes to mind," Bussmann said.
"It's so important for them to learn how to treat each other but also important for the principal, teachers and parents to live these codes of conduct, these core values, to the best of our ability every single day.
"And it's really hard. We're not perfect, but we can learn from our mistakes.
"If a child's feelings are hurt, they can learn to say, 'Can you please stop that? My feelings are hurt.'
"It takes a lot of courage for children and adults to do that."
Bussman sees long-term payoff in the school-wide Core Values Project.
"I think the reward will be children that have a great sense of themselves, who are able to speak up for what they need when their feelings are hurt, know how to solve a conflict, be confident and know how to navigate the world maintaining their respect and honor," she said.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.