When a kindergarten class entered the gymnasium at Russell Elementary last week, many older students had already found seats with other members of their “house.”
Professors with red feather ears peeking out from headbands led House Compassion in tapping and clapping at one end of the bleachers. At the other, a House Resilience teacher repeatedly threw a ball for students to catch. Upbeat music blared from the speakers, so a House Courage teacher danced and asked the kids in the stands to join her.
Principal Cindy Christensen greeted students as they entered.
“Come on, kids! she said raising her fist above her head.
Each student wore a sticker with their name and home in case they got lost. Teacher Rebecca Schendel sorted her class by house and sent each group of two or three walking hand in hand to the group they were to join in the stands.
“Do you see the yellow? she said, leaning in the direction of a professor from House Integrity, who motioned the hesitant children forward.
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Last year, Russell Elementary decided to emulate the Harry Potter book series, where fictional students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are sorted into houses based on their characteristics. For example, Gryffindor members are known for their courage and determination, Ravenclaw students are wise and witty, and Hufflepuff people value loyalty and hard work.
At Russell, students are randomly assigned at the start of the school year into one of six houses – compassion, courage, integrity, resilience, gratitude and tenacity – by popping balloons with slips of paper inside .
Like the books, friendly rivalries exist between Russell’s groups. Sometimes they have to cooperate to achieve a common goal.
Students at Russell earn “house points” for good deeds, such as helping out in class or walking quietly through the halls, which are tallied on a bulletin board outside the gymnasium. Periodically, students gather for home meetings to talk about and practice the school’s focus for the month, such as October’s emphasis on friendship and cooperation. Students from all classes work side by side.
Students may also receive “congratulations” or written compliments from teachers. A shout pinned to the hallway bulletin board celebrated the students who “took turns sharing the swing and pushing each other.” Another thanked a student for “taking care of a sad friend”. Occasionally, Christensen chooses a child from the scream board to visit his office. They write their name on his door on the blackboard and call home to tell a relative about their good work.
At the end of each quarter, the house with the most points wins a trophy and a special reward.
Houses aren’t just fun and playful.
“Russell School creates an atmosphere of community and respect,” Christensen said.
The houses “teach students to be good people and help them become good citizens,” said Hatton Littman, communications director for Missoula County Public Schools. They “support our core values and are an easy way to build a community of respect and tolerance.” for the differences.
After a roll call of all six houses at the assembly last week, Christensen ordered everyone to go to a different place in the building for a group activity.
The 53 House Compassion students gathered in an adjoining room and sat down on the floor.
“What does compassion mean? asked Jenna Seaman, a fourth grade teacher. “That’s a big word and it’s super important.”
“We think about other people’s hearts,” said kindergarten student Jaxon Fulcher.
They then talked about the goal of the month.
“If you want a friend…” Shannon Judge, a second-grade teacher, said, pointing at the kids to finish her sentence.
“Be a friend!” they shouted back.
“Raise your hand if you can tell me how you can be a friend at school to Russell,” Seaman said. “Tune in because that’s what we’re going to do in our business, in our squads.”
“Be nice,” said Eliza Ascher, a second-grader.
“We could help each other when we fall,” said Mattisyn Mattix, a kindergartener.
The group then split into teams of 10, with each member drawing a picture of how to be a friend on a red paper puzzle piece which they will later put together as a whole group. Older students were asked to help younger ones spell difficult words or to fetch more pencils when there were not enough.
In the library at the end of the hall, the members of House Gratitude shook hands and talked among themselves.
“We introduce ourselves to new people in order to make new friends,” said Raelene Punke, a resource teacher.
As the bell rang, Gratitude stomped and clapped to the beat of their house chant.
“We have the attitude of gratitude, we push away the bad, we see the good in everything, our gratitude is here to stay.”
They clapped again before heading back to their regular classrooms. Fourth graders were paired with kindergarteners to help them find the way.